What in your life do you regard as precious? In honor of Father’s Day, Literary Mama contributor Gina Consolino-Barsotti communicated via email with author, photographer, educator, and father Jesse Burke about his life as documented in Wild & Precious (2015). In this work, Burke articulates through photographs what is wild and precious to him: nature and family. Accompanied by his daughter Clover, Burke embarks on a series of road trips throughout the United States. Over a five-year time span, the pair artfully create a story that reflects the tenuous relationship between wildlife and humans, the ephemeral nature of life, the permanence of death, and the art of being camouflaged. In addition to Burke’s art, which has been exhibited in galleries around the globe, his films and photography have been used in marketing campaigns such as the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center campaign “You Don’t Have to Be Big to Be Strong.”
Gina Consolino-Barsotti: Both your personal art as well as your commissioned works intertwine themes of vulnerability, interconnectedness, life, and death. How has your life journey inspired this work? Has this journey changed for you since becoming a father?
Jesse Burke: I have always felt connected to nature. As a young boy, I would seek the shelter of the woods to get away from my life and the city that I lived in. I always felt a deep connection to those surroundings and to the animals in those places. I would say that as an adult, the importance of those connections stayed with me. My photography has always been centered on the idea of connecting to nature and how we as humans interact with the natural world.
When I became a father, I knew that it was my newfound duty to enable my children to feel this connection. So I made it my responsibility to instill in them a deep understanding and love for the natural world. That’s where this project started from, and this continues to be my goal as I get older and my children become more understanding of what’s possible.
GCB: Your ability to juxtapose images, either with similar color, symbolic intention, or theme, proves fascinating. Can you discuss your creative process when you’re arranging your images into a book to tell a story? (Editor’s Note: An example of this technique includes the photo featured below that faces a page with a photo of a small bird with its eye gouged out.)
JB: When I’m editing a book or constructing an installation for an exhibition, I rely on the thematic similarity and juxtaposition to create a visual line of poetry, if you will, for the viewer to follow. The images are obviously taken at very different times with very different ideas floating around related to their creation. I’m able to cull all of the pieces of the story and our world together into a seamless narrative back in the studio by using formal qualities, such as color, line, tone, and emotion, as tools to help get this message across.
GCB: What initially struck me when I perused your book was Clover’s lack of reaction, her guarded countenance. In many of the photos, it’s difficult to surmise what is going on in her head. What inspired the two of you to camouflage, or mask, what these experiences meant to her in this visual documentary?
JB: From the beginning of the project, we created the style of working whereby Clover doesn’t show much expression or emotion, and this style has stuck with us. We never intended to camouflage what the experience meant to her, per se. It was more or less just a serious contemplation of the moment—something she could reflect back on internally with me simply watching her. About one quarter of the way through this project, I realized that it was in my best interest to stop taking pictures of her looking seriously at the camera and let her run free, to be herself. I think, after that point, more emotion peeked in physically through her facial expressions and body language. This was a really important moment for me because it allowed me to branch outside of my comfort zone and give more to the project than I thought I could.
GCB: Like many of our readers, you’re balancing many roles: partner, parent, educator, and artist. How do you find balance in your life, and how do you emulate this for your children?
JB: I feel very fortunate to have chosen the life path that I’m on. My freelance lifestyle allows me a lot of time to do the things that I feel are necessary, in addition to working and teaching. Creating art and hanging out with my children are at the top of the list. My artwork is a huge benefit of this lifestyle. So the balance works in our life because work and play are often the same thing. My children see this, and they understand it. They also understand that I need to take pictures, so they have patience with me, as much as children can have. But they do understand that, on occasion, we are working and playing at the same time.
My wife is a huge supporter of my work and me. Without her love and understanding, none of this would be possible. It’s hard to tell your wife that you’re going to take your child to the Grand Canyon to go take photos and she has to stay home and work and watch the other children. As you can imagine, it’s difficult, but she understands the need, and she allows us to have the lifestyle that we both see fit. This book is in no short part due to her understanding and appreciation of what it is that I do. She is a real partner in every sense. I couldn’t thank her enough for all she does. I feel very lucky and sometimes selfish. But I guess that is part of the deal.
GCB: What do you feel an artist’s responsibility is to his/her audience in creating images or writing stories? Does this responsibility ever conflict with your responsibility as a father, especially when your child participates in the artistic process? How do you resolve this conflict?
JB: I feel that my job is to take the viewer on a journey so that they can begin to experience all that we’ve experienced. I’m not sure it’s a responsibility, but it is my goal. On occasion, I think the responsibility I feel as an artist sometimes presses up against the responsibility I feel as a father. I may push my child a little harder than I think is ideal to get the shot I think we need, but this is within the boundaries of acceptability. I would never put her in harm’s way or make her cry or anything like that. But I do try to get what I want out of her, and sometimes she’s at odds with that. This has been a really big part of my growth as an artist and parent: to understand what that line is, when to cross it, and when not to.
GCB: What advice do you have for other aspiring creative artists/writers?
JB: This may seem like really common advice, but stay true to your vision. I think with the advent of the digital age, people are able to be creative, be photographers, be writers and bloggers on a much more widespread and acceptable platform. So having a unique voice is key. Once you find that voice, stick with it, regardless of what the market might dictate or even against advice on occasion. Be true to yourself.
GCB: If you were interviewing yourself, what else would you ask yourself and what would be the answer?
JB: The one question that I can’t escape from right now, in relation to my work and this project, is, will I continue this project with my other children? Truthfully, the answer is maybe. Initially, I thought I would work with them each on an individual basis and create a single book of each child. But I don’t think the reality of my life will allow me to do that, nor do I want to. Now I see Clover teaching her sisters the things that I taught her, so the transition is changing in a way that I didn’t expect. Clover and I are becoming teachers, and Honey Bee and Poppy are the students. For some reason, I never envisioned that scenario. I’m pleased with this, and I look forward to what the future might bring.