• October 6, 2015

A Photographer’s Unexpected Muse—His Daughter, Wild and Free

Photographer Jesse Burke started taking road trips with his daughter, Clover, when she was four, to introduce her to the natural world firsthand. Whitney Johnson, deputy director of photography for National Geographic magazine, interviewed him recently about the photos that came out of those trips and that comprise his new book: Wild and Precious.

Lookin’ Back in Anger, 2012
Lookin’ Back In Anger, 2012

WHITNEY JOHNSON: Did Wild and Precious start out as just an experience that you were having with your daughter, or was it something that you originally conceived of as a photo project?

JESSE BURKE: It started out by accident. We’ve always been very inclined to travel, and we’ve always been very connected to nature and hiking and being outdoors, but I never intended for the project to become what it is.

The first time we ever did a road trip was for my previous project, “Intertidal,” and I just took my daughter along for the ride. School was closed, and I knew I couldn’t get any work done, so I said, “Let’s go for a trip to Maine and I’ll take pictures, and you can just tag along with me,” and she did.

As we got further onto the road I just started to document her, because the landscape was there, I had a camera in my hand, and there was this child running around. Before long, I realized I had stumbled upon something different.

The Wall, 2014
The Wall, 2014

WHITNEY: So it was the classic parenting work-life balance?

JESSE: Totally. I took her along for the ride just because I had to. Initially, she was just like luggage on the trip with me; inevitably, she became a collaborator in the project. And I think that just speaks to the growth of our relationship, in terms of father/daughter but also like mentor/student. So that’s been really amazing.

I hope people will see this project and say, “We need to do that too. Let’s go do that”—and then actually go do it.

The Devil To Pay, 2013
The Devil to Pay, 2013

WHITNEY: Your past work was the execution of a particular concept. How does this differ?

JESSE: I realized very quickly that the way I had worked in the past was not going to be how this work materialized. It was a single person, and furthermore, it was a child who didn’t listen, didn’t do what I asked her to do, didn’t behave like a model or a subject would behave. Dealing with all this was really complicated for me. As this project progressed, I realized that it was a lot richer than the points I had self-imposed, so I started to document everything.

Flesh and Blood, 2012
Flesh and Blood, 2012

WHITNEY: At what point did the sleeping images emerge for you as a key part of the project?

JESSE: One night she was just sleeping, and I thought, man, she is so innocent and beautiful and fragile, and those are the moments where, as a parent, you can reflect on the grandiose nature of love and children and parenting and ask yourself, Are you doing the right thing by them, and what is the right thing? So then I would try to take pictures of her sleeping every night. Most of the time it didn’t work. Sometimes it did.

I like to use the word “dream” to describe this work. Part of this idea is that I have a dream for my child to grow up to be an environmentally conscious, strong, secure, unafraid woman who is like an Earth-keeper, in some ways, so that she can protect the planet, because that’s who we need in the future, in my opinion. So that’s my dream. But then I just picture her dreaming about all the things that kids dream about.

Red Velvet, 2012
Red Velvet, 2012

WHITNEY: You said that Clover became a collaborator. Can you talk a little bit about that role of collaboration—because some artists are more willing to collaborate than others.

JESSE: In the beginning it was really 50-50 in terms of frustration and success, trying to get what I needed out of her in regards to the pictures, or what I thought were the pictures; and then, inevitably, I realized that the power was in the collaboration.

I Shall Be Free, 2012
I Shall Be Free, 2012

The first time that that happened is when we were in Canada, on the beach. We had driven very, very far, and it was at the end of the day, and the fog was sticking to the coastline. It was perfect, and I wanted a picture of her looking out longingly at the sea—but she just wouldn’t stand still. She had this rope that was like fishing rope, with commercial fishing debris all over.

I remember asking her to please put the rope down and just focus, and she didn’t want to. I’ll never forget standing on the beach, yelling, because I was so frustrated, because it was such a perfect moment, and she was ruining it.

