HERO Spotlight: Jesse Burke

Oct. 23, 2018

Jesse Burke divides his time between personal art projects and commissioned work. Jesse's work deals with themes related to vulnerability and identity, as well as human's complicated relationship with nature. Daylight Books published his monograph, Wild & Precious 2015. He received his MFA from Rhode Island School of Design, where he is a faculty member. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums in the U.S. and abroad and is held in many private and public collections including the Museum of Contemporary Photography Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. Jesse was recently named by Time Magazine as a top 50 US photographer to follow on Instagram and by T: The New York Times Style Magazine as a top 5 to follow on Instagram.

"We all want to be associated with something greater and more beautiful than ourselves and nature is the ultimate. I just think it is the one thing we can all agree on." -Bernd Heinrich

Where were you born and raised? Do you remember a specific moment in time when you realized your passion for photography and particularly, nature.

I was born and raised in Stratford, Connecticut. I didn’t really get into photography until I moved to the Arizona desert in the mid 1990s, in my early 20s. Once there I started by taking an introduction to photography class at the local community college. I very quickly realized that it was something amazing and it quickly became my passion. As far as nature is concerned, I grew up using the woods and ponds near my house in Connecticut as an escape from daily life. It was my favorite place to go, and I would often go with my friends to play and look for animals. I think that’s what instilled in me a deep connection to the natural world. I can remember those days like they were yesterday.

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Tell us a bit about your journey and your obvious alignment with the environment. You have quite the resume. Your work can be found everywhere from publications like Wild & Precious, to campaigns for L.L. Bean, Carnival Cruise Line, Floating Hospital for Children and so much more. How does this variety of experience map back to your passion for nature?

The journey in my professional photographic life has been interesting. I started by photographing what it means to be a man (in my personal circles) in an attempt to understand who I was as a man and who my friends and family were as men. Then I had a daughter and I realized quickly that my work would probably change. The thing that shifted my work away from exploring masculinity and more into the nature experience that I practice today is deciding that I wanted my daughter to be deeply in touch with the natural world. So I focused on introducing her to nature by exposing her to it first hand. Taking road trips, exploring, adventuring, constantly being out there. Over the years I have acquired a lot of my family photos doing things in our personal life that have led to my current commercial client situation. Clients like L.L. Bean, Honda, and Carnival Cruise Lines have hired me just to do what I do- which is to document my kids in the way that introduces the natural world into our lives and expresses our love for it. It really makes logical sense for specific clients. Floating Hospital for Children was a little bit different because they were interested in the idea of strength and vulnerability in the face of childhood- which is also something that I am really interested in. It’s evident in my personal work but spills over into my professional client work as well.

How do you live an eco-friendly lifestyle on a daily basis? What are 3 basic things that you would prescribe to anyone looking to do the same?

We try to live as eco-friendly lifestyle as we can, we really do give it our best effort. One thing that we try to do is recycle as much as possible and be really good about it. Don’t be a lazy recycler. All those little lids make a big difference if you put them in the bin instead of into the trash can. The other thing we do is we try to raise and grow our own food when we could. We have a chicken farm and eat lots of eggs. In the summer we grow a big garden so that we can rely less on the grocery store and more of the natural world. It’s also our favorite thing to do. The other thing we do is go to the beach pick up litter when we’re down there. It looks cleaner and it’s better for the animals. We’re very concerned about the animal's wellbeing and plastic often looks like food to animals. Whether it’s birds or fish, or what have you. So it’s not uncommon that when we leave the beach we have pockets full of trash. These are simple things that we do that jive really well with our lifestyle and aren’t that complicated. I think when you give it a little bit of an effort it’s simple to do.

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Your relationship with your children is beautiful. How do your children inspire you? How is their outlook on life internalized by your inner child?

