Many of us in California who were a stone’s throw away from the fires in Santa Rosa last year thought about our own evacuation plans should a fire storm hit our backyards. We also thought about what personal objects we would grab as we headed out the door.
As a Bay Area photographer, I spent time October 2017 wondering if people grabbed their family photos.
In November, I staged my first day of family photo shoots, free of charge, for people who’d lost everything in the fires. It was typically a busy time of year, when I book similar sessions for people to use in their holiday cards. Certainly, I thought, families who lost everything would appreciate a new family photo, illustrating the most important gift of the season—that single fact that everyone in their family made it out intact.
My 12-year-old daughter served as my assistant, and after the last session she expressed surprise that people seemed so happy, like it was a normal shoot on any other day. She interpreted the scene well: people were dressed up, and their smiles were bright. But she didn’t hear the private conversations I had with the moms, dads and grandparents I photographed, the stories of fright, fragility, courage and stamina. I heard about a single mom dropping off her daughter to safety, then fighting traffic to return in an effort to wake up her landlord, which she’d been unable to do before departing. I heard about coming "home” to a pile of ash, and searching for an engagement ring and other important personal items.
I started a business, Still Life Stories, to help people tell life stories through meaningful objects, which I photograph and curate into an artful book. With this in mind, I invited families participating in my Santa Rosa photo shoots to bring objects that they saved from the fires. One woman shared a rolling pin that has been in her family since the 1700s, which was one of two things she was able to grab on the way out the door. (The other was her son's math book, as, half-believing none of it was real, she wanted him to be productive while they waited things out.)
Fires and natural disasters can strike at any time. As we sit comfortably in our homes, we can think about what we would grab. More importantly, in the work I am doing with Still Life Stories, I am figuring out why objects like a rolling pin are worth saving.