Los Angeles-based photographer and director Jason Elias is a lifelong Angeleno. However, his wife hails from a rural farm in North Dakota and grew up just outside a town of only 200 people. This connection led him to pursue a personal project centered around capturing farmers (and family) during the harvest in North Dakota.
Visiting her family had always been a culture shock for a Los Angeleno like me, but I loved it. Over the years, I had become close with my wife’s cousins — farmers, all of them — and I think they enjoyed me as this thing they had never seen; a progressive, Hollywood, Buddhist photographer.
Jason’s project was primarily shot on his wife’s family farm located outside Courtenay, North Dakota. The family has occupied this land for 100 years, and the location is as rural as it gets, with a population of about 35 people.
Courtenay has about ten homes, two grain elevators, and one bar you unlock yourself and serve your own drinks, writing down what you had on a sheet of paper. It’s about as flat and windswept as you can imagine but austerely beautiful.
The charm of the location and the people reminded Jason of his days as a travel photographer, picking up his camera and documenting the cultures around him. The Buddhist photographer approached the project to observe, listen and learn as much as possible from the subjects.
The majority of people I photographed were family. The more challenging part was getting permission to photograph their neighbors, who “the boys” (as I call the cousins) told me maybe not to mention my political beliefs around. Politics notwithstanding, once you crack through that Midwestern reserve, you couldn’t find a warmer or more generous group of people.
Every day Jason would get up around dawn at 5 or 6 am to join his wife’s cousins while they prepared the tractors and trucks for the day’s work. After about two hours, he would accompany them and assist in driving the vehicles with supplies out to the fields to be worked.
They had a lot of stuff to get done every day, but they would always stop if requested to allow me to shoot with them. When I mused about this later to my wife, she said they felt touched that someone wanted to come and learn what they did, to learn about their lives, because they often felt most people never cared about the struggles of modern farmers.
While Jason captured the day-to-day life on the farm, he drove a pickup truck around with his lights, stands, and cameras. Being without an assistant and having to wrangle all the equipment on his own wasn’t easy, but it allowed him the flexibility to take opportunities as they came.
It was certainly challenging to shoot all alone, but the boys gave me a pickup truck to throw everything in, which helped. This is a place where self-reliance is prized, and that sometimes leaks into a unique sense of freedom and liberty — they chuckled when I put on my seat belt to drive, so there you go!
The days spent shooting were always long, as is a regular day on the farm. Usually, around noon, the farmers would take a break to eat and then resume working until 9 or 10 pm that night. Being out just before nightfall made for a beautiful setting to photograph, and some of Jason’s favorite images were shot in those hours.
During magic hour and evening, I spent most of my time frantically driving and running between combines and tractors in the field, shooting some of the most visually magical stuff I have seen. It was pretty incredible.
One truly magical moment was at dusk when I stopped the truck on a small overpass, and a train roared underneath me into the night.
It was too dark to shoot, so I was forced just to be and listen and feel at that moment. I stood there for maybe thirty minutes, long after the train left, and understood the special place and life of living as a farmer in America’s heartland.
Jason’s desire to document the rural farms of North Dakota grew over time and the lessons learned while shooting this project resonated with him deeply. When reflecting on the moments he had shared with the farmers, he realized he wanted to pursue more work like this.
It reconnected me to my father, who was never recognized for the hard work he did for our family. It also opened a new category of work for me to pursue. This led me to shoot and direct a campaign for High Brew Coffee focused on their coffee farmers in the Andes.
Jason will be heading back to North Dakota for the next harvest, this time with a drone in tow as well. The collection images he’s captured thus far reflect Jason’s dedication to understanding the farmers, what they do, and who they are. The natural landscape, beautiful light, and warmth of the people pictured give us a glimpse into the lives of modern-day farmers and their relationship with nature.
The sense of space and not seeing anyone else for hours at a time gives a tremendous sense of solitude and freedom. It also profoundly connects to the place, so even just stepping outside the workshop for a bit and looking up to see migrating geese covering the sky was incredible.
Photographer: Jason Elias