All images by Shane Welch. Used with permission.
Photographer Shane Welch has been shooting documentaries for a while now, and most recently his Foxtail Furs project caught our eyes. He splits his time between Chicago (where he grew up) and Seattle, Shane travels a lot in order to create documentary projects, and that’s how he was able to do the Foxtail Furs project. It’s about a family that lives on an island in Lake Michigan that raises foxes.
And for Shane, it was about telling their story.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.
Shane: Actually, it all happened by accident. I was about 15 or 16 and I was hiking in the woods where I grew up. While I was wandering around, I just found an old Canon 35mm stuck in the mud. I took it home, cleaned it off, and the thing just kept on working. Right away I loved photography! When it was finally time to decide what I wanted to do with my life, I knew it had to be photography. It was the only thing I was ever really drawn towards.
Phoblographer: What made you want to shoot documentary projects?
Shane: There wasn’t just one reason, or one thing that made me get into documentaries. When I first picked up a camera it was all about just capturing one single strong image. Something you could look at and be proud of, but it was missing something. I realized that I needed more than that; I wanted to make a difference with the images I was creating. In order to truly do that, I decided I had to photograph the whole story. So my very first project ended up being on the chronically homeless in Chicago.
I went down to Lower Wacker Dr. with food, clothes, and blankets just to start a conversation with people. Once I got to know them more, I would just ask, “Do you mind if I follow you around with my camera?” At that point I knew so many people that no one seemed to care. From that point I was hooked. It was all about seeing the world through another person, and being apart of their life. Documentaries gave me the opportunities to see and experience something new.
Phoblographer: How did the idea of photographing a fox farm come about to you?
Shane: I was talking to my friend Bethany about some of my documentary ideas, and she just threw it out there. She knew a couple on a small island in Lake Michigan who raise foxes for a living. Immediately I wanted to know more, and Bethany told me everything. So when I got home I looked up Mark and Laura’s company Flattail Furs, and gave them a call.
Phoblographer: How did you go about earning the trust of the owners? That’s always a tough thing for many documentary photographers.
Shane: It really helped that we had a mutual friend for this project. I’m sure that added to my credibility.
“When I first picked up a camera it was all about just capturing one single strong image. Something you could look at and be proud of, but it was missing something. I realized that I needed more than that; I wanted to make a difference with the images I was creating.”
When I called Mark and Laura to pitch them my idea, I was so nervous. I just told them I was a photographer out of Chicago that loved telling the story of people’s lives and theirs’ sounded incredible. It was a long conversation about their business, their life, and what their day to day is like. I’m sure I came across as a bit eccentric, but I tried to show my genuine interest for their lifestyle, and I can only hope that it resonated. They had some hesitations initially, but as I told them more about my past projects, and my own life they really opened up to the idea.
Phoblographer: Let’s talk about logistics. How do you plan for projects like this gear wise or for necessary provisions?
Shane: The planning never takes too long. My first step is to ask whomever I’ll be photographing what type of gear/ clothes I should bring. They know exactly what the weather and conditions are like, what gear they can lend me, and what I need to have for myself. I also do a bit of preliminary research starting with Google to see exactly what’s going on, and that usually dictates the majority of my choices.
I went out to northern Lake Michigan in early spring, so I needed to bring layers, boots, rain/ snow gear, and some miscellaneous snack food. Laura and Mark were nice enough to let me stay at their house, so that took care of food and lodging.
Overall I try and pack as little as possible, to make sure I’m very mobile. I only pack a backpack with camera gear, clothes, and accessories. My main pack this trip was a Gregory Palisade 80, inside I had another small day bag, my clothes, cliff bars and camera gear.
Phoblographer: Tell us about the gear that you used for this project.
Shane: I have my go to list of items: my Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 24-70mm f2.8 II, Canon 50mm f1.2, Sigma 85mm f1.4, and a Manfrotto tripod. I always pack about 4 batteries and a few memory cards. I also brought a Rode Video Mic Pro in case I decided to do any multimedia work. That setup is what I bring just about everywhere; it fits perfectly into an Osprey Manta 25 bag.
Phoblographer: How did you go about gaining the trust of the foxes?
Shane: I never actually did. The baby foxes are very trusting; they just want to play, eat, and sleep. But The adult foxes are another story. They’re not necessarily mean or aggressive, but they’re not domesticated animals. Mark and Laura always keep the friendliest foxes of the pack, and even then it takes years to gain their trust.