My purpose here, of course, is to write about my experience photographing one of the sweetest little girls in the world, but I also need to acknowledge that this post is also a kind of love letter to the location where most of my twenty-some shoots with this family that have taken place over the last decade.
If you’ve never heard of Why Not An American Ark, let me tell you, you’re missing out. Part animal boarding facility, part petting zoo, part riding lessons provider, and part party venue, the Ark has a little something for pretty much anyone, and for kids, it’s a fantastic chance to spend some time in a safe and invigorating natural environment. Paul and Deborah, Abigail’s parents, used the Ark as a boarding facility for their two horses, Teddy and Braxton, so there was a practical reason for using it as a backdrop for our shoots. Now that the family has moved into their new home—which will have enough space to house Wilfred, their current horse—we won’t be meeting at the Ark anymore, and despite the 45 minute early-morning drive to get there…I’m really kind of sad about it.
The focus of this shoot is Abigail. She’s 9 now, but counting Deborah’s maternity session, this is the 10th time I’ve photographed her as my primary subject, and she and I have formed a connection that I treasure more than I can express. Seeing the same children year after year is one of the best parts of my job, and Abigail is so familiar with me that when I show up at the Ark, she just takes my hand and leads me and her sister Clara off into a field full of sunflowers. For whatever reason, these flowers haven’t been planted in this spot for years, but I’m glad to see them again, and so are the girls. As we walk, both of them blurt out little tidbits of information about sunflowers and bugs and the animals at the farm, and like I always do, I find myself charmed by these girls. Their connection to nature has always been so strong, so primal, and I know that Deborah and Paul have really encouraged their daughters to love the natural world all around them.
We make our way around the farm from location to location and, as we walk, we pick up a little entourage of once-abandoned dogs who have found a new lease on life at the Ark. Between little bursts of shooting images, the girls take turns holding my hand and leading me where they want me to go, and we talk about whatever comes out of their mouths—sometimes it’s school or their family, but usually it’s something about the animals.
Abigail and Clara have always amazed me, and now that Abigail is in elementary school, her world is exploding outward—this kid, a 9 year-old, is practically fluent in Mandarin. Insane. But it’s their courage and security around animals that I’ve always marveled at the most. They ride on the backs of horses with more confidence than I could muster even as an adult, and they cradle baby pigs and goats in their arms as though they were kittens. In fact, it seems like most of our shoots end up with all of us gathered around whatever pen holds the most recently born babies on the farm.
I hope I’m lucky enough to be able to watch this beautiful family grow and change from another decade (and beyond), but I’m already so thankful for the experiences I’ve shared with all of them. When I’m with these girls, my heart is full.
Happy 9th birthday, sweet girl.