Esther May Campbell: Radical Tending at Elm Tree Farm

Water Salad on Monday arrives this September: a book and exhibition of beautiful black and white photographs that tenderly picks their way through the special natures that exist at the magical Elm Tree Farm, a working farm comprised of animals, plants, volunteers, carers and adults with learning disabilities. Film maker and photographer Esther May Campbell has been in situ here for a year. Known for her moving image work, she wrote and directed the BAFTA winning short September and the feature film Light Years, starring singer Beth Orton and Muhammet Uzuner.  She makes music videos, has directed Skins for Channel 4 and Kenneth Branagh‘s Wallander and is part of the Cube Cinema where she helps in running a cinema for displaced children in Haiti and Nepal (the Kids Kino Project).

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During my time directing television & film, I lost great loves, and in my sadness I took to taking photographs – just like I used to as a lost teenager. It helped calm the moment, trace the subtleties of light during dark times, and ensure that life would somehow not slip by too fast during the murky cycles of grief. Away from large crews and demanding schedules I went walking the dog with my best friend who told me stories of a farm in where he worked with animals, plants, other carers and adults with learning disabilities. I went to visit and I was moved by so much of what I came to know there.

With the same battered camera from my teens, I began at Elm Tree in the spring, when orphaned lambs came to be reared. Over my year here I watched nine piglets tumble into the world, vegetables harvested and blossoms bloom by the sounds of the nearby M32 motorway. I felt the coldness of mud on site, the dark days of winter and sheer rush and busyness of the summer months. I photographed a dove dancing in the air above a pig and witnessed the giant affection animals had for their humans, and vice versa. Whisper the dog levitated in the barn, and one afternoon I witnessed the dying last breath of a hen-pecked chicken.

I looked through my lens and saw faces of movie stars and farmers, bathed in light and purpose. I felt mixed emotions spill into fence-building or weeding, from one across to another. I was taken by one of the older men whose history in social care follows him like a ghost but whose heartfelt hugs warmed me as he whispered into my ear ‘I’m in a good mood today’. I came to know the care-staff who are not just farmers and growers, but here for whatever the people they support need them for. I saw their generosity and patience. Mostly I felt the comfort of returning to conversations with people weeks later, picked up just where we had left them – like the watering cans on site. All this wonder and graft on a working farm.

And there is graft. Whatever the weather, the salad needs watering on Monday for picking on Tuesday to go to market on Wednesday. And so it goes. Time flew and a year later the new lambs arrive. Now I am sitting in the pen with my friends and lambs, chatting while photographing and delighting in their nibbling curiosity.

During my visits I was simultaneously working on a commission: a script for the BFI which meant periods of time on my own and on a screen. And when writing I yearned for the people and animals and weather at the farm. I’d look forward to my visits, cycling back across the city to watch fires, rain on greenhouses and hear the community’s worries and joys.

But most of all I came to feel how those who are normally cared for here become carer themselves – for the land, animals, plants and one another. When I had to return to my script I felt the farm had revealed to me the transformative possibilities of care and mutual support. Tending, it seems to me now, is a way of being with the alarming times we are in. Times my script explores. As I pointed my camera to the farm, Elm Tree Farm pointed out a tangible way to be with all the precariousness of the moment – ideologies collapsing, political systems unravelling, the ecology of the planet in crisis. Radical tending is the act of our times.

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Water Salad on Monday

An immersive photographic exhibition of tender portraits by Esther May Campbell, set and held at Elm Tree Farm, a unique working care-farm in Stapleton, Bristol.

28 SEPTEMBER 1pm – 6 pm
29 SEPTEMBER 1pm – 6 pm
30 SEPTEMBER 10am – 5pm
1 OCTOBER 10am – 5pm
Elm Tree Farm, Park Rd, Bristol BS16 1AA, UK. Limited parking.

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