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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.