As a former newspaper reporter/photographer, I’m used to going where I want to for a story. I’ve come to expect that if I look official enough, or if my motives are sincere enough, my camera and notebook will be the open-sesame to just about any situation or scene that appeals to me—whether I’m on the job or out on my own.
I’ve also learned that that kind of thinking can get me arrested.
Most recently, I screeched to a halt alongside a farmer’s field full of those amusing round hay bales. Or, maybe they’re straw. There’s been some debate about that when I’ve talked with others, but “hay bale” rolls off my tongue more easily, and the term is good enough for me as a non-farm girl.
These particular bales were quite close to the road, with more scattered across the field like toasted marshmallows. Finally, I figured, I’d be able to get close enough to capture their charm. However, I decided to wait until I returned later in the day to shoot them, to take advantage of nice, long shadows.
When I got back there, it became obvious that standing on the side of the road and shooting wasn’t going to work. I never hesitated. I sidestepped my way down the embankment and then up the other side, into the field.
I immediately discovered two things: the stubble that’s left in the field is as lethal as bamboo spikes, threatening to poke its way through the thickest of athletic shoe soles; and trying to compose a pleasing shot of objects left randomly here and there on the landscape, with wide spaces in between, is not as easy as I had anticipated.
I began to walk. And walk. And walk. No matter where I stood, I could get close to only one bale at a time, while the rest remained too distant to have much impact. I was getting frustrated until I took a good look at the rows of stubble I’d been cussing as I maneuvered. They were laid out in precise rows, which took on interesting arrangements depending on whether I viewed them straight on or obliquely.
I quickly rearranged my thinking. It wasn’t just the bales that were interesting, it was the stubble itself. Placing the rows perpendicular to the late-day shadows, I looked through the viewfinder and had one of those aha! moments every photographer loves.
That’s when the cop arrived.
He pulled up to the side of the road and got out. I ignored him, figuring that what you don’t acknowledge will eventually go away. He didn’t.
“What are you doing?” he yelled, keeping a safe distance. I waved my camera in the air, thinking it was pretty obvious what I was doing. But I could feel doom approaching, so I quickly snapped a few more photos—while I still could.
Now he was climbing the embankment and heading in my direction. Feeling distinctly uncomfortable with my back turned towards an armed man, I finally lowered the camera and turned around.
“I’m photographing these hay bales,” I said, flashing my most winning smile. “Aren’t they gorgeous? I just couldn’t resist. It’s harder than I thought, though. And this stubble is terrible to walk in, and…”
I was babbling. It’s a lawbreaker’s favorite slight-of-hand trick. It’s certainly one I’ve used any number of times. Keep talking about innocent things, I figure, and my innocence will be apparent.
I use these terms lawbreaker and innocent intentionally because, of course, I was trespassing on that field. Somehow I’ve developed the philosophy that trespassing laws don’t apply when I’m taking only photos and leaving only footprints—and not even leaving those on that hardscrabble hay field.
The cop wasn’t to be deflected, however.
“Is this your property?” he asked, and I had to admit it wasn’t. But, officer, how could that possibly matter when I’m just taking photos? Who could possibly mind? What farmer could possibly resist having his produce made famous?
I didn’t exactly speak all those words, but I aw-shucksed a good intimation of them as I headed to my car, the cop keeping step right beside me. He was very nice about it, but I was definitely being escorted off that field.
I did accomplish two things. I got him to admit there wasn’t a “no trespassing” sign, which somehow mitigated my crime; and I managed to snap off one more shot from down in the ditch, capturing one more view of a round bale along with one of my favorite subjects, grass.
What the heck, I thought, as I climbed back into the car. A little law breaking adds zest to a photo trek, and makes for a good story afterwards.
Monica Isley is a former newspaper reporter/columnist/photographer who once stalked the Lake Superior shoreline in northeastern Minnesota, camera in hand. She now lives in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., where the summers are warmer and the winters are milder than she's used to, but where photographic prey is just as available. Besides this column for JustNorth, she writes a blog called Monica's Pen at http://monicaspen.wordpress.com/