Framing the Future: Photographer April Burns Captures Moments, Preserves Memories of Family Farm Life
Clad in red cowboy boots and khaki cargo shorts — the official uniform of farm toddlers — the 3-year-old towhead stands in a beam of late-summer light, oblivious to the ominous storm clouds rolling in as he quietly watches the docile herd of Herefords.
It’s an unstaged, unplanned moment that can never be recaptured. That’s why April Burns treasures this photo of her youngest son, Rylan, in a pasture on her family’s Oklahoma farm. The striking image is one of her favorites, but it’s only one of thousands she has taken of her family and farm since she discovered a passion for photography nearly a decade ago.
“I like to capture that moment in time,” April says. “I wish I had pictures of when I was a kid, riding horses and playing on the farm. I just don’t and it’s kind of sad. Being able to capture that for my boys — and to be able to do it in a beautiful way — is what drove me to learn photography.”
Describing herself as a “lifestyle photographer,” April’s favorite subjects are Rylan, who is now 7 and his older brother, Colton, 11. She loves capturing them running through pastures, feeding goats, checking cows or doing farm chores. April and her husband of 17 years, Brandon, own and operate a small farm in Marshall, Oklahoma, located about an hour and 15 minutes away from their hometown of Geary. Home to Brandon’s dad, Gary Burns, who is the local veterinarian and where April’s father, Richard Miller, raises cattle, wheat and hay on about 1,500 acres.
April and Brandon were high school sweethearts who attended Oklahoma State University together. She studied agricultural economics; while he earned a plant and soil science degree. Today, they both work for USDA. April is a member of the watershed planning staff for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Brandon is a district conservationist overseeing six counties.
While her college education prepared April for her NRCS career, she is entirely self-taught as a photographer. When she decided to take up the craft nine years ago, she had no previous experience and no professional training. The determined young wife, mother and farmer studied other photographers, watched tutorials on editing and joined online forums to learn everything she could about capturing and creating memorable imagery.
“When Colton was about 2 years old, we had pictures taken by a professional photographer. We went to a park and just walked around and played while she took pictures of us doing our thing,” April says. “They were absolutely gorgeous. I said that day I was going to learn how to do this. I started following photography blogs and kind of stalked other photographers online and watched YouTube videos. I started taking photos of my own, and I haven’t stopped studying since.”
As her sons grew, so did April’s confidence with her photography skills. She joined an online community of like-minded photographers — Clickin Moms — and periodically writes articles and shares her experiences and photos with the members. She also sells images on the Offset stock photography website. April says anything she earns with her “side business” allows her to continue upgrading cameras. She now shoots with a Canon 5D Mark 2. “I’d like to upgrade again,” April admits, “but I’m comfortable with it and really don’t want to spend the money right now.”
She and Brandon work full-time jobs 35 minutes away from home in opposite directions, and both boys play sports, so photography is mainly a part-time hobby for April. She will, however, agree to schedule sessions for others on occasion.
“I struggle with having enough time with the boys and working on the farm, so it’s hard to leave my family to take photos of other families,” she says. “If I didn’t work full time, I probably would do more of that.”
In 2008, April and Brandon bought their 50-acre farm in Marshall, which is about halfway between their USDA offices. Today, they have some 20 head of Boer goats, “for the boys,” April says, along with 10 Black Angus cows. Rotational grazing plays a key role in their operation, with Brandon utilizing Gallagher pigtail posts, electric Turbo wire and Geared Reels to fence off several paddocks in the farm’s pastures. They are also partners with April’s father on 160 acres and 50 cattle near Geary.
“When I was growing up, I said I would never marry a farmer because of all the financial and emotional struggles I saw my dad go through,” April says. “But when we had kids, Brandon and I decided we wanted them to grow up that way — to be around animals, have chores and appreciate nature. So now we have our little farm we take care of during the week and help out my dad on the weekend. We have so much fun spending time with him, and I’m so glad the boys are able to be around the farm. I’m constantly taking pictures of them together.”
Another favorite subject is her grandmother, Nadyne Burruss, who at age 81, has recently bought her own herd of Red Angus cattle to raise and sell for show animals.
“She’s quite the entrepreneur,” April laughs. “My grandfather died in his 60s, and she remarried, but her second husband died a year or two ago. After he passed away, she decided she was going to have cattle. With the help of a friend, Grandma Dyne put together this Red Angus herd from all over the U.S. Of course, I have photos of her with them!” April considers her work to be more than just making photographs; it’s preserving memories. That’s why her photos tend to encompass not only her main subject but also the entire environment, safeguarding the scene for posterity.
“I’ve looked back through photos my aunt used to take at family gatherings, and it jogs memories of what we were doing then and how much fun we had,” she says. “We had so much joy in our lives, and I would never remember it all without the photographs. When the boys grow up, I want them to see what it was like when they were little. My photos are "landscapy". I like to have the sky and the background and the cattle trailers and panels and the animals—everything around them. That’s where my passion lies with photography.”
April reiterated that point in a Clickin Moms blog post, “How to photograph your life outdoors,” in which she encouraged other farm families to take time to freeze-frame their own memories:
“I challenge you to step back, relax and look at the whole picture — your environment, the sky and the sunset… Capture it in an image with your kiddos so that someday, they can look back and see that tree that they played under, that barn that they ran through and the fences that they climbed, and one day your grandbabies can look back and see where so many amazing memories were made.”