Project Advice - Sheepherders

Sheepherders of the American West  by Sofia Jaramillo

Sheepherders of the American West by Sofia Jaramillo

Starting an environmental documentary photo project can be daunting. There are many possible paths to follow and even more questions to be answered. A recent query to Eyes on Earth from Sofia Jaramillo is a good example. She wrote to Dennis after having met him at the Missouri Photo Workshop. Here is their exchange, with Jim’s response added, too. (We’ve edited this for relevance and brevity.)

Query from Sofia Jaramillo to Dennis Dimick

We spoke shortly at MPW. I am working on a project about sheepherding in the American west. I am struggling to fund the project and would like to start grant writing this year. Will Eyes on Earth offer any grant writing education?  

Response from Dennis

Send me a one pager on your project. If you have some pictures to share you can Dropbox them to me so I have something for starting discussion.

All photos ©Sofia Jaramillo

One Pager from Sofia

Background: Spanish sheepherders brought their age-old knowledge of husbandry to the American West in the early 1900s. Now many sheepherding operations have closed, and the tradition is slowly dying. The Martinez business, based in Moxee, Wash., is the last remaining large-scale operation in the state where sheep are allowed to graze on National Forest land.

Their outfit started nearly a century ago. Now three generations later it still operating, but each year is a struggle. Mark Martinez runs the business with help from his brother, two sons and a group of Peruvian sheepherders. The herders come to the U.S. with the H2-A visa.

The Martinez operations have been reduced over the years due to federal land projects and, most recently, conflicts with wildlife on land the family operates on. The Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service have to balance protecting wild animals, while also working with the Martinez family to keep their operation alive.

The nature of the sheep herding industry is to move across vast swaths of land that often conflict with habit of wildlife. In Washington the main clash happens in areas where wolves and bighorn sheep frequent.

In order to prevent disease from spreading between domestic and wild sheep, the agencies frequently eliminate Martinez grazing allotments. The Forest Service is currently reviewing a research paper regarding the bighorn sheep that could potentially eliminate more grazing allotments.

Goals: My long-term goal for the project is to examine the cultural relevance of sheep herding, show the livelihood of the people involved and document the wild species that conflict with sheep herding in the American West today.

My short-term goal is to add more of a human element to the story. This season, I want to focus on the sheepherders because they do most of the work. I want to document their efforts to protect their flocks in areas where they frequently defend the sheep from bears, cougars and wolves.

I recognize the long-term potential of this project so I have spent countless hours on my own time working on this project. The project will require lots of time, travel and gear that I am unable to fund on my own.

The herders work in areas stretching from one hour south of Yakima to two hours north. Some of my ideas even require long distance travel. There is a sheep herding festival in Idaho every August I want to document. Ultimately I’d like to be able to visit the town of Huancayo, Peru, where most of the sheepherders are from. I want to show the economic and social impact of this work on the Peruvian community and their families. For these reasons, I know funding is necessary and I want to apply for grants to take the project further than I can now.


Response from Dennis

Thanks for sending the proposal and the pictures on the Shepherds in the West. This is a very interesting project that speaks to the changing nature of the West. As a young person I used to raise sheep myself on a small farm in Oregon's Willamette Valley, and am quite aware of the role that Basque shepherds have played in the history of agriculture and culture across the region.

A couple of thoughts on your proposal and your photography.

1.) I would skip all the remote camera stuff. Scientifically fine, but challenging and expensive logistically, and visually not so much payoff. This is a long-term documentary project about a vanishing culture, leave it at that. Imagine you are a living descendant of the Farm Security Administration photography tradition, you are a Dorothea Lange in the 21st century.

2.) I would focus on the the life of the shepherds themselves, their connection to the sheep, and to the land. I would try to look for images that capture the feel of what it is like to be there in the mountains and with them. You have a lot of pictures of people doing things, but not so much pictures that reveal character and personality and the feeling, the essence, of being there as witness. These kinds of images often come after long periods of inactivity, and are what Sam Abell has called the moments between moments. Also, you need to work the edges of day and night more, use light as an ally, the power of this work will come in the esthetics and essence and not so much in just reciting a string of visual facts about the ABCD of their lives through the day.

3.) You need to take off the photojournalist hat and put on the hat of the documentary photographer. So far your work feels like news pictures. This is an inquiry into a more than century-long culture and tradition of immigrant people trying to make their way in the world. Your work needs to become less timely and more timeless. You need to imagine more that these are images for the ages, that you are there to record their struggle for history, and for those who come after us to be able to see what it was like back when Sofia Jaramillo was there as witness. This requires a more contemplative, symbolic, allusive seeing.

