Like a lot of kids raised in the 50s, Mike Harris loved to fool around with his Kodak Brownie, a gift from his parents when he was ten. At the time, his primary model was the family’s collie mix, Donnie. He continued to take pictures throughout high school, graduating to a more sophisticated camera, a gift from his father. Eventually, college, law school, marriage, two children and a busy career as a partner in the Greenwich law firm of Ivey, Barnum and O’Mara intervened. Even though he had a darkroom in his first home, most of his pictures centered around family vacations and holidays. That all changed eleven years ago. “My brother let me use his digital camera,” Mike says. “That opened up a whole new world.”
Holding the camera in his hands stirred something in his soul. Mike heard about the Santa Fe Photography Workshops and signed up for a weeklong program in San Miguel de Allende with nature photographer Eddie Soloway. With his wife Sally’s blessing, Mike headed west. At the time, she remembers thinking, “I couldn’t imagine spending a week just doing photography. No sightseeing? No shopping? No thank you.” Nor could she have imagined what would come next.
The experience exceeded his expectations.
“It was the first time I got to spend all day, every day photographing and processing and sharing my work. All of sudden I was taking pride in what I was doing and getting a positive reaction,” Mike says. “I called Sally at the end of the week in tears and said, ‘This has changed my life.’” On the flight home, he promised himself he would devote his time and energy to pursuing his newfound passion, and, as Eddie suggested, sharing it with others. Mike told his law partners he was determined to take ten to twelve weeks a year to travel and photograph as he headed for retirement.
That was in 2007. Since then Mike has made good on that promise. He has traveled throughout the world, photographing the exotic and the mundane, from the coal mines of West Virginia and gas pumps along Route 66, to the souks of Morocco and the rice paddies of Vietnam. (In 2019, he retired from the firm after fifty years.)
The best part? Along the way, Sally discovered her passion for photography when she joined Mike at a workshop in Venice in the spring of 2008. She was no stranger to the photographic arts (part of her job in the alumni relations office at Ohio Wesleyan had involved taking pictures of alumni events). “I had always had an Instamatic in hand growing up, taking snapshots at school and summer camp; and when I had the opportunity to go to Norway on a summer exchange program in high school, my dad offered me his Pentax, which meant learning how to use a light meter, so I took a photography class,” she recalls. “I still have those pictures from Norway. They’re not great photographs, but I loved them.”
For Sally, the impetus to get serious about photography came from a desire to spend more time with her husband. At the time, she was happily employed as the assistant director of development at Greenwich Country Day School. But her job didn’t give her the flexibility she craved once Mike started roaming the globe. The Venice workshop was the first time they had traveled together as photographers. The teacher, Eddie Soloway—with whom Mike had studied in San Miguel—took Sally under his wing. It soon became clear she was a natural. “I had to make a choice,” she says. “He had all this time to travel, and it was hard for me to take time off. I retired so I could be with him.” She never looked back.
These days the two are virtually inseparable. They plan trips together, travel together and organize shows, exhibits and presentations together. They are active members in the Stamford Photography Club and are on the local speakers circuit, giving talks to the residents of Edgehill, Rotary clubs, the New Canaan Library, First Friday and various other social entities. “We both appreciate the fact we really enjoy this together. It’s a great way to spend our retirement years,” says Sally.
They have studied with some of the best photographers in the business, including Santa Fe-based Nevada Wier who introduced them to the idea of cultural photography, a concept they have embraced. “It’s less about the scenic sights and more about the people and the way they live,” says Mike.
Sally recalls the first time they traveled with Wier. “We were in a tiny village in Vietnam. It had one dirt road. This woman was walking toward us and we all started to back away. Nevada said, ‘Why are you backing away? She is coming up to us to see what we want. We need to welcome her.’”
It was a valuable lesson about humanity, the desire for connection and, most important, that a friendly expression and simple hand gestures can overcome almost any language barrier. “We once spent a month in Oaxaca and took Spanish lessons the whole time,” says Sally. “We forgot everything on the plane home.
“We never try to sneak a photo,” Sally adds. “We approach people openly. If you are confident and respectful, you are more likely to have success.”
Mike describes a recent trip to Ireland where they photographed the Irish Travelers, an ethnic minority with more than 30,000 people. The Harrises first learned about the Travellers through the Facebook page of Joseph-Philippe Bevillard, a photographer who lives in Killaloe and has been chronicling their lives since 2010. Bevillard acts as a liaison between the gypsies and the outside world. Recalls Mike, “We show up at this roadside trailer and this little boy runs up to us screaming, ‘Joseph!’”
The boy’s father invited them inside.
“It was their living room and bedroom and there were seven kids and two adults, and it was hard to see how we were going to photograph the individuals in this single room,” he says.
Once they moved outside, though, the atmosphere lightened. They took pictures of the kids playing—even a young girl running from the top of one trailer to the next. They were invited to attend and photograph a mass of celebration for a child who had died the previous year. Mike felt a bit uncomfortable as he photographed the priest giving mass, but then he heard, “Hey, Mike, take our picture!” He turned around and saw a group of the dads who wanted to be included. “That is a moment that really tells a story,” Mike says. The Harris’s Irish Travellers exhibit at the YWCA last spring has been their most popular yet, with more than 150 people in attendance on opening night.
