On Reflection
Jake Eshelman '11 explores the complex relationships between people and other-than-human beings
Tuesday, February 23, 2021
jake eshelman faces the camera in front of greenery. he is wearing a blue shirt and olive overcoat.

“You did what?”

Surprised by this question, Jake Eshelman repeated, “I made this image while helping the family set the table.”

Silence rippled across the room of photographers, who gathered around his unassuming image of a woman standing in a lush garden, with her back to the camera. In the photograph, heirloom tomatoes, glasses, plates, a decanter, and a box of tissues meant as napkins are strewn across the table. This scene—and the conversations it sparked—helped shape Eshelman’s creative practice.

Halya setting the table for dinner in the garden. Heisykha, Ukraine. 2018

Certain photographic traditions cling to the idea that an image-maker needs to remain detached, impartial, and objective for the work to be 'honest.' Jake rejects this notion wholeheartedly. He explains that “as a curious person, I've encountered many forms of knowledge. Some of it can come from watching, but other forms come from doing. For me, to participate with and within what I photograph is to understand and connect on a deeper level. That's where things get interesting."

As a photo-based Artist and Visual Researcher, Jake explores the complex relationships between people and other-than-human beings. In particular, his projects highlight often overlooked interactions between us and everything—which is to say everyone—else: plants, animals, and otherwise. He hopes his photos serve as immersive mirrors in which we can reflect upon our evolving ecological roles and responsibilities. Through this deep reflection with his images, we have an opportunity to develop our understanding of the radical relationality that underpins all life and experience. 

Ducks rush from their enclosure to feed on insects, grains, and plants. Heisykha, Ukraine. 2019

The family works together to slaughter, defeather, and process chickens. Heisykha, Ukraine. 2019

Jake’s quietly illuminating photos invite us to develop our own sense of ecological ethics. Their beauty creates space to formulate personal and introspective questions. In fact, the very act of questioning plays a central role in his art and ongoing visual investigations. Every project is underpinned by an inquiry, which often leads to more questions than answers. For example, "if we look closer at our relationships with bees, what might we learn about our responsibilities to all other-than-human beings? And what are their responsibilities to—and because of—us?" These rich considerations are the impetus behind "Telling of the Bees," an evolving body of work delving into humanity's complex interactions with bees across industry, agriculture, activism, medicine, bioengineering, and spirituality. This project expanded my view of bees beyond simply regarding them primarily as pollinators and honey-producers.

An apitherapist works to manually harvest a stinger from a honey bee. Bellaire, Texas. 2019

A commercial beekeeper uses smoke to calm a 'spicy' hive during a honey harvest. Houston, Texas. 2019

His ruminations on ecological ethics also take his viewers to new and unfamiliar territory. In "Heisykha" he asks, "What does it mean to grow what you eat—and how can our connection with the land influence our relationships with one another?" To explore these ideas, his ongoing body of work centers on documenting the daily life of a single family living off the land in a tiny village in central Ukraine. With regular yearly visits to the village since 2018, this project follows as the family continually faces new and unprecedented challenges due to the unfolding climate crisis and ongoing socio-economic volatility. 

Sasha waits for the rest of her family to sit down at the table for dinner after a long day of digging potatoes—some of which are mashed and included in the spread. Heisykha, Ukraine. 2019

For me, “Heisykha” epitomizes the inspiration and resilience to be found in the everyday. I suggest Eshelman’s body of work allows us to reflect deeply on our individual choices, whether mundane or monumental. His decision to interact on a deep level through his work, challenging an entrenched tradition or notion of impartiality, inspires me to strengthen the integrity I infuse in my work and in everyday living. I encourage you to explore how you might respond to his work and the many open-ended questions it asks of us all. 

To view and support Jake's work, please visit www.jakeeshelman.com and follow along via Instagram, @jake.eshelman. 

Beth Williams Cusack '94 wrote and illustrated a children’s book, Making Monster Soup, last year. Visit www.bethcusack.com for her art, poetry, and a blog.

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