4.) I would try to diversify the way I see if I were doing this. Your images appear to be mostly wide with perhaps a 16-35 or 24-70. Most are distinguished by their "wide-angleness" (This is not necessarily a good thing.) I would recommend you find more moderate focal lengths non-zoom like a 35 or a 50. Use low f-stops to control depth of field, to throw backgrounds slightly out of focus so it is more clear we are focusing on the herders. Create images that are elegant, that begin to have a visual style to them. Manage depth of field, it is a terribly underused tool. Slow down, sit, watch, wait.

5.) This project may take years. Good things take a long time. (Bad things happen quickly e.g. Trump.) For this to work as an enduring work, you may just have to be willing to abandon any of the "is it done yet" journalism and deadline framing and just go hang out with them, see where the light and the days and the sheep and their shepherds take you. Go through a couple or more cycles of the seasons and then begin to look at what you are creating to give you a sense of what you have and what you need and where the work shows you to go next. Gaining confidence from the family will take time and your going back again and again for them to see you really want to honor them by your work.

6.) Robert Adams the Photographer of the American West:

“The job of the photographer, in my view, is not to catalogue indisputable fact but to try to be coherent about intuition and hope.”

be well, be patient.


Response from Jim

Hi Sofia,

Jim here, chiming in. I’d just add a couple of things by way of support. 

As someone who has taken on some long term projects I know the muddle of trying to figure out the proper approach and content. In my experience it can take a good long time to finally reach a point of finding a theme that is both insightful and worth doing. You are right to be suspicious of just gluing on the usual newspaper or photojournalistic parameters. That's the way you use a cookie cutter, not the way towards something photographically worthy and lasting.  I can only say that in my long term projects I found it instructive to let the subject define the approach. When I let that happen I began to make discoveries — and better pictures.

Besides that, newspapers are almost always most interested in the unique and novel, not in the universal and enduring. Hence most of the pictures look like spot news shots, whatever the subject. That’s not what  you are after —  at all.

Next, be cautious about assuming that the idea that this is a unique culture that is probably dying is sufficient reason to be doing a story. Just documenting something that is passing, in other words. If it is just a one off phenomenon then why should anyone else care?  But if this were a first foray into the wider world of grazing (and the cultures that grazing spawns) then you have the beginnings of something truly monumental. The question of how humans can use otherwise marginal lands to produce food through this ancient agricultural method, and how the necessities of moving animals over large stretches of land necessitates that herders are thus rather lonely figures  who generate an insular culture built around that loneliness.  Now that starts to sound interesting. Remember that the world of ranchers and nomadic grazers is largely determined by a confluence of the physics of sunlight, the chemistry of photosynthesis and the digestive capacity of ungulate stomachs. You have to cover a lot of ground to make a pound of meat.

How their world evolved out of those simple facts might be interesting. And how they might be able to do this sustainably over time might be a real editorial lever. I agree with Dennis that this is more likely the core of your story. If the wildlife then becomes a player in their lives then let it happen more organically.

On another note, Steve McCurry once told me that he specifically chose to photograph with moderate focal length lenses because he wanted his pictures to have a timeless look. He didn’t want the photographic technique to show through. I’ll differ somewhat with Dennis that a 35mm or 50mm is the only possible answer, but I’ll say it sure isn’t a bad starting point. Look back at some of William Albert Allard’s classic photos of the American West for what might be a good guide.


Response from Sofia

Your advice was refreshing and a great reminder of some of my first intentions with the project. I like the idea of not putting a deadline on this. The concept is definitely something new to me, but I don't feel like a deadline will benefit the project. At first I wanted to finish it within a year, but after shooting one season I know thats not realistic. I realize after reading your advice, somewhere along the line, I let the newspaper mentality get in the way of how I should be approaching this project. Im going to remind myself of all of this before I shoot next. I'll go shoot more January when the sheep herders come down from the mountains to sheer and lamb. It will be a good time to work the morning light and I am going to try to find a 35 mm to use.

I am learning that the challenges of a project like this are so different from anything I have ever worked on. I've slowed down before with my work, but honestly not as much as I need to for this project. Its difficult when I get into the habit of creating so many images in one day of work, but I should keep in mind that I don't have to do that with this. In the end patience and time are on my side.

Thank you for taking the time to look.

Sofia J.  

Eyes on Earth would like to thank Sofia Jaramillo for generously sharing her work and aspirations. We eagerly await her great work.

For more of her beautiful work go here: