When freelance photographer Jesse Burke set out on a road trip to Maine five years ago with his then-four-year-old daughter, Clover, he wasn’t planning on making a book about their adventures. “I was just hoping that she was old enough to hang with me and not be bored or annoying while I took landscape photographs,” says Burke, 43, who teaches photography at Rhode Island School of Design. “Slowly she started making her way into the frame.”
Clover, now nine, appears in more than 120 photographs in the new book Wild & Precious, an achingly lovely collection of images that captures the transience of childhood and nature. A solo exhibition from the book opens this month at RISD Museum, in Providence, Rhode Island. He lives just outside the city, where he and his family goes out once a week to look for great horned owls in pine groves.
I talked to Burke about photography, fatherhood (he and his wife also have Poppy, age five, and Honey, three), and tips for slowing down and keeping the phone in the pocket.
OUTSIDE: What inspired you to start the project?
BURKE: Our family has always been very connected to nature. We spend a lot of time outside, hiking, seeing things in the woods. If anything, having children perpetuated us going outside more. The book was a good opportunity to make being outside a conscious effort, rather than a default situation. It’s a good chance to find out—if I take Clover out and put her in a location, physically transplant her to a place, will she be destined to care for it more?
Does her being the subject of these pictures make her care about nature even more?
I don’t think she’ll truly understand magnitude of project until she’s older. Someday she’s going to look at this, and think “Holy crap, I can’t believe he did this with me. How lucky I was.” But right now, she’s just a kid. She’s so focused on the thing of the moment. Today, it’s her iPad.
Then everyone once in a while she really blows me away with the depth of her understanding. She wrote in her letter to me in the book that being on the road with me gives her self-confidence and pride in her abilities. If you look at the picture on the cover, she’s high off the ground on a piece of driftwood on the Olympic Peninsula. She was scared to walk out onto the log. I had to beg and convince her. She slowly but surely went out there. Then she was so proud of herself that she did it.
What was the most interesting moment for you in the project?
We were on a beach, and I wanted her to be my model, but she was being a kid. She didn’t want to do what I asked her. In a moment of sheer frustration, I lost my cool. I told her we were leaving, and as we packed up, I kept shooting pictures of getting frustrated. Later, I realized looking through the pictures, the ones that were best were the ones where she was doing what she wanted to do, where she was being herself. I felt immediately liberated and free.
The pictures don’t feel staged. They feel incredibly natural.
Still some are staged. I’m allowed to do what I want, and so is she. Part of the power is that it makes the work more honest. It makes it collaborative. Her spirit is in the pictures. And ever since that moment, I can still try to be the producer, but I also have to be basically the looker and watch her be a child.
Wait—you’re a father! Didn’t you realize that at some point she wasn’t going to do what you said?
Before this project, my family and my artwork were separate. I never needed her to do a thing so specifically as model for me. But after that day on the beach, I just realized I was looking at things in the wrong way. I let her dictate more. It’s more our project than mine.
I especially love the pictures of her lying on her back on a dock and crawling on her knees on top of Mount Washington. The book is deeply calming. It’s message seems to be, slow down and explore rather than to compete, to physically dominate, which is such a big trend in parenting these days. Do you have suggestions for how other parents might cultivate this in their families?
Once a week, make a plan to have family time to go to a nature center. When you’re there, make sure you’re listening and looking and connecting. Sometimes we’re so busy watching our feet so we don't fall, that we forget to look up. Look in places that are less obvious. Also try to be quiet and just listen. And don’t be afraid to touch.
Do you find that the camera gets in the way of connecting?
We have come to a place in the culture where we experience everything through our phones. And yes, it absolutely changes the experience. You want to bring your phone to document something amazing should you come across it. I try to keep it in my pocket unless there’s something epic. But there’s always something epic.
There are quite a few photos of a half-clothed Clover, dead animals, and sweet pictures of her sleeping. The message seems to be one of impermanence, which is fitting because that’s the biggest heartbreak of parenthood, isn’t it? They don’t stay little.
Exactly. The sleeping and injury photos are about vulnerability and physicality. The softness of this wild child in the world. It’s almost a mythical landscape that this fragile girl inhabits. The dead animals are pretty simple, too. We’re really interested in these creatures and we want to see them and touch them. But that relationship is not reciprocal. They don’t want anything to do with us. The only thing you can do that is if you're lucky enough to see one that’s dead. When do you get to see a dead whale? It’s totally sad. That’s part of it also.
In one picture she’s holding a small brown animal. Dare I ask?
That’s her with her dead guinea pig. We were out there taking the picture and the wind rips through and blows in her face, almost as though the spirit of the guinea pig is imbued in the picture. You live your life but the inevitably is death. This photo is about teaching your child about that through the animal.
What’s Clover’s life like outside the photos?
She goes to French immersion school. She plays competitive soccer. She’s very connected to the digital matrix. Between our outside time, school, and soccer, that’s every minute.
Now that she’s nine, is she still into nature as much?
Absolutely, if not more, because she understands it better. We’re out after sunset on these owl adventures. She just leaves and wanders out, half a mile down the road. My goal is to create a compassionate, understanding, loving person who’s connected to the earth, to raise the next generation of environmental stewards. That’s exactly who she’s become. We’ve screwed up this planet. I want my daughters to understand beauty so they can protect it.