Many people dream of shifting their lives course; changing careers, relocating or even just learning a new skill or hobby. Fantasies of sudden life transitions fuel the daydreams of adults everywhere but it seems to be something that people rarely act upon. However, there are always some that decide to veer off the beaten path they’ve safely circled for years and embark on a new journey.
Urban Dreams Farm is the result of one woman who decided to withdraw from the corporate world, leave the city and turn her lifelong dream into a reality. Emma Urban started the farm, located in Riverdale, Michigan, in 2008 following the tragic lost of her husband. Urban Dreams is a fiber farm specializing in harvesting from alpaca and a small number of sheep and goats. Emma grew up on a farm and always had a love of fiber. Her first experience buying a sheep, shearing and using a drop spindle occurred during her teen years. Urban began the farm with a starter herd of four female alpacas and after a couple years she learned that males yielded more fiber without as much of an investment. The herd quickly grew to sixty alpacas but after another couple years it proved to be too taxing so she downsized to about 40 alpaca. Which she currently has along with Angora goats, Angora rabbits and two peacocks. The farm is also home to a few chickens, a handful of barn cats and five dogs, three of which are used to protect and herd the alpaca. When asked about her favorite part of living and working on her own farm Urban replied, “The freedom to make choices about how to spend my time. A big part of that is enjoying the critters.”.
Emma rents a small house on her property to a married couple who are also in the business of shearing and farm animal care. There are a few days each spring in which the three of them dedicate to shearing the animals. ” Shearing days are always very stressful because it is what I work for all year.” Urban says. The harvested fibers are woven into fabric and felt that Urban uses to make socks, winter wear, purses and other products to sell.
My first time visiting the Finnerty family farm I met with Dale Finnerty, as I watched him execute his morning routine of feeding his calves he fed me some interesting history on the development of the farm. Dale inherited the farm from his father, who is currently 80 years old and still actively working on the farm.
“Sometimes I think I’ll have to tie him to a chair just to get him to sit still for a few minutes.” Dale says when telling me how his father is still working hard despite his age. I’m sure it’s that same hard working Finnerty spirit that has kept the farm up and running, and always family owned, for the past 75 years. The Finnerty’s land consist of 1280 acres and spreads out an entire square mile. They have a beautiful park near the center of the farm filled with charming farm antiques and family memorabilia as well as a gazebo and bridge built by Dale and his brothers (the family celebrated their farm’s 75th anniversary in this very park with family and friends this past July). The farm began as a dairy farm, and was also a rabbit farm for a short amount of time a few decades ago, and has progressed to a successful cattle farm that currently houses approximately 700 head of cattle. Dale, his father and his nephew take on the daily tasks of the farm, with occasional help from Dale’s children.
Dale and his wife Jane, who works at a local hospital, live in the same farm house Dale himself was raised in. Together they have raised five children, Joseph, Amy, Ashley, Natalie and Robert. Three of their children have moved out and Natalie, 18, & Robert, 14, still live at home with their parents.
Spending time with the Finnerty family was a heart warming experience. I expected to feel out of place and awkward intruding on a family’s quality time together but I was completely wrong. They were all so welcoming and sweet even though I was only there a few days and they barely knew me they accepted me genuinely. Just watching them interact with each other was like watching one of those cheesy family sitcoms, but in the best way. They were the most perfect family I’d ever met, their home was perfect and they were all so close and family oriented. I didn’t know families like that existed anymore. I cherish the moments I spent with them and feel so lucky to have met such an amazing and successful family, and I wish them another 75 years of continuous growth, love and happiness.
I ascended a flight of stairs in a back hallway of a building on my college campus that I never even knew existed. The interior of the building felt like a tiny maze of cubicles, small offices, stairs and short hallways. After two flights of stairs and three wrong turns into offices of unsuspecting employees perplexed by my presence I finally reached the door next to a marker labeled “207 Steve Jessmore”. I ignored knot in my stomach formed by muscles tensed with nervousness and lightly knocked on the open door to announce my arrival and politely (and awkwardly) asked if I may enter. The man I presumed to be Steve Jessmore offered me a seat and seemed delighted to meet me but not over enthusiastic, it was apparent that he often acts as a mentor to students.
