PDN Photo of the Day

Picturing the Next Generation of Firefighters

Peter Prato’s series “Evolutions” depicts cadets in the Oakland Fire Department Academy, taken on one of their last days of training, in the minutes before and after an exhaustive physical exam. The series grew out of Prato’s friendship with a man who went through the Academy to become a firefighter and then returned as a trainer, “a temporary position after which he’d rotate back into active duty,” Prato tells PDN by email. Last summer Prato met with his friend and his friend’s colleagues at the Academy to pitch his idea for portraits that highlight the cadets’ hard work. “I think everyone knows what a firefighter is but few are aware of what it takes to become one, or what the day-to-day of that looks like,” says Prato. The Academy agreed to let Prato photograph on the condition that “it would be at the cadets’ discretion as to whether or not they sat for me.” (All said yes, but Prato’s suspicion that they felt pressure from superiors “was evidenced by every one of them calling me “sir” and practically standing at attention for me. I insisted it wasn’t necessary and they reminded me it had been ground into them,” he says.)

The title of the series refers to the physical tests that the cadets are required to pass at the end of their training, which involve “throwing ladders [and] running line up a six-story structure in a simulated fire,” among other rigorous tasks. Says Prato, “It’s important to note that this was the penultimate day of their finals. They had roughly 24 hours left of a four month process that, for some, was on the heels of years (and in at least one case, a decade) of preparation, trial, failure, and repetition before finding out if they would make the final cut.”

Prato spent about 12 hours photographing 31 cadets, some in full gear and others in blues, their off-call uniforms. “I had anywhere from five to 15 minutes with each person,” he says. Working tethered and without an assistant in a classroom trailer set up as a studio, Prato photographed cadets before or after their exams, and a few posed twice, “so with some you can see the transformation” as they return sweaty and spent after the test. As the day progressed, some came back to see their images. “I normally don’t like my subjects to see the images as I make them but in this case it helped establish trust much faster, and when I made it clear that I’d be sharing the images with them (some thought they would have to buy them from me) in addition to using them for my book and to submit to competitions, an appreciation began to form that added to the momentum. No one opted out.”

More than one person has told Prato that the lighting in the series calls to mind Rembrandt—in the studio, he created what looks like soft northern window light, often to left of the camera. (Prato says his lighting was inspired by Adam Ferguson’s “The Pilots Fighting ISIS ” which was shot in 2015 for The New York Times” and depicts men who carry out air offensives in Iraq and Syria.) About his own work, Prato says, “My own criticism…is that this light can start to feel a little too melodramatic… I don’t want someone to look at these images and think, “Oh, the light!” I want them to look at the images and think, ‘Who are these people?'”

Prato intended the images to serve as a reminder of the hard work and sacrifice that firefighters make every day. “I hope people see these images and become more curious about the people that are in these roles and, in turn, that this leads to a deeper appreciation for what these people put themselves through in order to be able to do this job,” he says. “It’s incredibly demanding work that maintains a safety net that I think many people, myself included, take for granted in this country.”

A few months after Prato made these images, the Oakland Fire Department faced the deadliest fire in the city’s history, when a warehouse burned during a party, killing 36 people. Prato notes, “Firefighters look like superheroes to kids and feel like noise to adults until the day comes when they’re face to face with one pulling them or their loved ones out of a car accident or a burning building or god knows what else. If that sounds melodramatic, it’s worth recalling that within two months the cadets that I met that were sworn in were faced with the worst fire, in terms of human loss, in the history of the city of Oakland. This is what they need to be prepared to deal with every single time they show up to work.”

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