Photos and story by Clay Lomneth
July 16th, 2009, Crawford, Neb: During this trip, I've met quite a few people that, if they were not doing what they are doing now, would have made good photographers. (Thank the photo god they were doing what they were doing, because we would have missed out on some great images). To me, Debbie Soester was one of them.
Kyle and I met Debbie after we went into a horse supply store in Crawford, acting on a hunch that someone that supplies horse owners might know local ranchers. It's hunches like these that make us good photographers. (It's that sense of sarcastic humor that grinds on Bruce's nerves, but that's another story.)
The owner of the store introduced us to Debbie as she walked by his store running errands. Hardly batting an eye, Debbie invited us to come to her house. It's chances like these that make us lucky photographers.
Debbie and Alan Soester have lived on their ranch since the '70s, and have four hard-working (and brave) helpers, also known as their children: Aubrey, Chance, Haley and Austin, ranging from ages 19 to 13. In addition to farming wheat, the Soester's raise cattle when wheat season is over to supplement their income. We arrived good timing, too - the Soesters were some of the first in Crawford to farm their wheat.
The first chore assigned to Aubrey and Haley when they got back from town was to administer first aid to a yearling bull who just got bit by a snake. Kyle and I tentatively followed Aubrey into the bull's pen. She gave us a look that we get a lot: half amused, but she knew we were in way over our heads.
"Just stay close to the fence," she said, "so if he gets wound up, you can jump the fence."
Aubrey and Haley rounded up the bull and got him into the chute and Kyle and I set to work. Trying to get different angles, I stepped right in front of the bull for a spell. "You might not want to stand there," Debbie said, laughing.
After Aubrey and Haley stuck an angry bull in the hind leg with a giant needle, I had the chance to talk to Debbie a little bit. She told me about her family's recent trip to Alaska, and showed me a photograph hanging up on her wall. I've seen a few photographs of whales flipping their tails in the past, but there had always been something missing before. They're usually shot mid-day in harsh light, or they look like they were shot with a 600mm lens and then cropped way down. Debbie's image is hands-down my favorite. It had none of these problems. Shot on an overcast day, it was perfectly exposed. She didn't make the mistake that an amateur might make by zooming in, giving the viewer no idea where the whale was seen. Debbie had the photographic smarts to give the viewer some action in the foreground (the whale) and show enough of the environment so that anyone who's been there could easily recognize it.
Suddenly it made sense why the rest of the Soesters were so camera un-aware. They ignored us and went about their daily business as if we weren't there, because they were so used to Debbie doing exactly that.
Maybe none of this had anything to do with luck. Maybe I am just not used to people taking you in, letting you become a part of their lives, feeding you lunch, trusting you (meaning Kyle) to drive their farm equipment. Maybe there are people who would do that in Omaha or in Lincoln, but it might take a bit to find them.
So thank you Alan, Debbie, Aubrey, Haley, Chance and Austin. And Debbie: keep shooting.