What happens when the landscape of your childhood starts to disappear? American photographer Alexandra Hootnick grew up in rural upstate New York, but when large swathes of farmland near her old home were sold off to property developers, she realised how little she knew about the people living off the land.
These tight-knit communities, self-reliant and resilient, became the subject of The Sixth Day, Hootnick’s ongoing series exploring “the beauty, challenges and interconnectivities” of life on these small, family-run farms. Over two years, she would photograph families who had recently moved to the area, with little to no farming experience, to join the established Amish community. We spoke to her about the challenges of photographing insular communities and why she chose to frame the series through the perspective of children:
How did you come across small-scale farm life in upstate New York in the first place?
Upstate New York is my home. I grew up in a rural area and agriculture is part of the visual identity of my childhood. The majority of the surrounding farms are small, family-owned and operated.
Over time, a significant portion of the nearby farmland was sold and converted into residential developments. While at first I felt mostly a sense of loss, my growing awareness of the changing landscape made me realise I knew very little about farming. I wanted to start exploring small-scale farm life in a meaningful way and was able to start doing so when I moved home in 2014 to study photography.
The focus on family and children in the project was intentional. Prior to photography I worked in elementary education, and observing life from the perspective of both children and adults has opened my eyes to the limitless ways one can see daily life on the farm. My hope is to continue the project as the children grow and the landscapes change. I’m also beginning to look at contemporary small-scale farming from the perspective of families who aren’t Amish.
The families you shoot are new to farming – why do you think they made this huge change?
The families I work with went into farming for a variety of reasons, including a desire to live and work in a family environment, land stewardship, and health concerns and nutrition. One farmer described it as “the lifestyle we want for our kids, for our family, on an everyday basis,” and that despite the struggles, it was really the only right thing to do.
What was your experience like as an outsider, documenting a close-knit community?
Like any photographer, it took time and frequent communication to build trust and deepen relationships.
My focus from the beginning has been on exploring aspects of farm and family life, rather than the Amish community, so the outsider status I felt came primarily from a lack of knowledge about farming than from being a community outsider.
What were your preconceptions going in, and how were they challenged?
Having very little knowledge about farming, I’ve tried as much as possible to separate what I’m seeing from the traditional, bucolic portrayal of the American farm family.
The most difficult aspect of this series was in finding small farms nearby where families both lived and worked together. The first two families I came across that both fit this description and were interested in being part of the project happened to be Amish, which I didn’t expect.
The most interesting anecdotes, for me, aren’t really anecdotes at all but the small parts of daily life, like naming cloud shapes with the kids, finding that a baby has suddenly grown into a toddler, spending time with a chicken that has escaped the slaughter, showing up and discovering 25 lambs have been born, watching how time changes all of us.
Alexandra was a runner-up in the Graduate series category at BJP Breakthrough 2016, our annual summer season celebrating student photography. All Breakthrough runners-up receive WeTransfer Plus accounts, complete with long term storage, increased upload sizes and password protected transfers. Find more of her work here.
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