Fire Photographer Profile: Trevor James

Firefighters operate a hoseline at a fire.

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Trevor James has been capturing images of firefighters working in various locations in Maryland and beyond. He took the time to give Fire Engineering (FE) some insight into his approach to taking fire scene photos.

FE: What got you started in fire photography?

TJ: We had a dark room growing up in our house and I learned how to do black & white film developing and printing with my dad. I also had a huge obsession with fire trucks and fire stations, making my parents stop at every firehouse we passed to take a photo of the trucks. My dad and grandfather used to take me to the big textile mill fires in Fall River, Massachusetts, and we’d watch the firefighters put master streams on these enormous blazes. I followed Boston Fire and FDNY closely and took a lot of inspiration from Steven Scher’s photo books on the FDNY.

I studied photography in high school and did a high school project on firehouses. Later in college at the New York State College of Ceramics as part of my BFA degree, I continued to study B&W and alternative process photography. After graduation, I moved to Philadelphia and started buffing and chasing the Philadelphia Fire Department incidents as much as possible. When my family settled in Frederick, Maryland, I started following the local fire service in Frederick County, and since I work in Chevy Chase, Maryland, I started chasing Montgomery County calls regularly.

FE: What kind of equipment do you use?

TJ: My equipment is minimal. Nikon 3200 with two lenses, one short glass (15-50mm) for wide/full shots; and a 300mm for long/close shots. I have a shoe flash for interior work where I’m not relying on available light. I carry multiple memory cards and fit all of this in one small camera bag for portability. I use Lightroom for post processing; and any specific design or manipulation work will be handled in Photoshop.

FE: What have been some of your more memorable jobs?

A recent two-alarm in Hagerstown, Maryland, at night, with heavy fire and smoke showing from a residential and mixed-use commercial building. Fire was still heavy and through the roof when I arrived about one hour into the incident. The fire produced a blanket of smoke, covering the street level, apparatus, and crews in a thick fog of dense smoke. I was not wearing SCBA but had very close (but safe) access on the fireground and at one point I had to dive into a neighboring laundry facility building to get clear of the smoke and get fresh air. The smoke was blowing right into our direction, forcing us to bail from the street. A bunch of firefighters and bystanders were also in the facility, getting clear of the smoke and hydrating. I was able to get some powerful shots of the firefighters operating in this smoke cloud on this incident.

Another memorable job was a recent mountain/woods fire in Gambrill State Park, Frederick, Maryland. This incident was also at night and only about a mile above my house on the mountain in the Whittier/Grambrill section of Frederick. I could see the fire burning from the Whittier Lake as I drove up to Gambrill Park Road where units were staging. I had to hike/bushwhack into the incident with the wildland team from Co. 7. We had about 300-400 yards of hilly, rocky and woods terrain to scale to get to the incident location off of the road. I did have good hiking boots on that night and needed them.

FE: What’s unique about the area you cover–the place, the firefighters, the hazards, etc.?

TJ: How busy this area is. I’m able to cover four to five major counties and jurisdictions, so there’s a good chance of catching a major job in one of these departments’ response area almost on a daily basis. Hagerstown has a lot of old (100+ years) structures, as does Frederick City. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have an enormous amount of garden-style apartment complexes, mixed-use residential/commercial, and other type of commercial buildings and warehouses, duplexes, and townhomes. Baltimore and D.C. have a huge amount of older row homes. There are usually a few incidents going on per day (as I listen to the scanner now, we have a building fire and a brush fire going on simultaneously in Montgomery County) and I often feel the need to clone myself to get to all of the incidents.

Also, we have an interesting mix of career and volunteer firefighters in all of the nearby counties. Prince George’s County has one of the largest combination departments in the country. Baltimore and D.C. are two of the busiest city departments in the country. So there’s a nice opportunity to getting photos of all aspects of the fire service here.

FE: What have been some of your more memorable publications?

TJ: I was asked by Montgomery County Fire & Rescue to do a series of photos to represent their box alarm and working fire dispatches in terms of the equipment and crews they sent on these assignments. This panoramic image is now used as the header image on the MCFRS Web site (https://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/mcfrs/).

I was also asked to do an image/design for the Montgomery County Fire & Rescue 1st Battalion paramedics to represent all of their paramedic units. The image is being sold, framed, as part of a 1st Battalion fundraiser.

FE: Any advice to aspiring fire photogs?

TJ: Make connections and introduce yourself to firefighters and command staff on the fireground. Talk to the firefighters and get to know them. Share your photos with the crews and take their crew shot for them in front of their rig(s). Get to know your local jurisdiction public information officer (PIO). Fire photography is not just about taking the shot; it’s also about building professional relationships and contributing back to the fire service as much as possible. Help the PIOs cover events and incidents and share photos with them.

Go to jobs as much as possible and take a lot of photos from different angles and approaches. Try to push yourself out of your comfort zone in terms of photography. If you normally shoot rule of thirds from a consistent waist level or head level shot, try to put the camera on the ground at an angle and take the shot from there. Put your camera in all sorts of spots to get an interesting shot. Don’t look through the viewfinder, just shoot. You may end up with a frame that’s more interesting. So to summarize, go to jobs, and build relationships.

You can follow my work on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jamesweblabs

… and on FireScenes: http://www.firescenes.net/?tag=trevor-james

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