Whether she is photographing cultures around the world or wild mustangs in the American West, National Geographic photographer Melissa Farlow always keeps one thought at the top of her mind: know and respect your subject. Establishing a sense of trust is critical, she says. “When I don’t talk to people before I take a photograph, they know I am there. I can sense if they don’t want to have their picture taken. I’m open and not threatening, so often people trust me.”
Farlow gained valuable experience handling challenging situations and subjects early on, after graduating from Indiana University with a degree in journalism. As a young photographer documenting the desegregation of public schools in Louisville, Kentucky for the Louisville Courier in the 1970s, her ability to stay calm and read the scene not only kept her safe, but made it possible for her to photograph intimate situations and therefore tell well-rounded stories.
Many years later, Farlow used those same skills while photographing wild horses in settings from Oregon to South Dakota (and later, Kentucky). At one point, while she was photographing a herd, a stallion charged at her. She reacted by sitting down. As a result, the horse stopped in his tracks: his territory was no longer threatened. Farlow, completely unharmed, continued with her work.
Indeed, Farlow said she takes a similar approach regardless of her subject. “I learn by watching them interact with their friends and family. I try to show their relationships. I move slowly: some are more fearful and keep their distance, while others quickly accept me. Slowly, they ignore my presence and I am able to make photographs as if I was part of the group—or herd.”
In a profile of Farlow conducted by her alma mater, Professor Claude Cookman compared her to Farm Security Administration photographer Dorothea Lange. He said that Farlow consistently demonstrates a rapport with her subjects that causes them to “drop the barriers that people naturally assume in front of a camera. She doesn’t just take from her subjects: she gives herself to them.”