We left the beach and I was pissed, honestly. Then I had a major epiphany. I realized that the pictures of her playing with the rope and being herself, being wild and free, were the strongest pictures. They were not the ones I thought I wanted, but the ones I didn’t know existed—the ones where she was doing what she wanted, the ones that I couldn’t possibly predict.

I Got Stripes, 2014
I Got Stripes, 2014

WHITNEY: What is Clover’s perspective on all of this?

JESSE: I don’t think she really knows the depth of the thing, but I think she has a lot of pride and love in having a thing with me. She loves that she gets to see all these amazing places, have all these experiences, see all these creatures, travel, and spend a lot of time outdoors. She does know that. She feels partially frustrated by the photographic process, but the more I talk to her about being a collaborator, the more she embraces it.

The book concludes with a hint at the next chapter, which is Clover and my daughter, Poppy, walking hand-in-hand into the fog, from behind. No need to see their faces, because it’s about the idea of togetherness, and the next wave of student, daughter, collaborator.

You And Me, 2015 
You And Me, 2015 

View more of Jesse Burke’s work on his website, and follow him on Instagram.

There are 11 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Thor
    October 30, 2015

    I think we should capture as every beautiful moment as possible for ourselves. Life is short. Take advantages of today’s technology, such as a smart phone, I pad and digital camera to take a picture. We can have a miracle shot easily.

  2. DKRNIKON Shooter
    October 21, 2015

    I am disappointed you chose to highlight these disturbing and non professional photos.

  3. Johnny
    October 20, 2015

    You’ve inspired me to attempt some thing similar with my own daughter – thankyou.

  4. Richard Cook
    October 16, 2015

    My eldest daughter and I have raced catamarans all over South Africa since she was little. We first went offshore (off Durban in a big blow and a big swell) when she was 12. I thought she would be terrified, she had courage for both of us. She is now studying mechanical engineering so that one day she may design yachts. The bond we have is the strongest thing in my life, and that includes my fantastic 21 year marriage to her mom !!!!

  5. Sherrie Miranda
    October 13, 2015

    Felicia (above) said partly what I wanted to say about the child teaching the adult. When I look back on my years of teaching, I believe I learned much more from my students than they learned from me. I am sure that Burke will look back and say the same thing about this time spent with his daughter and the camera. The photos speak volumes about the love between a father and child. He shows his daughter in ways that she can look back and feel pride in this venture.
    I loved the fact that Burke finally had to let his daughter be herself, NOT what he wanted her to be. That is probably the biggest lesson a parent must learn. The fact that he had to learn it while she was still quite young will allow a freedom between them that few parents know.
    Sherrie Miranda

  6. Jouni Leppanen
    October 11, 2015

    Great photos and beautiful story. I am also realizing that documenting my two daughters ( 5 and 10) life is probably my most important photo project and I hope that one day they can see the beauty of all those memories recorded.

  7. Kimberlee
    October 11, 2015

    Gorgeous project. I totally want to do it. 🙂

  8. Chris T
    October 11, 2015

    What a spectacular gift you have given to your daughter. The whole time I was reading and looking at the photos, I could the song, “When I Was A Boy” in my head.

  9. Cherry S Cadogan Lewis
    October 11, 2015

    I grow up fascinated by documentary / national geographic, and I strongly believe seeing how life evolves in their natural habitat is truly amazing, for beauty is in the in eyes of the beholder. These photos speak the truth and a thousand words. It has life meaning and substance in a million and one ways, because everyone have a store that is similar to Jesse Burk’s photo, and tells his story from their eyes and perspective base on their interpretation. Nonetheless these photos speak miracle of life, freedom, joy, sadness, a patient love for his child, his joy of what he can create from photo, being meaning to his daughter live that no one would have seen her but her dad.

  10. barry pompey
    October 6, 2015

    so happy to see parent and child,having a good time.

  11. Felicia Simion
    October 6, 2015

    This was beautiful! Thank you for the inspiration. I know how surprising and moody, yet wonderful muses can children be in photography. I have photographed my now 6-year-old cousin Felix (a project called “The playground”: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/felicia-simion-the-playground), and boy did he teach me more than I could have learnt myself.

    Congratulations for this lovely interview! 🙂

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