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28 October 2020
By SARAH MATTHEWS
"Hey, take your shirt off and pretend to be nude,” Emma Cross joked to her friend, Ben Brooksby, while taking photos of a canola crop on his family farm a few years ago.
Always up for a laugh, Ben did as she suggested.
“Do you know what we should do?” Emma said afterwards.
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“We should do a calendar of you pretending to be naked on the farm in all different situations.
“It would be a classic Christmas present to all of the crew.”
They both laughed, said, ‘We should!’ and like many ideas, it was quickly brushed aside.
At the end of 2016, Emma was heading home to Horsham for Christmas when she decided to call in and visit Ben and his father, Al, on their farm at St Helens Plains.
She thought it was a good opportunity for a quick catch-up and if she happened to get a few harvest snaps while she was there, well, that would be a bonus.
As she climbed the ladder of a truck filled with lentils overlooking the Grampians, camera in hand, Emma remembered their previous joke about a naked calendar.
“I yelled out to Ben while swinging on the side of the truck and laughingly said, ‘Get your kit off’,” Emma said.
“Well, things got awkward for about one second, before we both looked over to see how far off in the field his dad was in the header.
“I said, ‘Let’s actually create this calendar for the boys’.
“Ben’s clothes were soon flying all over the place. As the lentils covered his private parts, I was standing on the edge of the truck, clinging to the ladder with one arm, trying to hold my camera in the other and of course, trying to get a still shot while in tears of laughter.”
They carried on laughing for a bit before suddenly realising Ben’s father was heading towards them in the header.
“Ben and I were never an item, we were too good of mates,” Emma said.
“But I still knew this wasn’t going to look good in front of his dad – me, holding a camera and his half-naked son in the back of a truck of lentils.
“I climbed down the ladder while trying to contain my tears and laughter and left Ben to fend for himself.”
Ben and Emma never got around to making a calendar for their mates – they ended up doing something more worthwhile.
While sowing lentils in May 2017, Ben created an Instagram page called The Naked Farmer and uploaded the photo.
Within a week, he had more than 1000 followers.
The Naked Farmer started as a way to highlight agriculture through ‘naked’ farmers and educate people about where their food and fibre came from.
It quickly turned into a mental health movement, with people baring their bodies – tastefully – and souls.
“It ended up getting a lot of traction and we thought we should put it towards something,” Emma said. “I said to Ben, ‘How good would it be to travel around regional and rural Australia, meeting people and taking their photos’.”
So they did, travelling through five states and the Northern Territory in 19 days in an epic adventure.
“We were young and excited – we didn’t give much thought to the fact we were going to all these isolated places not knowing if it was safe or not,” Emma said.
“But everyone was so welcoming and it didn’t take long to feel at ease.
“The first guy we met, Josh Ball in Western Australia, was an absolute legend. We thought we couldn’t possibly meet someone as awesome as him, but the more we travelled, people were just as good.
“We were treated as if we were family and I still talk to some of the people we met, often.
“Doing it in 19 days was stupid, but that’s the timeframe we had. It was the most amazing experience and one that will stay with me forever.”
Emma’s photographs were eventually used in a calendar – several, actually – under The Naked Farmer banner.
Ben’s desire to create a ‘conversation starter’ quickly paid off as people spoke up about their struggles with isolation, anxiety, depression, grief and suicide.
There are plenty of mental health forums encouraging people to speak up, but this one is certainly the most eye-catching.
The Naked Farmer movement now boasts more than 114,000 Instagram followers and is nearing 63,000 followers on Facebook.
Emma’s involvement in The Naked Farmer started to wane after the first year as she became immersed in other projects.
Ben has passionately driven the project from day dot and will this month release a book featuring stories and photographs of people on the land.
Emma fell in love with photography at an early age.
“I got a camera in a showbag at a show where we were showing cattle,” she said.
“I just knew it was something special. My mum was always interested in photography, so I also get that spark from her.”
By the age of 14, Emma started to think seriously about pursuing photography as a career and went on to work part-time for Horsham photography business Jumpin’ Jac Flash during high school.
“I knew photography was not a reliable income, but I’ve always been interested in creative fields,” she said.
“After high school I worked in Melbourne for five years doing event production.
“It was an amazing experience, but I was also commuting from Geelong and it was exhausting.
“It’s not a nine-to-five job, you’re always questioning whether you’ve made the right decision for your client, or working late or on weekends.
“I was dealing with the production side of major AFL events to big Greek, Macedonian and Italian weddings – it was a high pressure job.”
When the historic Central Pier at Docklands was closed indefinitely in January due to safety concerns, Emma was made redundant.
In need of a break, it came as a relief.
It also meant she would have more time to work on her photography, particularly event photography.
“I never saw myself as a nude photographer,” Emma said.
“I actually never really noticed people were naked because I was too busy trying to make sure I got the right shot. I was too focused on the landscape for it to be awkward.
“It meant so much to me to be involved in something like that, particularly because I love country life and rural scenes.
“Weddings are my favourite thing to photograph, but when I’m not photographing weddings I just love travelling on the road and taking photos – capturing that golden light.”
Business was looking good, with several weddings in the pipeline.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and restrictions on social gatherings wreaked havoc on the industry.
Emma had to cancel weddings and other jobs in Victoria due to the pandemic.
She was living between Geelong and her boyfriend’s farm at Willbriggie, about 25 kilometres south of Griffith in New South Wales, but has been ‘stuck’ there for several months due to travel restrictions.
Emma said she was using the time to tick off a few things on her to-do list, including setting up a website for her Emma Jane Industry business and selling photographic prints.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do but never had time to before, so there’s a silver lining,” she said.
She said she looked forward to returning to the Wimmera to visit her family and friends, particularly her young niece Grace, when she could.
For now, she is enjoying life on the land, with her camera never too far away.
• The Naked Farmer book is available on website www.thenakedfarmerco.com.au.
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The entire October 28, 2020 edition of AgLife is available online. READ IT HERE!
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