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Nivi Shaham
Nivi Shaham
From receiving a bright pink, plastic film camera aged seven to using a FUJIFILM X Series camera today, Sophia Li’s passion for framing nature and traveling has grown with her. Now studying neuroscience at Duke University while also pursuing a minor in photography, this visual storyteller hopes to open our hearts and minds through her work. As a finalist in our Students of Storytelling contest, Sophia has been exploring the world of homesteading and organic farming to illustrate how food systems shape the way we live.
Sophia's story
The three months I spent this summer volunteering on small organic farms and homesteads in southern Vermont were some of the sweatiest and most refreshing experiences of my life. Surrounded by rolling hills, wild blackberries, and the sound of sheep bleating nearby in the pasture, I had never felt so deeply connected to nature. From planting and harvesting carrots to picking strawberries and collecting eggs from chickens, I discovered where our food really comes from and how it gets to our plates.
In a consumer-driven society that seems to be always frantically racing, I value slower, intentional living. As someone who has struggled with chronic health conditions since childhood, I became curious about sustainable food systems and organic farming methods through learning about the power of food as medicine. In college, I began volunteering at my university campus farm’s community workdays and at a fresh produce program for food-insecure primary care patients.
When Covid-19 broke out in the US, I saw everyone around me rushing to the supermarkets, buying up bulk items in a frenzied panic. At the same time, I was reading in the news about how food insecurity was rising across the nation due to the crashing economy, while industrial farms were being forced to throw away produce due to a lack of buyers after restaurants and schools closed. I was shocked by the vulnerability of our modern-day food systems.
After my summer internship was canceled due to the pandemic, I decided to move to a homestead farm in Vermont so that I could gain a deeper understanding of sustainable farming as a way of life. I came up with the idea for this project as a means of documenting my journey through photography. Once I had packed the essentials (outdoor work clothes that you don’t care about getting dirty, sunscreen, a water bottle, etc), I picked out the camera gear I wanted to bring with me.
I decided on FUJIFILM X-T3 with the XF56mmF1.2 R and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR lenses, because I wanted the ability to create a diverse array of images. The ultra-wide aperture of the XF56mmF1.2 allowed me to make gorgeous portraits and photograph in low-light conditions, while the focal range of the XF16-80mmF4 gave me versatility. I also brought along my FUJIFILM X-T30 and XF18-55mmF2.8-4 R LM OIS lens, which was the kit I had been using prior to receiving new gear from Fujifilm for my project. With my small suitcase stuffed to max capacity, I drove up from my home in Massachusetts to Vermont.
Rural Vermont is truly idyllic. I spent the majority of my days outdoors with limited access to the internet or cell service. From weeding sprawling patches of thyme in the rain to digging up hundreds of garlic bulbs from the soil by hand, I realized the meaning of pausing and appreciating each moment I spent with the earth. Of course, things were not always smooth sailing. I will never forget the time I forgot to latch the door to the duck coop and had to herd all the ducklings back from a nearby stream, or the time the sheep stampeded over the electric fence when they ran out of fresh grazing pasture while I was watering the garden, or getting stung by a swarm of yellowjackets when I disturbed their nest while moving baby chicks into an A-frame.
There were definitely instances when my determination wavered – finding yourself shoulder-deep in a dirt hole after trying to dig up a spiky, wild blackberry root for hours with no success really tests your resolve – but I am grateful for it all. Getting to literally reap the fruits of your labor is truly rewarding, and few sights are as gratifying as the sunset over the garden after a long, exhausting day of work.
Over the course of my time in Vermont, I visited many small, organic farms and homesteads in the surrounding area in order to gain insight into different approaches and perspectives. One of the most challenging parts about this project was interviewing and taking photos of people I had just met or barely knew. Farmers and homesteaders are extremely busy people, so I worried I would be intruding on their time or space. However, I found that when you show genuine desire to learn from and listen to others, they are almost always more than happy to talk to you. Moreover, by sharing my own experience with farming, I was able to connect with my subjects on a personal level, which allowed me to more authentically portray their stories. Through spending time with both seasoned farmers and beginning gardeners, I discovered that although each person had unique reasons for valuing locally grown organic food, the sense of community built around a shared passion for local farming and sustainable food systems was palpable. Everywhere I drove, the roads were lined with small farms and backyard vegetable gardens.
When it came to choosing which images to feature in my project, I selected those I felt best portrayed the interconnectedness of the farming and homesteading community. In my editing, I tried to highlight the colors and textures of natural life. My favorite image from the project is of Sarah – the five-year-old daughter of a family whose homestead I stayed on – interacting with the cows at the local dairy farm her family buys milk from. As much as Sarah is watching the cows, the cows are watching her; it’s as if they are engaged in a wordless conversation. I love this image, because it shows a connection with our food systems that modern-day society seems to have lost.
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons I have learnt through this project is that people will work endlessly for what they find meaningful, no matter how hard it is. Being a small-scale farmer isn’t easy; you don’t make much money and being tied to the land means you rarely get to take a vacation. However, the people and experiences I encountered during my project have taught me that the ability to work the land and provide for those around you through the earth is more fulfilling than anything money could ever buy. The things we take for granted – sunlight, nourishing food and water, and quiet spaces in nature – are actually the most essential for life.
Through this project, I want to spread awareness about the value of real food grown with love and care for the soil, earth, and its people. I plan to continue developing my project by creating more photos that further illustrate different steps of the farm-to-table process (eg washing produce or preparing a meal). I want to eventually create a photo book from the images in my project and to exhibit my work in a community gallery. In the era of Covid-19 and social distancing, supporting local, sustainable farming and food systems is more important than ever for cultivating connection and resilience within communities. Ultimately, I hope my photography inspires people to live intentionally in the present instead of always chasing the next thing.
Explore more of Sophia’s work and discover many more stories in our Students of Storytelling gallery.
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