It isn’t always that easy to get the shot. During a 2018 trip to Gallup, New Mexico, the couple was walking down the street with their large cameras when they came upon two women, one wearing an Obama T-shirt. “Don’t take my picture,” she said. After a few minutes of chatting, Mike pointed to her shirt and said, “You must miss him. ‘I miss him a lot,’ she replied. I said, ‘I really miss him.’ She embraced me for a couple of seconds, then backed away, punched her fist in the air and said, ‘Now you can take my picture.’”
Sally pipes in. “Tell your barbershop story. It’s one of my favorites.”
“We were in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and we went into a barber shop and I asked the barber if he minded if we took some photos and he said, yes, he did mind,” Mike says.
“I said, ‘I’m out of here,’” adds Sally. “I wasn’t willing to sit there.”
Mike meanwhile sat down and waited. After about ten minutes, the owner disappeared and came back out with a barber shirt on. “Now you can take my picture,” he said. “It’s such a great photo and I’m so jealous,” says Sally. “I just don’t have the patience that Mike has.”
The Harrises do have an extremely compatible, but competitive, work ethic. Before they get to a destination, they will research it thoroughly and know what they want to do. When they arrive, they go in separate directions and rendezvous at a specific time and place. “She’ll come back and say, ‘Look what I got. Mine is better than yours,’” Mike says. “And I’ll say, ‘No, it’s not.’” And then in an aside, he adds, “It probably really is.”
“Sometimes we’ll take the exact same thing and it will be different,” says Sally. “I’ll do wide angle and Mike will zoom in.”
He corrects her. “It’s not that I use a zoom lens.”
“Right,” adds Sally. “Mike will walk up closer to the subject.”
“I always say the best zoom lens is your feet.”
Patience pays off in other ways, too. The Harrises had just finished lunch at a diner in the remote town of Flaxville, Montana, when Mike spied a handsome spaniel sauntering down the street. He pointed his camera at the dog, who spooked and ran away. “He was scared,” says Mike. “So I sat down and waited.” After a few minutes, the dog started to approach, one careful step at a time. “I held the camera low and clicked, clicked, clicked, hoping he was in the frame. He then came and sat with me, facing in the same direction. He leaned against me, and I put my arm around him.”
Sally took a picture of the two of them and says it’s one of her favorites. “We are both dog people. Mike likes to get down with them on the ground and play with them.”
“The problem is I can’t get up,” he jokes. Though it’s no joke. At seventy-nine he recognizes that the window for travel is precious. Post-retirement, there is a lot of ground to cover, and the lens is narrowing. “Mobility becomes important to do things now. We joke about me not being able to get up after playing with the dogs. It’s important to do the travel while we can.”
The couple has already visited Cuba twice this year: in January on their own with a guide and a driver and again in March with a group led by their friend and mentor, Nevada Wier. They plan to go back to Ireland this summer to revisit the gypsies and “fill in the holes.” Sally is going to Japan to photograph during cherry blossom season (“It’s more about the people than the cherry blossoms, but it will be a beautiful time!” she says), while Mike works on the outline of their first coffee table book.
When they were starting out, they relied on the professionals to help them with their itineraries, but now they do a lot of the trip planning themselves. An idea may be sparked by an event—the desire to photograph a rodeo led to a five-week road trip through the Pacific Northwest. Or a place—while traveling through Iowa, they got an unexpected opportunity to go out onto the field and photograph a Friday night football game. When planning a visit to photograph coal country in West Virginia, one of Mike’s clients arranged for them to go into a mine. “Turns out he was the chairman of the board of the largest coal manufacturer in the East.”
Such serendipitous moments have played a huge role in their lives, starting as far back as 1998. That was the year Sally and Mike, who was divorced from his first wife, met at a dinner party at a mutual friend’s house in Greenwich. Sally had lived in town after college but moved back to Ohio to take the job at Ohio Wesleyan.
“I loved my job,” she says. “But eventually I dreamed about moving back to Connecticut. I stayed in touch with my friend, and I invited myself to a dinner party she was having. I knew it would be fun.” That was in February. The couple married in November.
“Serendipity is out there,” says Mike. “If your eyes are open and you are observant, things are happening.”
Like the time in April of 2016 when they happened to be driving on a back road in Pennsylvania Amish country near their house in western Maryland. They spotted a group of children clustered around Yoder’s Farm Stand, with its photogenic array of fresh vegetables, baked goods and flowers. The girls were wearing long dresses and traditional bonnets, the boys were in suspenders and straw hats. The couple asked if they might take a few pictures, to which the oldest boy consented.
A few months later, the Harrises stopped by the farm stand again with several 8-by-10 prints in hand. So began a relationship with the Yoder family that continues to this day. The family even called Mike and Sally after the birth of their tenth, and then eleventh, child.
“We were so honored to be on their call list,” Mike says. The Harrises have photographed the family on six different visits—including at their new home in Indiana. “The kids call us the people with the big cameras.”