Lately it seems I am doing a lot of training photos. The fire department. The SWAT and SRT teams. The Sheriff’s Posse. Gunman at hospital scenario. Gunman at school scenario. I am not complaining about this. Personally I love it and I love the photos that are coming out of it. But these training sessions have proven to be not only a series of photo opportunities but also a much needed reality check. I go and I learn.

This all started months ago. I have a cousin who is a volunteer firefighter in Kentucky. When Joe is needed he gets a page and goes as needed. I don’t know why this never occurred to me before, but one day it just hit me: maybe the fire department here has a paging system. Maybe I can get them to add my name to the list. Why not ask? After all, the worst they can do is say no.

So, on whim I stopped in at the Kalispell Fire Department to see Chief Dave Dedman. The odds of him being in the office when I’m there are astronomical, but I got lucky and he was in. I explained my idea and the next thing I know I am getting text messages from Dispatch that read like this:
Unit: 631
Status: Dispatched
Location: 28 Appleway Dr Kalispell
Call Type: F Grass/ Brush/ Wildland Fire
Call Time: 17:28

This text was just a few days ago.I went out looking for that one, but I didn’t see the fire. Eventually I spotted the fire engine, but they looked like they were trying to turn around in a tight apartment complex parking lot. Sometimes the text messages don’t lead to brilliant photos, but regardless, I am always glad to get them. I’d rather take the chance, head out and have to go home empty handed, then miss out on something that could be really cool.
Well, once things started going so well with the fire department I decided to see if I could expand this. I got in touch with the Sheriff’s Department SWAT team and basically introduced myself, told them what I was interested in, and took the first steps toward getting these very serious people, who all have a very serious aversion to the media, to let me in at least a little.

It’s gone better than I could have hoped.

No, they don’t trust me yet, and frankly some of them never will. But I’m working on that. And I’m willing to take the time to do it. And part of earning that trust comes with training photos. My theory is the more they see me around, and get used to me photographing, the better my chances are of getting them to ignore me and just let me document them when things are happening for real.

As it currently stands when I photograph the fire department their first reaction seems to be: see the camera and run away. It happened yesterday. I was photographing a HazMat spill and one of the guys literally saw me and starts walking backwards. I know it’s not me personally that they are avoiding, but still, I have got to get this to stop.

Back to the training photos.
On Saturday the fire department supervised the burning of a house on property purchased by the fairgrounds. This was incredible. A two story house was reduced to a scrap heap in less than an hour. And I got to be there for the whole thing, getting closer to the fire than I ever would have been allowed to be if this were real.

Let me start with a timeline.
I got there a little before 10. Just in time to chat with a few of the guys and watch Dave and Kirk (Cpt. Pederson of C Shift) head into the house to do a room-by-room check to make sure no one had sneaked into the building. They knew, far better than I, exactly how much time this wouldn’t take to become deadly.
10:02:15 Pederson checks the storm basement
10:07:01 fire started in back room on the north west corner
10:10:27 add dry leaves and bits of kindling
10:13:35 fire climbs the wall
10:13:48 fire begins rolling across the ceiling
10:15:06 fire begins pour out of the windows
10:15:50 fire clearly seen in second story window
10:17:33 the whole house is on fire
10:35:59 the house begins coming down
That’s just over half an hour. Now obviously, since the goal of this is to destroy the building rather than save it, the firefighters are not out there working to put the fire out. They’re letting it burn and basically keeping the fire contained by wetting the trees and ground around the structure. But the reality check in this is the fact that this is exactly how fast it would go if the fire department wasn’t there at all. Think about that. No fire department. Your house is on fire and half an hour later everything you have has been destroyed and if your really lucky it’s only your possessions that are lost, not your life.

Believe it or not there are some people out there who don’t like the fire department. I was shocked to learn this. What’s not to like? These are the guys who come when your life is going up in flames and rescue you. How do you not appreciate that? Well, it seems that some people think the fire department is a waste of tax payer dollars that could be spent elsewhere. My thinking is that these people (idiots) will only think that until the day their house is the one being swallowed up in fire and smoke. Then there are the people who complain about the fire engines using their sirens as they race through traffic to get to the fires. Apparently they’d like it better if the fire trucks had to follow the same traffic rules as everyone else. Look at the timeline. I spoke with Dave about this on site. I could not get over how fast it all went. He said this is exactly the reason he is always pushing response time. He wants the firefighters to constantly be working on improving their response time. They need to be safe, but they need to get on site as fast as possible. And Saturday really brought that home to me, because in half an hour, it can all be over.
This started so small. Kirk sat in the window sill with a small propane torch. They had pulled tree branches and some debris into the house, but there was no other fuel or accelerant used to start the fire. I really wanted to be inside the house for these photos. Yes. I know this is rather crazy. And of course, try as I might, I could not talk them into letting me do this. It’s not like I wanted to stay in the house while it’s burning down around me, I just wanted to stand in the doorway and take shots of the fire getting started. I would have left. Rapidly, in fact. Just as soon as the fire got going. But they were adamantly against my plans and so I only got shots from outside.
Truth be told, if I had been allowed to be in there I know exactly what I would have done. I would have seen the fire rolling across the ceiling, knelt, and taken those shots, and then run for the door. That’s the picture I really wanted. It would be incredibly dangerous/stupid to take that photo, but that is the one in my mind that really shows how deadly fires are. Fortunately for me I am working with people who want to keep me safe, even if that means protecting me from my own stupidity. Once the fire was going, and I realized how much danger I would have been in, I apologized to both Dave and Kirk for whining at them when they denied my request to enter the house.
As I watched from the window at how quickly the fire raced up the wall, how it grew and consumed, over and over all I could think was “Oh my God.” It was one of the firefighters who gave me the term ‘rolling’ in reference to the way the fire moved across the ceiling. It looked almost like waves. Beautiful. Powerful. And vicious. I would have stood there for a bit longer, but someone pulled me back. I was told I had to stay outside the collapse zone, that is at least as far away as the firefighters. It wasn’t too very long until standing closer than the firefighters was impossible. The heat coming off this thing was intense.

