A few years ago, I left New York for New England farm country to embrace its ethos of sustainability and local farming. Through my photography, I tried to understand what is at the crux of people’s desire to live this way.

In my two series, Pioneer Valley and Bare Handed, I look for moments of wonder and spiritual resonance in my subjects and aim to depict the delicate balance between dominance and surrender, which is at the core of every interaction. My photographs are created in rural communities struggling to maintain their agrarian traditions and natural resources despite the challenges of globalization, competing technology, agribusiness, and even weather.

Pioneer Valley comes from the name given to the region in western Massachusetts where I had settled. The title Bare Handed refers to my subjects’ powerful yet intimate hands-on connection with their work—both land and animals—on the farm and in the wild. In these photographs, the heavy, overbearing machinery associated with modern life gives way to the simple, but potent, symbiotic relationship between man, creature, and the forces of weather. This tactile relation affords the individuals a style of work resembling meditation.

The subjects pictured work in tandem with their environment, reaping benefits, but leaving little mark: beekeepers, wearing no protective clothing; trainers at a wolf sanctuary; catfish “noodlers,” capturing seventy pound fish with their bare hands; and farmers, using traditional practices—which now seem heroic—to run small, sustainable farms. They take huge risks to stay committed to their methods, drawing on human strength of body and mind, especially in the face of the unpredictability and fury of the weather. While making my photographs, I discovered that these individuals have a spiritual commitment to their work that goes beyond the rational and points to the power of faith.

In Bare Handed, I seek to celebrate that spiritual conviction, and the resistance of the trend towards mechanization. My images are meant to offer contrast to the iconic, historical images of hardship created by the WPA photographers during the Great Depression and the current exposés of big agriculture. While photographing these workers, I was struck by how many mythical and religious references occurred naturally and spontaneously. With just a tilt of her head, the teenage girl pictured in “Sienna, Turkey Madonna” was transformed into a rendition of the Virgin Mary. Not always overtly, I look for gestures and draw inspiration from religious paintings, mythology, and iconic tales of struggle to convey a sense of mysticism that is in the everyday. It is these moments of spiritual awe I chase with my camera.

—Holly Lynton