When a fire call goes in, Jillian Stewart of New Cumberland grabs her gear and heads out.
But, she’s not handling hoses or placing ladders when she arrives at the scene of a fire. Rather, she takes pictures of those who do.
Her photos recently caught the attention of followers of the Carlisle Fire and Rescue Services Facebook page when the fire company re-posted dozens of her photographs from a March 14 house fire in the second block of South Pitt Street.
Q. What drew you to specialize in fire scene photography?
A. I got into it totally by accident. I was helping our local department (New Cumberland) with creating recruitment material and wanted to use some photos of their crew on jobs. After shooting my first fire, I was hooked. I love the excitement and watching the men and women working together. Ninety percent of the fire departments in Pennsylvania are volunteer. That means these men and women are putting in countless hours of training and running into burning buildings for free. If my photography brings what they do to people’s attention, maybe the townships and boroughs will do more for them. It would be nice if they didn’t have to have chicken barbecues and bingos to survive.
Now I travel all over the country and shoot fire conferences and hands-on training classes. Being around people who take such pride in what they do and are so passionate about their craft is really amazing.
Q. When a call goes in, how do you decide whether or not you will respond?
A. I always have my gear with me and I get alerts to calls in Cumberland, York and Dauphin counties. If I hear a call come through as a structure fire, I usually go. I handle marketing for Anderson’s Chimney & Masonry and it’s a family-run business so I can usually come and go for calls when needed. It also helps that Mr. Anderson is captain at New Cumberland Fire Department so he totally gets it. I have traveled as far as Baltimore and New Jersey for really big stuff like apartment complex fires and warehouse buildings.
As far as photographing the fire conferences and HOT classes, I try to go to as many of them as I can. Over the past year, I had the chance to shoot Water On The Fire in Pensacola, Firemanship in Portland, Oregon, HROC in Pensacola and Art of Firemanship Days and Making The Stretch, both here in Harrisburg. Conferences usually range three to five days and are split between sit-down classroom sessions and real world hands-on training.
Q. What is your approach to shooting a fire scene?
A. When I arrive, my adrenaline is going pretty good because you never really know what to expect until you see it. I usually park a block or so up the street so there is plenty of room for any apparatus or police that may still be arriving. From the time I get out of my car and get my cameras out, I have them on and I’m shooting as I move forward. The quicker you get on scene the better the chance of getting really good action shots. I am very careful, though, of staying out of the way. The last thing the firefighters should have to worry about is a photographer getting under foot. Once I walk around the fire scene, I come back to where all the firefighters may be staged and I really focus on their faces and the work they are doing.
Q. How have the firefighting personnel responded to your presence at the scenes?
A. I can’t rave enough about how great every single firefighter I have come in contact with has been from the young volunteers to the retired NYFD guys. I think we all have a mutual respect for what each of us does. I have zero interest in ever fighting fire or going into a burning building, but I do want my photography to help give a voice to what they do. I’ve worked really hard from the start to make sure I make a good name for myself. They know I am careful not to get in the way and not to get hurt. After I photograph a fire scene or a conference, I reach out to as many people as I can that were involved in the incident/class and give them access to all my photos.
Q. What’s the most unusual thing that has ever happened to you at a scene?
A. I try to stay in the background when I’m shooting. I am documenting a horrible, life changing event in a person’s life. I totally understand that and I respect what a family is going through in that moment and even afterwards. On multiple occasions, I have had family members reach out to me after the fact and thank me for my photos. That blows me away but they have said that when the fire is happening it all happens so fast and they are kind of in shock. After the fact, seeing my photos have helped them see how hard everyone worked to save their home, lives and their pets.