How I Got to the Farm

The following excerpt is reprinted from On The Farm. Copyright © 2020 by Aliza Eliazarov. Photographs copyright © 2020 by Aliza Eliazarov. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House.

Sitting on the barn floor, surrounded by dust and hay, I test the strobe lights and scan the backdrop. Within the past hour, the old barn has been transformed into a photo studio. Tractors and hay bales have been moved aside to make way for cameras and light stands. A formal studio set in a rustic barn may seem out of place, but it feels just right to me. There is no place I’d rather be.

The farmer, Faith, enters with my first subject, using treats to guide A Cappella the alpaca until she’s in front of the backdrop. I focus the lens on my subject, and I wait. I observe the contours of her body, the shape of her head, the movement of her neck. I look into her eyes. She looks back. We see each other. We’re connected. The moment I’ve been waiting for. The shutter clicks. The lights flash. A portrait is made.

Back in 2010, it became impossible for me to ignore the agricultural revolution quietly spreading across the United States. A legion of farmers had committed to sustainable and ethical farming, offering an alternative to the American industrialized food system. Even from the sidelines, it was exhilarating to witness. People were farming in big cities, suburban backyards, and reclaimed rural land.

The passion of this new crop of farmers led me to examine my own connection to food. The most basic farming practices were completely foreign to me, and farm animals felt very far away. I realized I didn’t know nearly enough about how the food I bought at the supermarket really arrived there, and I set out to confront this disconnect through photography. Drawn to the burgeoning community of backyard poultry enthusiasts, I started with an animal that felt approachable: the chicken.

Over the next few years, my reverence for farmers was reaffirmed as my sense of wonder for heritage breeds grew. I fell in love with every donkey, goat, and duck I met and became obsessed with learning more about their rich histories, personal stories, and unique beauty. Beyond that, I came to understand the urgency of documenting these animals, many of which are under threat of extinction.

In 2019, my husband and I packed our bags and hit the road. Together, we spent months traveling to small farms to photograph subjects and interview farmers. We heard fantastic and heart-warming stories about so many creatures. There’s Andy, the charismatic turkey rescued in Virginia; Okemo, a gentle therapy donkey in New Hampshire; and Princess Peppermint, a spunky pig in Vermont. It’s been a muddy and joyous journey, filled with surprises and new connections to the farmers who are working to keep these breeds alive and thriving. Being in the company of these animals is exciting, soul soothing, and magical.

Photographing animals is always unpredictable, and there are endless surprises. I’ve spent many hours looking at the ass end of animals who refuse to turn around. Even then, I feel pretty lucky.

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