• Sarah Rypma

Rooted | A Michigan Commercial Photography Story

Yesterday I left Kalamazoo at 5am with my camera, my coffee (always), and high hopes for a beautiful sunrise for my session at Hot Pepper Karreni Farm in Lansing, Michigan. Hot Pepper Karreni Farm is an organic Asian vegetable farm outside of Lansing and I was headed there to meet Luke for a tour of his farm and to tell his brand story with my lens.

My high hopes for a beautiful sunrise were not let down. As you will see in this post, the first rays of daybreak cast a golden glow across the vegetation, highlighting the beauty of the farm from every angle.

I couldn't help but marvel at the purple eggplant blossom soaking in the morning's rays.

Or the sunflowers that faced the rising sun, a hopeful posture that I learned is called heliotropism (sun tracking) and happens so the flowers can increase their warmth to attract more bees.

But, this isn't a story about pretty lighting or heliotropism (although metaphorically it could be). This is a story about Luke, who was uprooted and forced to start over.

As I walked the farm with Luke, I learned that Luke also goes by the name Soe Reh and his native country is Myanmar. Soe Reh is from the Karenni ethnic group that had to flee Myanmar due to genocide. Like the intersecting light circles that grace these images, Luke and I made an immediate connection and learned that our lives also overlapped.

My first teaching job was in Indianapolis, Indiana and I worked closely with the Karen and Karenni people to teach them English and help them settle into the Indianapolis community both from my classroom and my involvement with Exodus Refugee Immigration. I know about the beauty of their culture and people. I am also aware of the terrible atrocities they have faced (and continue to face) at the hands of a military regime today in Myanmar. If anybody knows how to find the light in the darkness, it's a refugee who is forced to leave their home.

Like many, Soe Reh had to flee Myanmar. At the age of four, Soe Reh fled to a refugee camp on the Thai / Burmese border with his family. It was during his time at the refugee camp that Soe Reh learned to cultivate his own food.

At the age of 16, Soe Reh was uprooted once again and was able to leave the refugee camp in Thailand to resettle in the United States along with his family. In Michigan, Soe Reh's family became involved with the Greater Lansing Foodbank and the Garden Project Program. Together they cultivated and harvested land in Lansing thanks to this community outreach opportunity.

Although not all of the native crops to the Karenni people would thrive in Michigan, many crops do. Soe Reh cultivates a variety of different eggplants, cucumbers, peppers, onions, corn, pumpkins and beans. For Soe Reh, farming is about serving his community and he has many customers both locally and nationally who order his specialty vegetables.

The last plot Soe Reh showed me was a garden that contained several plants growing together rather than in neat rows. When certain plants are planted close together they can help deter pests, promote growth and even improve flavor! It's called companion planting and it's an appropriate metaphor for how different races and ethnic groups can thrive together in the same space.

Soe Reh's journey has not been easy. Leaving his native country and starting over required tremendous patience, perseverance and hard-work. These same skills serve Soe Reh well as he cultivates the land, encounters challenges and runs his business. Soe Reh and his family started with a 20x20 plot of land and today they are successfully farming three acres together. His dream is to eventually expand his business and own his own land. Whatever path Soe Reh takes, I know it will be beautiful and I am thankful he planted roots here.


I beyond grateful for the opportunity to meet Soe Reh and tell his story. Meeting with entrepreneurs and helping them bring their businesses alive with beautiful imagery is one of the best parts of my job!


Are you ready to tell your story? Let's chat.


Want to order vegetables from Soe Reh? Check out his Facebook Page and send him a message.


Want to learn more about the Karenni people? Click Here