Travel

Striking, Tender Photos of a Father-Daughter Road Trip

We spoke with photographer Jesse Burke about his new book that captures his daughter on the road and in the great outdoors.

by Philip Eil
Jan 27 2016, 8:38pm

Photo by Jesse Burke

"This work does seem to serve as a family album of sorts," the photographer Jesse Burke said during a recent artist's talk. But it's probably safe to say neither your—nor my—family photos look much like the exhibition he was discussing, Burke's Wild & Precious, which is now on display at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in Providence.

In the show, there are whales and baby raccoons and dead birds. There are mountains and rivers and stone-speckled beaches and skies swirling with fluffy clouds. And, in most of the photos, there is a miniature protagonist: Burke's daughter, Clover, who was photographed between ages five and nine during road trips that crisscrossed the United States. In one frame, she appears as tiny figure digging in the dirt, surrounded by driftwood on a beach in the Pacific Northwest. In others, she is shown, up-close, wearing a butterfly net like a wedding veil, or staring at the camera while blood trickles down her face, the result of a harmless if very striking bloody nose.

The 15 images in the show come from a series of 134 photographs published by Daylight Books last November, bookended by notes from the father-and-daughter collaborators. Burke's note reads, in part, "My mind is full of moving images: You running down to the sea as the gulls laugh overhead, you collecting spindly strips of birch bark and downy striped turkey feathers, you and me quietly brushing our teeth alongside one another beneath the hum of the green fluorescent light in our motel bathroom..." At the end of the book, Clover responds: "We've held animals like birds, bunnies, salamanders, and insects... I remember seeing the dead whale and how bad it smelled."

Last week, before the opening, I walked through the show with Burke, who was recently named one of TIME's 50 Instagram photographers to follow.

VICE: How did this project come to be?
Jesse Burke: We have always been very nature-based in our life, my wife and I, prior to having any children. So we always hike, go out, and do adventures. So, when we had a kid, it was only fitting that that kid sort of adopt our lifestyle. So instead of changing our life, we just include her. And this was outside of my artwork process.

And so then one day I decided to take a road trip with my kid. Because she had vacation. And as the freelancer in our family, I have the responsibility of childcare during weeklong breaks, when my wife doesn't get to take a week off. I thought, "Let's get the hell out of town and we'll go for a ride. And we'll go take pictures for my other project."

So we were out there on the road. Slowly over the course of the first one or two days, on a five- or six-day trip, I started to just take the pictures I intended to take—pictures of landscape, essentially, in Maine—and then every once in a while, she would sort of wander into the frame. And I thought, "Oh, that's cool. I'll take those just for fun, show my wife, and I'll take the landscape pictures for my artwork." And then after like the third day I realized, "Oh, this might be something different."

Was there any inviting her into the project, on your part? Did you say, "Hey, do you want to be a part of this new project?"
Very quickly I realized that the process wasn't as much of a subject-director relationship as a collaborator-to-collaborator relationship. If I let her be herself and stop directing her so much, the project is richer in many ways, and I'm happier as a person. And she's happier as a person.

So I would sort of guide her into a space, without much guidance: park, [say] "Let's walk this way," and just let her interact. There was an instance that was very much like the epiphany moment. We were at the beach in Canada—this picture's not in the show, actually—and she's on the beach and the beach is foggy and really beautiful and there's a lot of commercial fishing debris, because it's really remote and there's no one cleaning up. And so, after driving for a very long time, she wanted to play, run around, not stop and listen to her father. So I was like, "Stop. Look here. Do that." And she wouldn't listen. She was spinning the rope around her legs, and I was really mad. And we didn't get the pictures that I wanted.

So we left, went home, and at night, as I was flipping through the pictures on the computer, this is when the epiphany hit me that the pictures that I thought I wanted, I didn't have. But I didn't need them. Because the pictures of her doing what she wanted to do were so much better. Because they were real, they were honest, and they were a total collaboration between us. I mean, she was aware she was being photographed, and she's performing for the camera, in some ways. But on her terms, not mine.

I think one of the most arresting images is the one I'm looking at right now, which is right at eye level. We're looking her in the eye .
The bloody-nose picture.

Yeah. What do you see when you look at that photo?
When I look at that, I see calmness and understanding and a strength in the face of vulnerability. Clearly there's some sort of an injury or a wound or something happening, where there's blood involved and a young child. And she looks totally calm and confrontational, almost, instead of being afraid, instead of having a response that one would normally associate with a child [to] blood and an injury. And I love that about her. One thing that I've always been really interested in is her ability to sort of command and control the space and feel really at ease and at home in the situation, wherever we are.

For a lot of these photos I was asking myself, "Is that animal dead or sleeping?" It seems like, most times, the animal is dead.
Dead. Always dead. This is alive.

[He points to the photo, As Long as the Grass Shall Grow.]

That is a baby raccoon

Is getting your kid out into nature partly a way of having conversations about death?
Yes, definitely. It's always been important for me to have my children be aware of that, and not afraid of that. It's normal. And it happens. And it happens in our lives with humans and pets—our life, everyone's life.

But when we get out into nature, the thing that changes is that we, the Burke family—or maybe humans in general, I would argue—have a very instinctual desire to connect with animals. [But] that is not a reciprocal relationship. They don't give a shit about us. But we love them and want to learn about them, and study them, and touch them. And, again, they want to run away from us.

Since I'm not a scientist and I don't do field studies on coyotes or anything, the only time my children or myself would get to see, touch, feel, study a coyote is if we're lucky enough to stumble upon a dead one in the woods. So part of the beauty of a moment where you come upon a dead creature is that you can then take that opportunity to really study it and look at it. And then I think that's one level of connection that's much deeper than most people would get through a book or a TV show or a zoo.

And I use this picture of the whale as a perfect example. I knew the whale was there because of the news. But then we drove there. We will do that if we hear that there's a dead whale; drive right down, so I can take pictures. And for the same reason everyone else is there: ogle it, because it's insane and incredible! I mean, this is an ocean creature and I'll have this memory of my daughter holding the whale's flipper and looking at it. And it's just such an incredibly unique experience.

You have to get past the morbidity of it and get to the core of it, which is that she gets to actually feel and see all of the creatures. And since you're out in nature a lot of time, you have more opportunity to see that creature.

Why include the sleeping photos in this series?
When we're out on the road, we stay in these kind of shitty hotels, on purpose. Partially because I love photographing in them, but also because they're cheap and easy and everywhere. And so I came out of the bathroom one night and I saw her sleeping and the light from the bed stand was right there and I just stopped and I was like, "Wow." She was like an illuminated cherub in the bed.

So I just thought, "I'm going to take a photograph of her sleeping. She just looks so beautiful." Again, like, not thinking about where it fit into the project. So I took the picture and I sat there and I just essentially watched her sleep. And it was just this beautiful thing. It was the first time in my life that I have just sort of stopped and watched my child sleep, with the light on. You can see [her] chest moving and nothing else. It was so beautiful and simple.

So then I would photograph her every night—every single night. And then it became part of our process. The sleeping pictures acted as sort of a backbone for the project. They became super important, way after the fact, in a way that I could have never predicted. Which was the book starts and the first picture you see is a sleeping picture and then they happen sort of as chapter headings. And the last picture you see is a sleeping picture. In some ways, the arc of the entire book is a dream.

Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter.

The RISD Museum's exhibition Wild & Precious runs through September 26, 2016. The book is available from Daylight Books. Learn more about the project—and see additional photos from the series—at wildandprecious.co.