This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – Norma I. Quintana’s Forage from Fire, an intimate portrait of loss and discovery and the winner of the 2018 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, Mark Peterson.
Norma I. Quintana – Forage from Fire
I first came across Norma I. Quintana‘s documentary photography in 2015 when I reviewed her book Circus: A Traveling Life, a longterm study on a circus community. When I learned late last year that she and her family had lost all their material possessions in the fires that swept through Northern California I joined a chorus of voices from around the world expressing our sorrow and gratitude that she and her family were safe.
Quintana turned to photography to help her navigate the emotional storm of losing the family home of 25 years and her studio with all her prints and her collection of vintage cameras. Twelve months on, the exhibition Forage from Fire reveals both what is lost and found in the aftermath of such personal tragedy.
In Quintana’s words: “On the night of October 8th, 2017, at 11:00pm, I received a call from a friend who told us that she could see a wildfire spreading on the hills behind our house. Unaware that we were in harm’s way, my husband and I walked up to a fire road behind our home and saw a bright glow in the distance. At the same time bullhorns could be heard giving orders to evacuate. First responders soon arrived at our front door and told us that we had only minutes to evacuate. My husband, youngest daughter, son and my elderly mother-in-law left the house we had lived in for over 25 years.
The following morning, we learned that our home and studio were completely gone. Someone sent us a text with an image of what remained—just our chimney, now resting in the driveway. It appeared as if there had been a massive explosion in the house.
Three days later, two Sheriff’s officers escorted us back to the site where our home once stood. While standing in front of the rubble, I realized we were homeless and that our lives had changed forever. The destruction was staggering, and it was difficult to register the totality of our loss. But as I looked closer, I noticed a certain strange and unexpected beauty in the ashes. I began to recognize objects—a pin, a wristwatch, a statuette of a clown, camera bodies and kitchen tools.
As I held the objects in my hand, I had a feeling of rediscovering memories of my past. Overwhelmed by a need to document them, I carefully placed each object on the back of the black rubber glove that was used to comb through the wreckage, using my iPhone camera to record these remnants of my life. Out of the firestorm, a body of photographic work evolved which I have I titled Forage From Fire.
The tragedy that we experienced as a community can be overwhelming and paralyzing. As an artist I search for meaning and beauty during moments of despair. After the shock, this photographic project helped me break through. More than documenting a loss, I hope my project provides inspiration to others recovering from trauma. I continue to excavate memories and embrace the blank slate.”
Forage From Fire is dedicated to the 44 individuals who died in the 2017 Northern California wildfires.
Art Responds: The Wine Country Fires Until 15 December 2018
Sonoma Valley Museum of Art Until 6 January 2019
Mark Peterson – 2018 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography
American photographer Mark Peterson has been shooting for nearly four decades, most of which has seen him cover US politics. It’s a theme that features in Peterson’s personal projects too. His latest, The Past is Never Dead, for which he was awarded the $35,000 W. Eugene Smith Grant, draws focus on white supremacist organisations in the US and their growing influence. This is a story he’s been following for some time, and is an extension to his Political Theatre project, which was published by Steidl in 2016.
In August last year, Peterson headed to Charlottesville where the white nationalists intended to hold a rally. He quickly found himself in the middle of a battle ground. As he told David Walker for PDN, “I’m not a conflict photographer and I’m a big chicken, but I’m also not very smart. So I was just kind of wandering through the melee. I got pepper-sprayed, I got hit with objects, and one of the Nazis head-butted me at one point… I just kept feeling like it was important to photograph, rather than worry about myself.”
On winning the Grant, Peterson says, “I hope my pictures shine a light on the civil war in this country. The Smith Grant will help me continue this work as I look at the communities affected by this divide”.
Peterson makes a chilling observation that the leaders of these groups present themselves as politicians, in their dress and in surrounding themselves by bodyguards, creating a visage of authority and legitimacy. This picture of Richard Spencer (below), president of a white nationalist think tank known as the National Policy Institute, is a perfect example. Here he tells the crowd in Charlottesville, “I love the smell of tear gas in the morning”.