CNN Photos

A sense of belonging in small-town Minnesota

Benazir Wehelie, Special to CNNUpdated 15th March 2016
(CNN) — After moving to a farm in rural Minnesota, Hillary Berg and her boyfriend were confronted with challenges.
"I don't think we understood how difficult it was going to be," said Berg, a photographer who moved north from Minneapolis to Spencer Brook. "We had this sort of idealistic notion that we would have our cute little farmhouse and our 12 acres and life would be just grand from then on out."
In the first two weeks, Berg said, their pipes burst and they had no running water. They then got chickens they had to care for, and their dogs, who the couple introduced for the first time, fought constantly.
Having been removed from her comforts and familiarities, Berg felt a looming sense of becoming placeless. The photo series "County Lines" allowed her to explore and connect with the surroundings, the people and the culture of Isanti County.
Photographer Hillary Berg
Hillary Berg
"I started working at a cafe. I didn't know anyone, so I felt like getting a job in town would enable me to start to make relationships with people," Berg said. "A lot of high school girls worked at this cafe, and I found them so endearing. I saw that they really reflected a lot of the culture within the small town."
Berg almost focused her project only on the youth of Isanti County, but she soon realized that she wanted a more broad demographic.
She started a Facebook page so that she could find people interested in being photographed, and she proposed her work to the Minnesota State Arts Board, which gave her a grant.
"I tried to keep the people (I photographed) in their natural environment -- at their farmstead, or at their home, or a couple at their place of work," Berg said. "I wanted it to be really organic, so by keeping them in their natural environments, I was able to really capture an honesty about their lifestyle."
She describes her images as somewhere between fine art and documentary. One of her favorites is No. 3 in the gallery above, which shows a young girl with a doll dressed like a cowgirl.
"When I would set up a photo shoot with someone, I would ask them to think about how they wanted to be represented -- what things were really meaningful to them," Berg said. "I didn't want to be too invasive and to structure things too much to how I thought they should be."
Berg said many of her subjects found meaning in the same things.
"Horses are such a big part of the culture here, and when I looked at all the images after my shooting kind of wrapped up, I was like, 'Oh god, there are so many horses,' " she said. "But I just let it happen because it's part of life here."
For Berg, equally as important as the people in Isanti County is the environment, which she describes as "unconventionally beautiful." There are no mountains or rolling hills, but there is lots of wide-open space. And that's what Berg loves about it.
Berg also said that in Isanti County, she feels closer to her neighbors than she ever felt in Minneapolis. The ties between people, she observed, are a lot stronger despite the distances between them.
It has now been two years since Berg and her boyfriend moved to Isanti County. Although they've had quite a journey, Berg said getting to know their new community has given them a sense of belonging and stability.
"To see all of these faces that I made that connection with is so incredibly rewarding," she said. "And as a collective, they just compose a really beautiful and sincere group of people."