“You must be Jared,” he said, shaking my hand. In his other hand, he held a camera.
“And you must be Mike,” I answered.
He nodded. He had a relaxed smile, and his hair curled and flipped in sandy brown waves. He looked like he could have studied meditation with the Beatles in India.
No more anonymity
When I started this blog back in 2009, I was more or less anonymous. I used only my first name and a photo of me with my face obscured by a hat. But when the blog won awards, people started showing up to interview me and take pictures. It was freaky. It made me uncomfortable. Having lost my anonymity, I gave in. I began using my last name and using pictures where I was recognizable.
And now here was Mike, a freelance photographer working for Random House. He had come to our tiny olive farm to take pictures for my upcoming book. Life just keeps getting stranger.
Mike’s photos will supplement my own. Random House wanted pictures of me with the chickens and the pigs. They also wanted a shot of me down in the olive grove as a possible book cover.
At first, the thought of appearing on the cover struck terror in my introverted heart. I don’t like being the center of attention at my own birthday party, let alone a book cover. But I decided to let go. Random House is in the business of selling books, after all. I decided I would let the photo shoot with Mike unfold naturally. If I ended up on cover, so be it.
Down to the grove
“Let’s start with the cover shot,” Mike said, and we began walking down towards the olive grove.
Strolling along, I asked him about his photography. On his website there are a lot of pictures of famous New Zealanders – movie directors, musicians, poets, chefs, and athletes. It looks a bit glamorous.
“What kind of photos would you take if you could take photos of anything?” I asked him.
He smiled. “Sheep.”
“Yeah. I love taking pictures of sheep. Can’t help it. I’m from the Waikato. A country boy at heart.”
“Well, I suppose there are worse things you could do with sheep.”
When we arrived at the olive grove gate, Mike’s face lit up. Under the olive trees, sheep were everywhere.
I sat in a shady spot at the edge of the grove, and Mike wandered off to take his favorite kind of pictures. I waited 5 minutes, 10 minutes, maybe 15. It felt like a long time. This guy really did love taking photos of sheep.
When he came back he apologized. “Sorry. I took longer than I’d planned.”
I laughed. “Far be it from me to come between a Waikato boy and his sheep.”
Then the real work began.
The photo shoot
Mike found a row of olive trees he liked, where the light was good and the angles were right.
“Walk down that row,” he said, and I did. It was the end of November, and the flower buds were forming. So I did what I would have done if I’d been alone. I reached out and held the soft ends of branches, pulled them towards me to check for buds.
“Turn to the right 45 degrees,” Mike said. “Now step back half a step. That’s it. Look at me.”
I spent the next four hours in front of the camera. I had to change a couple of times so all the photos didn’t look the same. I carried a folding pruning saw and work gloves in my back pockets, in order to tell a story. We worked in the grove, down at the river, with the pigs, with the chickens. I felt like a dork.
There were times when Mike would fall quiet and I would forget he was there, which was no doubt what he wanted. I would pet Dougal the kunekune or look down along the edge of the riverbank, and then I’d suddenly realize Mike was taking pictures of me.
It is surprisingly hard work to have your photograph taken. I became exhausted. I now have a new respect for supermodels.
CJ, being shy and valuing his anonymity almost as much as his agapanthus, didn’t want his photo in the book at all. Eventually he agreed to be photographed from afar, or slightly obscured by the animals. Later Mike smiled and told me, “The chickens were more cooperative than CJ.” And it’s true. The pictures of CJ make you think, “Why is that man hiding from the camera?”
At the end of the day Mike and I did another round of cover shots in the olive grove, then we strolled back up to the house. I turned to say something to Mike, but he was gone.
Then I saw him. You guessed it. He was at the edge of the grove, taking a few last photos of sheep.
The proofs arrive
When Random house sent me the proofs of Mike’s photos, I was impressed. I’m afraid that you’ll have to wait for the book to see his photos, but I can tell you that Mike truly captured the beauty of this place. The olive grove looks enchanted. The river looks magical. The sheep, of course, look gorgeous.
And then there are these pictures of some guy. He’s petting the pigs, and he’s looking out at the river. He’s inspecting the branch of an olive tree. And I think, “Who is that? Who is that man standing there, looking like he actually belongs in that olive grove, wearing those farm boots and that red plaid shirt? Is that me?”
I barely recognize him.
What do you think? Should I resist being on the cover of the book?
Thanks to Annika Davidson for the photo of Mike sneaking up on sheep.