After I was approached a few months ago by the rbl brand agency who had been asked by one of their clients, the National Farmers Union to take on a project to help promote a new NFU Healthcare campaign that they were launching in conjunction with BUPA I shot a series of documentary pictures on a number of farmers to show different farming types.
The brief was to photograph the farmers on their farms showing them in their environment in a natural way and to show them as they carried out their normal day-to-day work. The pictures were to be mainly in black and white but a few could be in colour. A couple of posed portraits could be added to the set but essentially it was to document them in a Day in the Life style.
From the pictures I shot rbl have now made their selects and after presenting them to the NFU the final decisions were made and they were used in the campaign which is now running in print in various poster and leaflet campaigns and online.
Some examples of how the pictures were used in the campaign can be seen here and here in a blog post from rbl which outlines their approach to the campaign and what they were looking for with the photographs.
As the photographer my approach to this brief was to try to keep things as simple as possible. There’s no point making things more complicated if they don’t need to be and that approach to simplicity affects all aspects of how I approach most shoots.
I began each shoot with a phone call a day or two ahead of the day to introduce myself to each of the farmers. The reason for this was partly out of courtesy of course but also as a way of beginning to break the ice. It can be quite an unusual thing to have a photographer who you don’t know turn up on your doorstep and start photographing you so I wanted to make every effort to break down any barriers that inevitably go up in any situation when there is a camera watching you all day!
It also gave an opportunity to talk directly to them to explain about the sort of pictures I was hoping to take and what my approach would be on the day. I think some might have expected me to interrupt their whole day and stop them from getting on with their work when actually their normal daily routines was exactly what I was after.
I think this early contact helped as in all of the cases once I had bypassed the more formal language of the original shoot briefing and put what I was hoping to get into real world terms and language all of the farmers seem more relaxed and had a better understanding of what I was hoping to get.
When it came to my kit I approached it much as I would do with the press and feature work I do. I use two Leica M9 and two Fuji X Pro 2 cameras for all of my work in one combination or another but for this job and knowing that there was a possibility of extremes of weather with rapidly changing light and changing environments I opted to use the Fuji’s as they are a bit more robust and have better high ISO abilities than the Leica’s.
So I used my two Fuji X Pro 2 cameras. With them I had a 16mm f1.4 lens, a 35mm f2 lens and a 50-140mm f2.8 zoom lens. The Fuji’s aren’t full frame cameras so in full frame terms these focal lengths equate approximately to 24mm, 50mm and 70-200mm respectively.
I don’t have or use flash so that wasn’t an issue and I prefer working with natural light where possible which fitted exactly with the pictures I was hoping to get. All my other kit such as spare batteries (x8), spare memory cards, notebook and pencils, chamois leather and the 35mm lens were carried in a set of Domke pouches worn on a belt and which I’ve used for years. This set up lets me work fast and have easy and quick access to my kit – especially the batteries – and without having to carry a bag over my shoulder it means I can move around freely and stops the risk of getting snagged up against something.
I anticipated that on this job I’d be jumping in and out of tractors or onto trucks as well as squeezing between assorted farming machinery and even animals so I needed to be able to move quickly with the minimum of kit to allow me to get into a position to get natural pictures as the farmers went about their work.
Other than that the only other specialised equipment that came in handy especially on the dairy farm were a pair of wellies!
From the start and as the shoot progressed through the day I keep any photographic direction to a minimum and just let things unfold. I’ll chat to the farmers of course through the day but mostly it was about farming or just general stuff unrelated to the pictures I was after. Very occasionally I might find that we were in a good spot to take a slightly more formal portrait but even this was a very quick and simple process and didn’t interrupt the general flow of events.
I find working like this a really exciting way of working but it does place heavy demands on the photographer and whether on this shoot or any number of other shoots I’ve done I frequently find that at the end of the day my head aches from the concentration needed to be constantly aware of potential pictures and I feel physically drained. To try to anticipate what might happen and then of course be in a position to take the picture is quite difficult and for every picture that works there are many more that don’t so the accumulative effect is that by the end you can be quite physically and mentally tired.
Ultimately though it’s how I prefer to work and the challenges of going into an unfamiliar situation in the search for pictures pushes you to work hard and hopefully get pictures. Pictures that will also work for the client.
So the four previous posts I’ve done and which are linked at the top of this post show each of the farmers I met and some of the pictures I was able to get from the shoots.
My thanks go to the rbl team for asking me to be part of a great project and to the farmers for letting me into their lives for the day, for the brews and the meals I shared with them and for the gin punch Chris! They were all very gracious and patient hosts and as a documentary photographer it is always a fascinating thing to have access into a world or environment that might not be common and to try to find interesting pictures whilst learning new things along the way.
Images (c) Ian Forsyth 2017
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