This was my favorite from the day: firefighters wet the ground around the house to keep the fire under control. As the water heated up it turned into steam creating this eerie fog. I loved the contrast in this moment — the soft fog and the deadly flames.

I wish the photographs could convey that. It was a cold day. Before the fire started I thought about going back to my truck to get my jacket, but I figured things would warm up once the house was on fire — massive underestimation on my part. I got burned. Not painfully. And not because I was too close. The radiant heat put off by this thing was enough to pinken up my skin, it looked like I was sun-burned, but it was from the fire. I watched the guys sweating it out in their suits. Even their protective gear only does so much. Dave told me that sometimes at fires when they are in their gear they will sweat and end up getting steam burns. Really? Chalk that up to one more job hazard for firefighters that I wasn’t even aware of.
We didn’t even use these photos for the paper. I put them up in a folder on our facebook page, but in the end Saturday’s photos were once again about making connections and earning trust. That’s what I want most out of all of this. I want to win their trust. I want to be able to photograph them in whatever situation, and have their be no question in their minds about whether or not they will live to regret having me there. I want to make photographs that show these people (military, cops and firefighters — my heroes) doing the incredibly hard jobs that they do. They don’t get enough thanks for the risks they take, and I would like to be part of changing that.

Fire and Water

If you know my personal photography at all you have to have noticed my obsession with water reflections.
I spent three years on a series of these and even though the project is completed it is a subject I return to again and again.
It is my own personal leitmotif.

The first time I heard this word I was in college. I was a young photographer eagerly reading all I could get my hands on of the great photographers. James Nachtwey. Ansel Adams. W. Eugene Smith. Walker Evans. Robert Capa. Annie Leibovitz. Mary Ellen Mark. David Hume Kennerly. Alfred Stieglitz. Paul Strand. And, of course, the man responsible for the phrase “the decisive moment” Henri Cartier-Bresson.

It was in one of HCB’s books that I came across the word “leitmotif” and had to go to my dictionary to find out what it meant. A leitmotif is a dominant recurring theme.
I have had very few of these over the years. The first was in 2004. I started a project on the color red. I had noticed how certain artists had times in their artistic lives that were defined by themes. One of these that really struck me was Picasso’s blue period. He simply became obsessed with the color for a while and it dominated his work.

It was February 22. I was in Bologna, Italia (a city famous for it’s red marble) and I decided to give myself an assignment. To photograph anything red. Anything. Curtains. Bicycles. A red candle in a catholic church, a symbol of the presence of God. A man with a red scarf under a McDonald’s sign. A woman’s shoes. A bit of dead ivy that had dried a shade of reddish brown against a black stone wall. I even did a photograph of myself on this day because I have red hair. The weirdest of these photos was a picture of a dead bird — why you might ask? It had red feet. And my personal favorite from the project — a red mailbox contrasted beautifully next to a green wall.

I intended it to be a one day project. But I found that I loved the color. Once I had really opened my eyes to it, I was seeing it everywhere. And the unexpected benefit of this project was the way my eyes were opened to other colors. I have loved color photography since I switched from shooting TMAX and TRI-X (black and white films) to shooting Velvia (the greatest color slide film of all time), but rarely am I as acutely aware of the colors around me as those days when I make the color my main focus.
My second leitmotif has been the water photos. I’ve written previous blogs about the reflections series, so I am not going to go into all of that again, but my series was expanded this weekend in a most unexpected way.

On Saturday the Kalispell Fire Department helped the Flathead County Fairgrounds make room for more parking by supervising the destruction of an old house. I am going to write a separate blog about this shortly, because the whole process was just awesome to watch. But as I documented the fire, there was a moment when one of the firefighters decided to cool off a truck parked near by. As he aimed the hose at the engine steam came hissing off. And it’s not like the truck was right by the house or anything. It was parked at the very edge of the property, but still, the radiant heat from the fire was incredible. As water starts sloshing over the windshield I suddenly thought wouldn’t it be cool to get shots that combine the fire and the water. So, I climbed inside the truck and shot through the windshield.