He sat at a desk that held a large Mac, a small macbook, stacks of papers and other miscellaneous office and photography items. A huge cork board held amazing photos and copies of newspaper segments. When I arrived he was going through a contact sheet of portraits of professional people wearing attire adorned with the Central Michigan University logo shot with a shallow depth of field which gave the autumn-yellow leaves in the background a lovely abstracted feel to them and perfectly complimented the maroon and gold of CMU shirts. He began by asking me about my assignment and explaining some of what his job entails. I learn that he is responsible for shooting practically all CMU events and providing photos for the university’s social media accounts, brochures, catalogs, flyers and whatever else the University design team wants to slap a photo on. He showed me some of the materials his photos have been used for and it amazes me how circulated his photos are and how great they are despite the mediocre subject matter of some of them.
As he returns to the task he was tackling when I arrived he explains that though most of his work is documenting what is happening on campus every so often he has to do a posed portrait. The one he was currently working on was staff portraits of one of the university’s departments that he did last year. They were so pleased with those they asked him to do a replication of that for another department recently. However, they didn’t realize that because of the difference in seasons it would not be the same but Jessmore worked with them and made a similar series of photos the only difference being the color of the leaves in the background. The portraits still turned out to be great and worked well with the others. He explained what type of lens he used and that he simply shot the photos in front of a tree right outside his office. I was really impressed by how he took a simple, dull portrait assignment and used his daily environment and creativity to make such aesthetically pleasing photos in which the background was virtually the same but looked unique in each frame because of the different placements and shapes of the blurred leaves. Once he finished he spoke to me about his past work.
Jessmore worked for Saginaw News a few years after receiving his photojournalism degree from CMU in 1981, he started as a freelancer and eventually served as their Chief Photographer. Following that position he worked for Flint Journal. For a while he ran his own column “Sense of Community” which highlighted positive members within Flint communities. Samples of articles from the column were posted on the board above his desk. The pieces included intriguing photos of interesting people. the photos were all unique and aesthetically pleasing but the first one to catch my eye was a eccentric saxophone player in a long trench coat raising his instrument has he plays in a classroom full of empty desk. I was also able to view a copy of Jessmore’s first full story to be published; Blind Faith, a story about an elementary class caring for and helping raise an seeing eye dog, named ‘Carl’, from a puppy to an adult. The feature focuses on Carl, his 11- month stay at the elementary school, his interaction with the children as well as his graduation from obedience training and placement with a blind student in Kansas City, Mo. through the non-profit organization Leader Dogs for the Blind. The photos and the story were heartwarming and inspiring, not only did I enjoy the story but it made me want to focus even harder on finding interesting stories such as this.
Jessmore spent approximately 30 years as a photojournalist and says that his background in journalism is how he is able to produce such great images for the university. His approach is different than those who have held his job in the past, he doesn’t recreate situations or instruct people he just documents. Even though his job is somewhat considered Public Relations when he is shooting he is still a journalist before anything else.
“It’s a nice change of pace compared to some of the things I used to photograph.” he says after telling me of the crime and tragedy he has seen and shot in Flint when he worked for the Journal and he says he always preferred to capture positive moments and focus on the good in people. It seems his photography now hovers in between PR and Journalism in a spectrum I call Positive Photojournalism.
I learned so much from just our initial meeting it made me excited for the chance to see him in the field. The following week I was permitted to follow Jessmore as he worked throughout the day. We started our day by covering the annual CMU and You event in which prospective and/or future students visit the academic college of their choice to collect information and speak to department heads and faculty members. The first college we visited was the College of Health Professions. Tables were set up for each concentration with a few faculty members and/or upperclassmen there to provide information and brochures, refreshments were made available at the entrance and families circulated through maroon and gold adorned hallways talking to representatives and amongst themselves.
