Photographer Captures the Dark Reality of the California Wildfire Aftermath.
Teaming up with dangerously high winds, the wildfires of Northern California sprinted through suburban neighborhoods, killing over 40, and destroying billions in property. While the media flashes glimpses of the menacing red and orange flames from a safe distance, fathoming the destruction is a mental exercise that can only be truly realized from the first person survey of destruction.
We spoke with photographer Philip Tabah who drove out to Santa Rosa while the fire was still burning through the hills. Discussing his photos and experience in the neighborhood, the urgency and helplessness that crept up on these neighborhoods is palpable.
New Library: Driving through the once vibrant areas and neighborhoods destroyed by the wildfires, what was the feel and atmosphere like as you documented the destruction?
Philip Tabah: I used to have a nightmare as a kid that I was the only survivor in an apocalyptic wasteland - Walking around searching for any sign of life. When I got through to the affected areas in Santa Rosa, it felt like I was reliving that dream in real life.
It was pure destruction. Surreal. The smell was something I’ll never forget, either. It was a mix of burning cars, homes, and everything inside - people’s whole lives, up in flames.
NL: What was your artistic motivation through this series?
PT: I had absolutely no idea what to expect before I left for Santa Rosa, and when I got there I was so completely overwhelmed. At first, I didn’t know where to start - because I had never seen destruction like that in my entire life - so I just started shooting. I focused a lot on the cars people left behind, because to me it paints a good picture of how fast people must have had to evacuate.
In the end, I just wanted to show how destructive and quick the fire moved through the neighbourhood.
NL: Did you talk to any of the locals while driving through the area? While obviously a tragic situation, what was their sentiment?
PT: When I got there, I saw a young couple embraced in each others arms just sitting in front of their home, weeping. That was enough for me to decide that I wanted to observe everything from a distance and try to be as respectful as I could while I was there.
From what I could tell, most people just couldn’t process what they were seeing. It was a mix of curiosity and horror. There wasn’t much else to do other than sitting back and watching from a distance.
NL: What in general interests/motivates you as a creative director and photographer - are there any clear threads across your work?
PT: I don’t think there’s a visually obvious thread across my work, but curiosity definitely drives me the most as a creative. I try to focus on different “micro-obsessions” every couple months, where I’ll pick something I’m curious about and dive in to everything I can find about it. I’ve been in to woodworking, photography, cryptocurrencies, cooking, whisky, and more over the last year and I think having these small obsessions adds to this pool of knowledge I can pick from when I need to do some creative problem-solving or ideation.
"I focused a lot on the cars people left behind, because to me it paints a good picture of how fast people must have had to evacuate. "
Thanks to Philip for sharing his words and photos. Check out more of his work on his website and instagram.
PS. If you don't already catch New Library's Daily + Sunday Reader, Subscribe Here. It's What We Do Best. (Plus it costs $0).
Want to check out more photography? Then check out Samuel Hicks' arresting photo series, On The Way.