And these photos are the result. They are similar to my other reflection shots, but they have a vibrance that I am really liking. Most of the photos from that day are journalistic in nature. They are documentary. But these are different. These aren’t for the paper. These are the pictures I make just for myself. They are my art. And as always, it is the photos that do just for myself, that keep me going.

A brand new life experience – courtesy of the Kalipsell Fire Department


For most of my adult life I have avoided situations where I might need to be rescued. I end up doing some pretty stupid stuff sometimes, but I have never wanted to be one of those people who gets so in over their heads that emergency personnel need to be called in to save them from themselves.

This belief system was engrained and solidified in me when I lived in Arizona. I lived in Flagstaff for a few years and spent a significant amount of time photographing the Grand Canyon. It never ceased to amaze me how many people would overestimate their abilities, hike down the canyon, and then couldn’t get themselves back out. They would have to be rescued. Helicopters. Repellers. Getting strapped into rescue baskets and air lifted out.

How humiliating!

I NEVER wanted to be the focus of that much attention. I would have felt like and idiot, blushed ever possible shade of red, and had to leave the state in shame.

Today I put these convictions aside and asked to be put in a situation I would not be able to get out of. The Kalispell Fire Department has been doing confined space rescue and grain engulfment training for the last couple of shifts. Well, as I watched this it occurred to me that the picture I really wanted was from inside the tube looking up at the rescuers. One of the firefighters volunteered to take this picture for me, but then it would have been his picture, not mine. The only solution was get myself engulfed.
Let me back pedal this story a bit. I shot the first round of this on Friday with B Shift. It’s Friday and that means dance night so I was wearing white pants and my dance shoes as I arrived at the local grain elevators having no idea what I was going to be doing. I started off by taking pictures from the balcony where most of the firefighters were observing. But that was extremely limiting. I wanted shots from out in the truck. In order to get up in the grain the firefighters (specifically Chief Dedman) insisted I get safety geared up. That meant the most heavy duty climbing harness I’ve ever seen and a helmet before I was allowed into the grain truck. Well to make a long story less long, by the time I got out of the truck and finished with the photos my lovely white pants were covered in dingy yellow grain dust. And as for my dance shoes, almost as soon as I put my feet into the grain my shoes were filled with the highly bothersome kernels.

So today, when I knew what I was going to be getting into (literally), I wore my least favorite jeans, and when I got up to the top of the truck I took my shoes off. Good plan, right? Yeah. Not so much.

This is Montana. It is barely spring here. Sure, we’ve had a few nice days, but it’s still mostly cold. And the grain that has been stored in outdoor bins, well, that stuff is freezing. For the first minute of this being bare footed in the grain it felt heavenly, but that quickly faded and then it just felt cold. Two hours into this exercise in endurance I couldn’t feel my toes anymore.

Luckily for me the guys from C Shift, let me take the part of the victim, get my shots and get out of there.
This was a unique experience. It starts with getting trapped in the grain. They had me stand in the center of the truck and then someone opened the doors that let the grain out of the truck and into the collection bins in the floor. As I stood there sinking I suddenly got very nervous. I am not naturally claustrophobic — normally I find confined spaces rather comforting. Turns out I am not comforted at all when I am trapped in those small spaces. Once I was in about waist deep and the grain had settled I was well and truly stuck. I felt so helpless and totally at the mercy of others. The firefighters are all great and I trust them completely, but it’s hard for me to put myself so much into someone else’s hands. When you are stuck you have to depend on them to save you, it’s a humbling experience.

They got me out just fine (obviously since I am here blogging about the experience). With my bare feet they had to be a little extra cautious in setting up the grain engulfment rescue tube, five sections of inter-locking metal that allow rescuers to stabilize the grain around the victim and then vacuum it out, once they remove enough grain from immediately around you, then you can start to wiggle and climb your way out. Other than that, there weren’t any problems. And hey, I got the shot I was after. And it’s mine. I didn’t hand my camera off to anyone else to get this shot for me. I walked away from this with another layer of respect added to how I feel about first responders and with photos I was very happy with.

This one was the photo I picked as main art for the paper.
Clockwise from top left, firefighters Greg Daenzer, Rob Cherot, Scott Williams and Jason Schwaiger work on rescuing a victim in a confined space rescue and grain engulfment training exercise on Tuesday afternoon, May 1, in Kalispell. The members of C shift took turns rescuing and being rescued as they completed their training with Captain Cherot, the department's technical rescue specialist.

Now all I have to do is wait and see if there is enough room in tomorrows paper for at least two photos. Apparently there is a friendly rivalry between the shifts and they get bragging rights for being in the paper.  I of course love this, because that just means more photos for me. :—)

Till next time…