Paul Mobley felt burnt out from taking photos of celebrities, then he saw farmers in a coffee shop
By Diego Flammini
While standing behind the lens of his camera, Paul Mobley has taken photos of some of the biggest names in music and entertainment.
Portraits on his website include Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Mike Tyson, Ringo Starr and Sebastian Maniscalco.
But in 2006, the mix of traveling between New York and Los Angeles, scheduling shoots with client agents and the overall daily responsibilities of the job were affecting Mobley.
“To say I had creative burnout would be an understatement,” Mobley told Farms.com. “I decided I needed to take an entire summer off or else the work was going to suffer. So, I went to a little cabin I have in Michigan. I told my wife I wasn’t going to take one picture for the whole summer.”
His pledge for a slow summer lasted about one week when Mobley and his wife Suzanne were in a local Michigan coffee shop.
He noticed four men in the corner of the establishment.
“They were gruffy looking,” he said. “They were all muddy, they had beards and their clothes were all dirty. I had to talk to them.”
Mobley approached the men, who turned out to be local farmers, introduced himself as a photographer and asked one man if he would let Mobley take his photo.
This encounter was the beginning of Mobley’s “American Farmer” tour.
That summer he shot as many farmers as he could, and found he loved photography again.
“I was rejuvenated by the joy of photography,” he said. “There was no deadline and no stress. I was just a guy with my camera, and I was reminded why I got into photography in the first place.”
That reason is people.
In Mobley’s line of work, the photo shoots are very businesslike, the people are cut-throat, and it can be difficult to make a connection with the subject.
“When you photograph a celebrity or musician, they’ve had their photo taken so many times that often the shoot starts very guarded,” Mobley said. “Sometimes even before I get my camera out of the bag I’m told what we can and can’t do and what the person’s ‘good side’ is.”
Photographing farmers provided the complete opposite experience, he said.
“I never met a mean farmer. They were the sweetest, humble, kindest, genuine people I’ve met in ages,” he said. “It was honest to goodness human contact and good conversation. In New York and Los Angeles, nobody takes the time to ask how your family is doing.”
At the end of summer of 2006, Mobley contacted publishers about turning his farm photos into a book.
After inking his book deal, Mobley traveled to farms in about 40 states to take pictures of producers on over 300 farms between 2006 and 2008.
The experience he had still resonates with him to this day.
“There’s not a day I don’t think about these unsung heroes of America,” he said. “People see those photos and tell me they look so honest. It’s because they were honest. That book and that project will always be a big part of my life.”
One photo in particular stands out as Mobley’s personal favorite.
He photographed Walter Jackson, a then 104-year-old Vero Beach, Fla. citrus farmer.
Paul Mobley's photo of Walter Jackson.
“I asked him about the keys to long life and he looked up to the sky,” Mobley said. “He was literally talking to the clouds as he thought his answer through. When I saw him gaze up into the sky is when I snapped the picture.”
Mobley now sees food in a different light.
Whenever he has a meal, he’s mentally transported back to one of the farms he visited.
“I was in Texas and one farmer invited me to stay for dinner and we had this amazing steak,” Mobley said. “I asked the farmer where he got the steak from and he told me to look out the window and all his cattle was there.”
Photos from Mobley’s ag collection are now on display for all to see.
The “American Farmer” exhibit is currently on display at the Tullahoma Fine Arts Center in Tullahoma, Tenn. and will run until the end of July.
His collection of photos will tour museums and colleges around the U.S. until 2025.
Mobley hopes exhibit visitors develop an appreciation for American farmers.
“I hope they have a greater love for the people who put food on our tables,” he said. “Nobody has any clue about how much work goes into (farming). Farming is becoming a lost art form.”
Mobley indicated he wants to do a similar project featuring Canadian farmers.