Oh man, I am always being taught and inspired by them. They constantly teach me about patience by pushing me to the limits of mine. They teach me about wonder and seeing things anew. Seeing life and nature through a kid’s eyes is incredible. They teach me about compassion and love. The way they interact with the animals in our lives and their friends is awesome to watch. I have been fortunate enough to raise three kind and considerate souls. I watch them and their kindness and it rubs off on me. They inspire me to be the best dad that I can and to always set a good example, especially when I am inclined not to or in a moment when it’s hard. That is when I really try to look outside of myself and do what is right. They inspire me to show them what being man is about and how men and women are equals. They make me live my life hyper aware of how I can operate in my own life while making sure women are always treated fairly. Their future depends on it, all of ours does.

They inspire me to let go and stop being worried about the small stuff. To take your shoes off as much as possible, to climb trees, to look up and to look down when maybe I would just look forward. I think we are constantly teaching and inspiring each other.

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Life behind the lens is always interesting. Do you ever put down the camera to simply live in the now and capture the moment in your mind's eye instead? Describe a scenario where this happened. Who was with you? Where were you? And why this moment?

This is a great question, it's something that I increasingly think about. What is the difference between capturing a moment with the camera, so you can relive it over and over and relive the sentimentality of it, or just experience the moment in real time, so you can truly embrace it without any distraction. It’s really hard and as a photographer, I tend to do more of the filming rather than just simply experiencing. But recently, on the 4th of July I decided to leave my phone home and went to the beach with my kids. We watched the fireworks and just hung out. It was amazing to not have the burden of the phone with me, to get any calls or emails, or even use it to take pictures of the fireworks. We just sat there and watched everything unfold, it was awesome.

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What are some unique challenges you have had with your journey? Becoming a well known photographer, father, explorer certainly has its challenges. What were some bumps in the road?

Sometimes I think people have a hard time interpreting my photographs and might just read them in the wrong way. I have this image of my daughter with a bloody nose, which has gotten a lot of slack, mostly online. I’ve had a lot of comments about being an abusive father, taking advantage of a child, etc. But the truth is she simply had a bloody nose- she was calm, I was calm and it was beautiful. It was one of those moments in life where you can physically see the vulnerability of your child and I really wanted to capture that and add that to the body of work we were creating, which is about empowering my daughter, embracing all things that life throws at us, and being strong in the face of adversity. Blood can be scary and I wanted her to feel comfortable with it. I wanted to capture it as it was laid out before me, but when you see it out of context it’s really misconstrue. You have to have a thick skin if you’re going to be a photographer and expose your family and private moments. I’m fine with the push back because I believe in what I am doing.

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If you had the attention of fathers and their daughters, what would be a bit of advice you could offer? Girls, historically, are sheltered and protected. Nature builds character and wonder and imagination. What would you say to break that stigma?

I would say try not to think of your kids as boys or girls but just think of them as little creatures that need love and exposure to things. Expose them as much as possible- to the natural world- let them get dirty, muddy, wet- who cares, you can wash it off. It builds character and allows them to be freer and a little more wild. I like to think of my kids as lion cubs. What does the mother lion let her cubs do? She doesn’t watch them overly closely but she keeps an eye on them, she lets them wander and play, and sometimes even get get dirty and hurt. All of those things teach the children what’s possible, what’s safe, what’s not safe... and I think if you allow for a little freedom, and loosen the leash, that you can see your children grow exponentially. It has worked for us. Also, try to sit down and explain things to your kids that might be scary. Break it down for them to show the beauty and respect, not fear. Spiders, bats, certain animals can typically scare children but if you take a more scientific approach and explain how incredible spider's webs are, how amazing bat's echolocation is, kids won’t be afraid of them and they won’t scream, they’ll be excited and actually look forward to the opportunity to see one. Maybe even hold one.

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Where can people find you, follow you, get in touch?

The best place to find me is on Instagram at @jesse_burke. We are always posting current pictures, events and things we do. It’s like a working journal of our life and farm. Also, my work can be seen at www.jesseburke.com and www.wildandprecious.co