Updated: Mar 24
For this article published on May 27, 2018, I went out on a photo shoot with Gabe and Cliff Oram, founders of The Mohawk Valley Through the Lens. In four years they've built up the readership of this Facebook page to over 12,500 fans with hundreds of likes, comments, and shares every month. At the core of this project is their desire to show the many positive aspects of this part of Upstate New York to counteract its years-old "rust belt" reputation. Their team's beautiful photos and friendly interaction has resonated with thousands of people who live in this area and who grew up here but have moved away.
About my article Gabe Oram said, "Sue came along on a photo journey with my father and I, and it was a lot of fun to say the least! She is an excellent writer and judging by the way she portrayed us in the article, she really seems to understand what we're trying to do with this project. Thank you for the amazing write up, Sue!! Your talents are only matched by your friendliness and kind heart!"
Gabe Oram and his dad Cliff Oram arrive at Fort Herkimer Church, one of their favorite places to shoot photos. The 250-year-old walls of the historic building on Route 5 in Mohawk frame beautifully against the early spring sky full of turbulent gray clouds. The clicks of their camera shutters punctuate the crisp air. Gabe points out an arched outline on the back wall of the church. It’s filled in with bricks.
“When they added the 2nd story they changed the location of the main entrance,” he said. The church was built in 1767 and expanded in 1812, which I'm assuming is when they relocated the entrance. The old bricked off door is cool from a historical perspective...it helps give an idea as to what the church originally looked like.”
Cliff and Gabe have many such details to share about the history of the valley on the Facebook page they started in 2014 with a few of their friends. “The Mohawk Valley Through the Lens” (MVTTL) is their vehicle to share the beauty of the area they call home. Covering a territory roughly from Rome to Amsterdam and Salisbury to Cooperstown, their team of photographers keeps the page full of images of both natural and man-made sites much to the delight of their fans.
In 2013, after hearing more than enough people calling the Mohawk Valley a “rust belt” and saying there aren’t any jobs and there’s nothing to do, Gabe decided to take what he had and make a difference with it. He grabbed his camera and started in his own hometown.
“I just walked around the village of Mohawk every couple of weeks and took pictures of various locations,” he said. “That was the year of the floods, so there were some pictures of that too.”
He posted the photos to an album on his personal Facebook page. So many people liked it that he and Cliff decided to create a Facebook business page. Gabe even created a logo depicting the green hills of the valley in the shape of an M.
“I’m not politically motivated, so I wasn’t going to run for office to change things,” Gabe said. “I’m not rich, so I can’t invest in change. So what can I do? How can I use what I have? I’ve got a camera. I’ve got friends and a father who takes photos. And we’ve all got cars and gas money. So we maintain a neutral approach, just to show people that what they have isn’t necessarily as bad as they think it is.”
Gabe admits there’s some truth in the negative things said about the valley. But he believes there are enough people who live here to turn it around. “We just need to change our mindset,” he said. “That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do with MVTTL. We want to show people that what we have is worth it. It’s not bad at all. It’s pretty cool.”
“World-changing events happened right here,” he said, citing pivotal Revolutionary War victories and the Erie Canal’s role in the rapid growth of the United States.
Judging by the numbers of followers and the lively engagement on the MVTTL page, the Orams and their team are not alone in their passion for local positivity. They spent a grand total of $20 to run one Facebook ad after the page was about a year old. That got them about 150 likes. The rest of their more than 12,500 page fans discovered them by word-of-mouth on social media. Every day a few more join.
Looking at Facebook Insights on his page, Gabe said that most of their followers are local, but he also discovered they have fans all over the USA and in many other countries including Great Britain, Belgium, many in Canada and even one in Taiwan. “That kind of blew my mind!” Gabe said.
“That’s something that when we started the page I didn’t even think of,” he said. “That people who have moved away from the area would like what we’ve got going on. Sometimes we’ll strike a nerve, post something that meant a lot to them. And that’s cool when that happens.”
One photo in particular, their first to go viral, was taken by team member Bob Ostrander. It featured two lions at the Utica Zoo in a charmingly cozy moment. At the time MVTTL had about 4,000 followers, but this photo scored over 20,000 views.
Another element that adds to MVTTL’s popularity is the active community spirit. The photographers respond to just about every comment. “There are so many positive comments!” Cliff said.
“We have our regulars,” Gabe added. “They comment and share just about every post. It’s kinda cool. We didn’t expect any of it.”
Recently Cliff posted a series of photos of the octagon barn outside Richfield Springs. “The photos aren’t even that good,” he said. “But it went crazy! That’s what happens when we pick that one special site.” Many of their fans posted their own photos of the same barn in different light and angles. And one person even was able to share photos of the inside of the barn.
“We like when people share photos,” Gabe said. “People post photos to the visitor part of the page and sometimes we share them to the main page. Some people out there have got some good stuff!”
The MVTTL team, currently seven members including Gabe and Cliff, Bob Ostrander, Todd Walker, Lynn Scarfuto, Jenny Kielbasa Galough, and Sara Jones, spend a lot of time answering comments and adding historical notes to photo posts. They go out on photo shoots after work and have even braved being chased by Canada geese and falling into streams.
It’s a real labor of love done for their home and their fans, and it’s all volunteer. But they will gladly sell any of the photos posted on their page and will also shoot photos of specific subjects by request. Just send them a message.
“We don’t do this alone by any way shape or means,” Gabe said. “The other photographers are very very good at what they do. They contribute a lot.”
“They all have their own styles,” Cliff said. Bob Ostrander is well-known for his barn photos.
Former member Debbie McIntyre specialized in close-ups of architectural details and former member Patti Hess wrote poems to go with her beautiful nature scenes.
Virginia Miller had a huge collection of historic photos on her hard drive. She sent them to Cliff who in turn took photos of the same locations in the present. They posted their very popular “Then and Now” feature on Throwback Thursdays. Sadly, Virginia passed away in 2017. But you can still see the albums on the MVTTL Facebook page.
Wrapping up the day’s photo shoot, Gabe and Cliff stand on the Canal Place bridge in Little Falls. Cliff points his camera at the water rushing over the rapids in the Mohawk River. “This is my favorite spot in the whole valley,” he said. “Right on this bridge looking down at the falls. I probably have like three or four hundred photos of it.” He recalls being there during the flood of 2013 and points out the water level still visible on the sides of the brick buildings along the river’s edge. “It was crazy down here that day and a little scary.”