By Joann M. Ringelstetter
Photographing on the backroads can elicit a wide variety of reactions from people. The reactions range from curiosity to suspicion, or even anger in some cases. Because I always use a tripod, I have been mistaken for a surveyor more times than I care to mention. As you can imagine, this causes a bit of angst for some people until they find out there aren’t any plans for a new road or a new subdivision. For example, last spring I was standing on the railroad tracks photographing the Old Feedmill in Mazomanie, Wisconsin, and I was asked what I was surveying for.
Having integrity and establishing trust are of the utmost importance in this work.
Over the years, I have encountered every kind of reaction imaginable and have gotten better at gaining trust. Often I make friends in a matter of seconds, but other times it takes a little more finesse.
A few years ago, Ruth and I were on a mission to find an old stone barn that we had read about. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the exact location, so we drove up and down the road numerous times trying to find it and finally decided to give up for the time being. We drove through the nearby town and as we headed out the other side, we encountered some road construction and were forced to come to a stop….right in front of the stone barn we had been looking for on the other side of town. The stone barn in the picture above is similar to the one we located that day.
As we looked down the driveway, an old woman was walking across the yard with a pan in her hands for collecting eggs. I left the car parked at the end of the driveway and walked down to where the woman was now standing with a suspicious and scowling expression on her face. I introduced myself and asked her if I could take a picture of the stone barn.
Rather angrily, she said, “If you want to take a picture of my barn, you can pay me for it! You people just think you can come and take all the pictures you want and no one ever offers to pay me anything for it!”
“How much do you want?” I asked sincerely, which took her by surprise.
She thought about it for a few seconds and then said very firmly, “Ten dollars.”
As luck would have it, I had two five dollar bills in my pocket, which is rare for me because I usually have lens caps and other things stuffed in my pockets.
“That’s fair,” I responded as I pulled the ten dollars from my pocket and held it out to her.
She hesitated for a moment, as if she was thinking that was too easy and maybe she should have asked for more. Then she gingerly reached toward me with the egg pan and I dropped the ten dollars into the pan. As she was pulling it back, I asked her if she grew up on the farm. She replied that she did and then I asked her if her father or grandfather had built the barn. She replied that her grandfather had built it and then began to speak fondly of the old barn.
Then she hesitated again, looking at the money in the egg pan. Extending the pan towards me a second time, she said, “Maybe ten dollars is too much.”
“No,” I replied, “it’s worth it to me. You keep it.”
Then, quite unexpectedly, she let down her guard, and motioned for Ruth to drive the car down into the driveway. As I was taking my camera equipment out of the car, she said, “Do you like smokehouses? I have an old stone smokehouse that you can take a picture of. There’s also an outhouse behind the house if you’d like to take a picture of that. And don’t miss the stone shed out behind the barn.
I began photographing – first the beautiful limestone barn, which was built in 1865, followed by the stone shed and a large wooden tobacco barn that was built next to the road at a right angle to the stone barn. After that I photographed the stone smokehouse and the outhouse out back. In between, I photographed the rooster who was prancing around like he owned the place and a whole bunch of cats that were running around the farm. And as I photographed, we learned more about the farm and this woman’s life.
After spending almost two hours there, we started packing up to go and the old woman came back out of the house to say goodbye. In her hand was an egg carton, which she started to hand to me. As she did this, she said, “I want you to have these. I wish I could give you a whole dozen, but the chickens didn’t lay very many eggs today.”
“Oh, no,” I said, touched by her kindness. “We don’t need to take your eggs.” I knew from a comment she had made earlier that her son lived with her and the chickens only laid enough eggs for the two of them, so this was a big sacrifice for her.
“I want you to have them,” she insisted. “You know, maybe if I got down on my hands and knees in the chicken house, I could find three more eggs so you’d have a full dozen,” she said in earnest.
Not wanting to hurt her feelings, we accepted the fresh eggs (all nine of them) as we convinced her that three short of a dozen was perfectly fine. We thanked her for allowing us access to her property and all the wonderful farm buildings and then headed down the road. After the film was developed, we sent her copies of everything we had captured there and received a Christmas card in return.
Some day we will find the time and resources to digitize the photos we captured there. In the meantime, we remember that day and how an old woman’s anger and suspicion turned into extreme kindness as we showed a genuine interest in her life’s story.
Remember that as you journey through this life. Everyone has a story to share if you’ll take the time to listen.