Photographer Interviews

Picture Story: The Female Prison Inmates Fighting the California Wildfires

February 5, 2018

By David Walker

Among those fighting the increasingly frequent and destructive wildfires in California are some of the state’s female prison inmates. It’s grueling work for which they are paid less than $2 per hour. And it’s risky: One inmate firefighter recently died. So the program raises ethical questions, which are complicated because the women volunteer for the work and take pride in it.

The New York Times Magazine recently delved into the story with reporting by Jamie Lowe and photography by Peter Bohler. He wasn’t aware of the inmate firefighters, but photographing wildfire fighters “has been my dream project going back a few years,” says Bohler.

“I’m motivated by the way people interact and connect with nature and the environment, especially how landscapes form subcultures and communities,” he explains. He knows some professional wildfire fighters. “It’s brutal work, but people love doing it,” Bohler says. He was struggling to get access to the story through his contacts, though, because it is an added burden for fire crews to keep embedded journalists safe.

But after Lowe began to report the story about the inmate firefighters, photo editors at The New York Times Magazine called Bohler in mid-2016 with an assignment to shoot photographs. His task was to capture portraits of a number of the women, as well as document their day-to-day lives at the firefighting camps, and capture a sense of the physical demands and danger they face at fire scenes.

“We’ve worked with him before,” says visuals producer Karen Hanley, who was acting associate photo editor at the magazine when Bohler began the assignment. “He knows how to walk into a situation and make the best of it, and we knew he was versatile and flexible and could get all the options we needed to tell the story.”

Bohler started by visiting Malibu 13, a conservation camp in Malibu where inmate firefighters train alongside professional firefighters. He talked with Lowe beforehand, to get a sense of what to expect at the camp. With prisoners, he says, “you never know how much freedom you’ll have” to photograph. Hanley and Times Magazine associate photo editor Christine Walsh, who took over photo editing duties mid-way through the project, worked behind the scenes to gain access for Bohler. Prison authorities and fire officials told him, “Go do your thing,” he recalls. “It was incredibly free for shooting in a prison.”

Bohler says he had long conversations with some of the inmates his first day at Malibu 13, and they picked up on his curiosity about them. “Everyone was comfortable and willing to be photographed. They have a tough, routine life, so it was sort of exciting for them to have press there. I was somebody taking notice of what they were doing.”

He adds, “I really wanted to photograph these women as unique people, and shoot portraits where that came across. So I think those conversations helped build my sense of who they are.”

© Peter Bohler

The assignment for The New York Times Magazine was a dream project for Peter Bohler, who is interested in “how landscapes form subcultures and communities,” he says. © Peter Bohler

That first day at the camp, he photographed them gardening, attending yoga class, and running up and down sand dunes near Malibu Beach to stay in shape. Afterwards he started using a phone app to monitor wildfire calls. He was awaiting a chance to photograph the inmates fighting an actual fire. But by then it was fall, and fire season was ending.

“I had to wait until June [2017],” when California’s fire season starts and fires began to pop up again, he explains. He was photographing inmate firefighters at a conservation camp called Rainbow when a fire call came in. “That was my ideal scenario, where the sirens go off, and I’m headed to a fire with them,” he says.

Then in July, he drove six hours to a fire near Yosemite to photograph the Malibu 13 firefighters at work. He ended up joining them for a 24-hour shift, with hopes of getting an image of the women against big, dramatic flames. But to his disappointment, fire authorities prevented him from following the crews to the most dangerous areas. So his photographs show the women clearing brush and maintaining fire lines. They traverse scorched earth, but the smoke and flames are always at a distance.

Bohler shot the story with a Pentax 645z. He used medium format because portraiture was such an important part of the assignment. But he had also decided not to shoot the firefighting action in a photojournalistic way. That’s already been done, he notes. “I wanted to approach it in a way that was a little more formal…and carefully composed.”

He explains, “I do a lot of visualizing beforehand. I’ll sketch out ideas I’m thinking about…I’m drawing what I hope it will look like.” His ideas don’t always materialize, but the exercise “helps me think about the story and how I want to tell it visually, and react more quickly when I see things coming together.”

He had envisioned shooting in the natural golden light of late afternoon, but much of the work ended up taking place under the harsh mid-day sun. So Bohler used an on-camera flash to illuminate his subject’s faces in the shadows of their safety helmets. “On-camera flash can be overdone sometimes, but in a way, it’s very utilitarian. It’s a very straightforward way to light things. It works well in this case, especially with portraits, because it shows every detail.” he says.

He spent a total of four days photographing—a day in each of the two conservation camps, and two days at actual fires. “We felt we had gotten the access we were going to get,” he says. “There are more dramatic things [than I saw] that happen fire-wise, but the focus of the story really was on the women, and I felt like I had gotten really strong pictures of them and what their lives looked like.”

He sent a wide edit—totaling about 500 images—to the magazine. The editing process, Walsh says, “was a balance of deciding which images were the strongest, and which fit best with the story” that Lowe had written. “There was a wealth of images to work with, and it was hard to whittle it down in the end.”

She and Hanley praise Bohler’s portraits in particular. “They are beautiful and so intense and so strong. There’s just so much going on with these women and you can really feel that,” Hanley says. Walsh singles out a portrait of a firefighter named Dionne Davis standing proudly with a chainsaw, surrounded by bushes covered with pink fire retardant, and says, “There’s so much information there, and so much personality. You really understand what they’re doing every day.”

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