Creating The “Courage” Album: A Tribute To Our Brave Firefighters

Jill Rahn's picture
As a busy and successful wedding photographer, opportunities to make inspirational photographs outside of that genre were somewhat limited. Having recently attended a professional workshop, the WPPI Road Tour in Boston during the summer of 2011, I learned from presenter Dawn Shields about the personal project she embarked on that led to her winning the prestigious WPPI 2010 Album of the Year Award. I was inspired; I saw the need to keep the love and passion of all photography alive within me by finding a personal project of my own.

A Biddeford, Maine, firefighter prepares to suit up before entering the burning apartment building. (Canon EOS-1D Mark III with Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens; Nik Color Efex Pro filters.)
All Photos © Russell Caron Photography, Inc.

On the afternoon of October 4, 2011, and literally a few hundred feet from my home and studio, the opportunity unfolded. The sound, sight, even smell of commotion was right outside my door; an apartment house nearby was on fire. I grabbed two camera bodies, one with a wide zoom on a full-frame camera and my 70-200mm on my 1.3 crop factor body, and ran out the door to see what was going on.

Arriving just behind the first of ultimately dozens of firefighters afforded me the chance to get some close-ups of their faces, expressions, and overall concern with the gravity of the situation. An elderly woman had already been rescued by a passerby. I quickly realized that the photos to be taken at this increasingly tense scene were absolutely not of the building and the fire; the more meaningful photographs were of the people risking their lives to put the fire out…the firefighters.

A look of concern that grew during the course of the fire, as it became apparent that a life was lost. (Canon EOS-1D Mark III with Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens; black-and-white conversion in Adobe Lightroom.)

Fire commissioners helping oversee the management of the personnel fighting the fire. (Canon EOS-1D Mark III with Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens; black-and-white conversion in Adobe Lightroom.) Three firefighters prepare to cut a hole to ventilate the structure…often considered among the most dangerous jobs. (Canon EOS-1D Mark III with Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens; Nik Color Efex Pro filters.)

Despite the fast-paced and tense nature of what was in front of me, I found an ability to make photographs that would show the work of the firefighters in quite a different light. Not encumbered with the usual “rules” of photojournalism, I was able to move freely and adjust my perspectives to see things in a way that showed what those fighting the fire were facing. This became especially evident to me in the photograph of the men on the roof cutting a ventilation hole, with intense heat, smoke, and flames inches beneath the surface.

I did not limit all of my photographs to close-ups of the firefighters with my long lens; I used the wide lens on several occasions to capture overall views of the scene. The dark mood of the incident was exacerbated by the now-falling drizzle and dark gray skies. At all times I kept back and out of the way of those fighting the fire.

After about 40 minutes of image-making, and as the firefighters gained hold on the situation, I returned to my studio and downloaded the images. Using Adobe Lightroom, I made some basic adjustments and also converted several of the “deeper” images to black and white using the Photoshop plug-in filter Nik Silver Efex Pro.

Thick smoke emanating from the first cut in the burning building’s roof. (Canon EOS-1D Mark III with Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens; Nik Silver Efex Pro filter.)

Intense heat, smoke, and flames are just inches below these firefighters. (Canon EOS-1D Mark III with Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens; Nik Color Efex Pro filters.)

A wide-angle view at the scene at Main St. and Hill St. in Biddeford, Maine, on October 4, 2011. (Canon EOS 5D Mark II with Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens; Nik Silver Efex Pro filter.)

I created some JPEGs and posted them to the Facebook page of two local television stations. Almost immediately, the families of the firefighters were commenting that the photographs were the best (in a sense of being “powerful”) that they had ever seen taken during such an incident. Later that evening, news outlets were reporting, sadly, that the fire had claimed a victim. It turns out that the man, in the desperation of a failed relationship, set his own apartment on fire.

I quickly realized the whole story that I had photographed would be the making of my own person project: pictorial evidence, via an album layout, of what our men and women firefighters face as they serve their communities.

To make the story coherent from start to finish—that is, to depict why the fire occurred in the first place—required the re-creation of several album panels. Using ensuing newspaper accounts of the details of what transpired, with a friend and an empty building I set up a few scene-setters that preceded the fire incident. And, with the help of the local fire department, I obtained images replicating the quiet fire station that cool, gray fall afternoon, interrupted suddenly by firefighters running into the engines and heading out to the scene.

A firefighter moves apparatus into a more strategic position, then jumps out to get back to the task at hand. (Canon EOS 5D Mark II with Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens; Nik Silver Efex Pro filter.)

One of the “staged” photographs taken after the fire on another day; used to make the album story, at the Biddeford, Maine, Fire Department Central Station. (Canon EOS 5D Mark II with Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens; 0.4 seconds at f/10 and ISO 400.)

A few months later, I decided that I would enter the project into the Maine Professional Photographers Association album competition; I would not submit my customary wedding client album. Rather, I entered my album of the firefighters of Biddeford and Saco, Maine, that afternoon of October 4, 2011.

It was selected as the 2012 Maine PPA Court of Honor recipient for albums. I was most pleased, not with the award, but with the satisfaction I found in being able to create images and memories for people in a meaningful way that were outside of my usual genre.

Links
Album: www.russellcaronphotography.com/courage_album_sample
Individual Images: www.russellcaronphotography.com/courage_image_samples
Author/Photographer e-mail: russell.r.caron@gmail.com

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