When Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based photographer Sara Stathas assisted on a shoot for a cookbook over ten years ago, she never could have imagined where her path would lead. That shoot was where she first cultivated a relationship with Jen Castle and Blake Spalding, owners of Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah. In the decade since, Sara and Jen have stayed in touch, and as Sara considered options for self-assigned projects in 2017, she loved the idea of shooting at the “no-harm organic farm” that supplies the food for Hell’s Backbone.
I contacted Jen at the beginning of 2017, asking permission to shoot on the farm and if she could connect me with the farmers. I wanted to do the shoot during the harvest season. Later I found out that they harvest all year long, but a block of time at the end of August or beginning of September would work best.
Using her airline miles, her travel smarts, and the fact that Jen lives in the area, Sara managed to block out six days to spend at the farm. She wanted to account for bad weather and days off for the farmers, as well blocking in some time to explore Utah, a luxury most client-based shoots can’t provide.
It doesn’t get any better than spending time outside making photos, being on a farm in the high desert surrounded by mountains. I woke up every morning inspired and excited to see how the day would unfold through my lens.
Even with her enthusiasm, Sara had to contend with a few issues. The sun rose early in the day, leaving most of her subjects in harsh, unflattering light. With the farmers starting work around 8 am, Sara only had until about 10:30 am for the sun to hit high in the sky.
I tried working with backlight or the least harsh direct light possible. My best and constant friend turned out to be the polarizing filter.
Once she solved her battle with the sun, Sara needed to find the best way to approach the farmers for portraits. She had plenty of experience with portraiture, but normally her subjects knew why their picture was being taken. Since this project was self-assigned, Sara felt she needed another angle.
I find myself not being comfortable if I sense that I’m pushing subjects for too much. I quickly learned that my farm subjects were also fairly shy and that my best plan of action would be to slowly ease myself into following them around with a camera, sticking with a “fly on the wall” approach.
After building a relationship with the farmers, Sara went around each morning and planned ten-minute mini-sessions with a few workers. This allowed her to scout locations shielded from the sun that also provided a little bit of privacy to work.
The six days flew by, and Sara found herself sad to leave Utah. Now settled back in Wisconsin, images from the project are featured on her website and social media. She’s received compliments on the work in addition to comments from people planning to visit the farm and restaurant.
It was a self-assigned project, but Sara has big plans for the results. She hopes to include the work on new promos as a way to introduce her to potential new clients. And with such natural, bright images, who could turn her away?