Almost immediately Jessmore was greeted by someone he seemed to know but hadn’t seen in a long time. The person turned out to be Rene Shingles director and professor of Athletic training. They spoke for awhile asking each other how they’ve been and other polite small talk. After concluding their conversation he explained that because of the nature of his position he is often acquainted with many of the university professionals and forms good relationships with them which is a surprisingly large portion of his job. Faculty members would greet him with a smile and show him some of the pamphlets, flyers or in one case a stack a notepads in which his photos were featured. He was also very helpful with families and prospective students, giving directions or offering information regarding the university. He even ran into a family that he spoke to and photographed during last years CMU and You day and recognized them right away and struck up a conversation, the family was delighted to see him and though they remembered him they were delightfully surprised that he also remembered them well.
It was great to see how personable Jessmore is and how well he built relationships. Every academic college we went to he knew most of the staff there and absolute everyone told me how great he is to learn from, how awesome of a photographer he is and/or how funny he is. With everyone singing his praises it made me feel even luckier to be learning from him.
Following the first event we returned to his office and I observed has he edited and uploaded the day’s photos. He described his editing process and archive procedures to me and told me more about some of his job duties. He is not only responsible for shooting everything for CMU but also pulling photos from the archives whenever they are requested (which from the looks of his email inbox is probably over a dozen a day). He also has to organize shoots, communicate with other departments and colleges, stay on top of campus events and happenings and mentor interns.
“It can be hard to exercise creativity and focus on my photography when tied to so many other duties and responsibilities.” Jessmore said when I asked him what the least favorite part of his job was. For the most part he seems to truly love what he does and never shys away from his journalistic approach/style, which was extremely inspiring.
After editing and archiving we were off to shoot the football game, CMU v. UNLV. He gave me a press pass (the first I’ve ever been issued) and we headed to the field. This was my first time attending a football game at CMU and it was an amazing experience not to mention being able to get right on the field and shoot (also a first for me). We shot Tailgate Village a sea of maroon and gold, cars and coolers. The property was full of rowdy fans, kids playing and there was even a karaoke area. I never knew how amazing tailgating was around here so it was great to capture all the energy and school spirit of students and alumni. Once we arrived at the field I was not able to go benchside with my mentor because of my restricted pass but I still had an amazing view so I focused more on capturing photos.
I really enjoyed learning from Steve and being able to see his daily routine. It even left me considering obtaining a position similar to his, I think working for a University’s communication department would be quite fun. I prefer documentary photography and doing photo essays so I probably couldn’t do it for more than a few years but I think it would be a wonderful job to have.
“They took her because my ex showed up at my house and he wasn’t supposed to be there because of the restraining order. It’s not my fault though, what could I do, I didn’t tell him he could come over.” Kara Mclean says as she discusses why Child Protective Services took her first born daughter away from her. She is completely open when it comes to discussing the fact that her child was taken from her though her explanation is vague and opposes what other sources state as the reason her child was placed in foster care. Locals/coworkers who have known Mclean say that her daughter, Aria Balis, was taken because her father, Fred Balis, was molesting her and Mclean was turning a blind eye to the situation. However, this was not confirmed by Mclean. Kara has not seen Aria in 2 years but keeps photos of her in her and speaks about her often.
Kara is currently engaged to Stephen Noykos and now has a 3-month-old daughter, Milah Noykos. They live in a one bedroom apartment in Shepherd, Mich. Kara works at a local diner as a hostess, where she met Aaron Ginowsky, a coworker who is currently living with the family after losing his home in a divorce. Though Aaron can not contribute to the household financially he helps the couple by giving them rides because neither can afford to own a car. Stephen works a few days out of the week but does not have a steady job at the moment, when he isn’t working he spends his days searching for ways to gain income. Kara works afternoons and is always eager to return to Milah, who rarely leaves her arms when she is home.