The Art (And Luck) Of Taking a Farm Animal Selfie
Sometimes the story behind the photo makes it a bit more special for me. This is especially true for the selfies I attempt to get with our farm animals. The selfie above of Sue and I with our neighbors camel Sandy was to be the first of many. Being affectionate, it was actually fairly easy to get a selfie with Sandy, but that's not the case for all farm animals.
Some of the animals at Ozark Akerz, like the Cotton Patch Geese, are particularly easy to get close to. The goslings were only a few days old when we brought them to Ozark Akerz and they have firmly bonded with us as their parents. On the other hand, the Pineywoods Cattle are much more varied. Some will allow us to scratch them (a perfect opportunity for a selfie when they approach us), others want us to stay at arms length and will swing their horns to warn us not to get too close. And yet Dave, the Pineywoods that loves a scratch more than the entire herd put together, has proven the hardest to get a selfie with.
The selfie challenge with Dave is that he's pushy. He will push us around and headbutt us with that big head of his to let us know he’s ready for a scratch. Once the scratching commences, his pushiness stops, but as soon as we stop scratching the pushing starts again. If we try to walk off, he’ll follow us around; more pushing and headbutting. He's not aggressive, but it's hard to concentrate on taking a photo when you're trying to keep from being inadvertently trodden on by an overly friendly 1000 lb animal!
On a cold and windy March day in 2019, a couple arrived at Ozark Akerz Regenerative Farm after a long and eventful drive from New York. Professional photographer Aliza Eliazarov and her husband Edward had started a years long project to capture portraits of rare and endangered farm animals using a portable studio. Ozark Akerz was the only stop at which Aliza would attempt to get portraits of Pineywoods Cattle. It also proved to be the most challenging of all her shoots.
Before Aliza became a full-time photographer and documentary filmmaker she taught elementary and middle school in Boston and Los Angeles and lived and worked as a ranger in Glacier, Lake Mead and Boston Harbor Islands National Parks. Her love of animals and respect for farming is clearly evident in her latest work titled On The Farm - Heritage and Heralded Animal Breeds in Portraits and Stories.
Unlike all the other farms Aliza visited, we have no barn, so setting up a portrait studio complete with a white background, flashes and other equipment as well as keeping the animals feeling safe and secure so they would stand still would be a difficult if not impossible. Aliza was undeterred. She was determined to include Pineywoods cattle in her book.
As an amateur photographer myself, I was curious, and a bit skeptical, about how they would successfully set up a studio in our pasture, let alone get our Pineywoods cattle to stand in the "studio" long enough to get a good photo. After a brief tour, Aliza had a plan. She decided to set up in a small corral. She and Edward attached 2 white sheets to a cattle panel to use as the background and set up 2 large stands holding flashes that were powered by a generator. She had clearly come prepared for anything and she soon had a Pineywoods portrait studio set up.
Then came what I expected would be the most difficult part of the photo shoot: rustling the Pineywoods into the corral. The cattle are wary of anything new and I expected that when they saw the flash stands hovering above the corral and the loud wind driven snapping of the white sheets as gusts rose and fell, they would turn tail and run. Our first attempt was Blackberry and her calf Uno. We were surprised at how easily they moved in. Once we shut the gate, Aliza got to work, crouching low to get a good angle. As the flashes popped, Blackberry did not cooperate, she circled the corral and Uno got spooked by the flash when it suddenly turned in the wind. It wasn't long before we collectively decided to let them out. Aliza wasn't confident that she had gotten the shot she was looking for.
Each animal has a personality. Blackberry is not usually so easy to move around and neither is Peaches. When Peaches came here from a farm in Georgia at about a year old, she would dart off like a deer whenever we got within 100 feet of her. With a lot of patience and by giving her the space to make the first move, we eventually built up enough trust with her that she would take a bite of grass from our hand. That said, she was still the hardest to work with. She is also very photogenic and when we asked Aliza which cow she'd like to photograph next, she immediately pointed to Peaches. After setting Aliza's expectations VERY low, we went about trying to rustle Peaches into the corral. My wife Sue and I have both learned a lot about moving cattle from the techniques of Temple Grandin, slow and gentle movements is the key to moving cattle without stressing them too much. A few organic alfalfa pellets can help too.
That said, Peaches has a mind of her own and will often respond to us by moving in the opposite direction of where we want her to go. But again, we were surprised at how easily she went into the corral. Aliza got to work trying to capture that soulful shot she was looking for and Peaches cooperated by standing still AND facing the camera. The flashes popped furiously.
In the year and a half that has passed since Aliza and Edward got back on the road to their next photo shoot, we have been waiting expectantly to hear if Blackberry or Peaches made the book. Aliza was a closed book (pun intended) and it wasn't until recently that she posted this photo of Blackberry on her Instagram account.
In a word, this photo is stunning.
Knowing what happened behind the scenes, I was amazed to see how well Aliza had captured Ms. Blackberry under what can only be described as chaos. Aliza shared with us that of all the shoots, it was the only one where she felt a bit scared. "The (other) animals were never that agitated. And that one cow pushed through the gate and almost pinned me. Or it felt that way at least." We had forgotten about that incident until she mentioned it again. "This was the hardest of all my shoots because 1. I was not able to control lighting, 2. I was shooting outside, not in a barn 3. The wind.
When I asked if she had chosen this photo of Blackberry for the book, she said "No! Peaches will be in the book.".
Sue and I can't wait to browse through Aliza's book and see the photo of Peaches. It will be released on November 17, 2020. Please consider supporting Aliza by purchasing a copy. She has put a lot of heart, soul and many miles into making this book happen.
You can pre-order it on many of your favorite platforms but we'd encourage you to order it at Semicolon Bookstore, a black woman owned bookstore in Chicago. That's where we ordered ours from.
Here's some footage from Aliza and Ed's visit.
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