March 15, 2011

The Other White Meat

I'm already anticipating the negative emails regarding this post.

There's a lot more meat on a pig's head than you might imagine. Evidently, a delicacy.

A few weeks ago I drove down to Pennsylvania to take photos of a family butchering pigs on their farm. Wanting to shoot more "realistic" vignettes of normal rural life like Pentecostal preachers, fair goers and coal miners, this journey seemed to fit perfectly into my latest bucolic themed projects. My wonderful and generous friends Nemo and Carol understood my need to shoot this event and were very nice to let me stay with them. Not to mention feeding me delicious morning coffee and a tasty salmon dinner. I also have to give great thanks to everyone in the Hockenberry family who were so kind and willing to let me photograph whatever I wanted without question.

After a 20-minute ride along beautiful country backroads, I arrived at the farm at around 7:30am. As I pulled up I could see the family grouped around a big iron kettle, a fire roaring underneath, steam rising up. It was cold and extremely windy. I parked next to a camouflaged four wheeler, grabbed a camera bag and made my introduction. After a few minutes of small talk Jason said, "Well, let's get this thing going." Four of us walked around to the side of the barn and as he was pulling open the wooden door Jason suggested I not use any flash, saying it might spook the pigs. Being so early, the barn was nearly pitch dark inside, illuminated only by a shaft of light coming from an opening in the far end of the building. I immediately set my ASA to 1250 and hoped it would be adequate for a decent exposure.

Jason went into a stall with one of the pigs while his father went into another carrying a rifle. A rush of anxiety surged through me, not knowing if I wanted to witness what was about to happen. Jason gently nudged the first pig around the corner to the stall his father was in. The older man stood motionless watching as the pig rooted his nose around the hay of his new surroundings. He pointed the gun at the pig's head at very close range and I felt my heart thumping in my chest. I had my camera resting on a fence board for stabilization aimed at the stall but was tempted to look away. Before he could get off a clean shot the pig lowered his head again pacing around while his father slowly moved to get a better shooting position. This ended up being a long, drawn-out dance of avoidance. Five minutes seemed like forever and then finally I watched the pig look up at the man and heard the shot. The pig stiffened for a moment, falling onto its side and at the same time Jason rushed in to slit the pig's throat. I kept shooting as the pig thrashed around for a minute or two before finally stopping in the blood soaked hay. Oddly, it wasn't as horrible as it sounds. The pig was rushed out of the barn in the bucket of a Bobcat and hung up by his heels. Head down, dripping blood, suspended a foot off the ground.
And the butchering began... That's life on a farm, like it or not.

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