People and Their Stories: Firefighters, When They’re Not Saving Lives

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops photographs of firefighters when they are not trying to save lives, to make their portraits anonymous, unidentifiable.Some people hate to be photographed. And some, like the firefighters at a local fire station, will dress up, drag out all their equipment, pose draped up and down over the fire trucks, and entertain you for a whole afternoon. As long as it’s quiet. No emergency calls.

The assignment in my photography class was to make environmental portraits. That means you take pictures of your subjects in the location where they spend a lot of time, so you can show what their lives are like. An environmental portrait is supposed to tell you something about the person. But, because I post my pictures all over social media, for my particular project I have set challenging limitations for keeping the identities of my subjects hidden. Anonymous, non-identifiable portraits. Not easy when each helmet and truck is labeled. I hesitated to ask my main question, What did you lose and what did you find, as the ID tags hanging from every single article of clothing suggested this was a major issue. So later, in Photoshop, I blurred out as many identifiers as I could. Also, I photo-shopped layers of added texture or fabric, to obscure the firefighters’ faces.

“What’s it like to save a life?” I managed to ask as I shot them showing off their hatchets and hoses. They spoke of the scariness, the awesomeness, and adrenaline rushes. These people had seen a lot of loss. Maybe even some close scrapes with death. But here they were whooping up a shower of exhilaration. I, too, was feeling intense excitement just from their enthusiasm. So much so, that I forgot to record their answers.

Still, after I rubbed out their facial features, I was amazed at how much character could come out of the remaining stands of heavy canvas and rescue equipment. Firefighters taking a break on a quiet afternoon. When they’re not out saving lives.


If I were to make an environmental portrait of you, where would it take place?

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