Trial by Fire: Interview with Josh Edelson & Noah Berger
Erik Nielsen: When did you guys first meet and when did you start taking pictures together?
Josh Edelson: I met Noah at a fire in San Francisco. I was this lowly amateur photographer and there was an underground electrical explosion not far from my apartment. I wandered down there and was shooting maybe a hundred feet up in the air. I saw Noah – I didn't know him – and he had his two cameras. After that, when things settled down, I went up to him and was like, "Hey man, how do you make a living as a photographer?" We started talking about how to survive in terms of making a decent income. We became friends and then fast forward, he was in my wedding and we're super tight.
Erik: How do you navigate fire and how do you watch each others’ backs while still getting the images necessary to tell a story?
Josh: We’re usually working for different agencies. Usually, there's a small group of us that sticks together during wildfires because it's safer.
Noah: There’s also the physical aspect. When making decisions, a lot of it comes down to, “Do you want to drive through that wall of smoke?” So, it's nice to have another person, either pushing you to do more or holding you back.
Erik: How would you compare photographing the fires to photographing protests?
Noah: I used to really love doing the violent protests here such as Occupy or Black Lives Matter. In the last couple of years, it has gotten really dangerous for us. They target the media right away. It's gotten a lot harder to photograph those things and stay safe.
Erik: What's the major misconception people have about wildfires?
Noah: One that really bugs me is they use these numbers of percentages contained. You'll read that a fire is 25% contained; most people think this means that 75% is still raging and a lot of reporters don't get this distinction either, but it's actually a number of what percent of the fire they have circled with containment lines. The other one is that it takes media coverage days to catch up with the reality. People look at photos that are two days old, and while the Camp Fire didn’t even last 24 hours, most people think it has been burning for three weeks.
Erik: What is it about the fire that you're so addicted to? What about fire obsesses you?
Noah: You're in a world where you don't have to deal with the normal parts of life; you're not dealing with emails and paying your bills. Your needs and your goals are very pared down to the basics. You only have one goal.
Josh: It triggers some sort of inner survival instinct that goes dormant in our normal day-to-day life.
Noah: I want to keep in mind that we are really sensitive to not say that this is super fun. It’s always within the context of work and realizing that people who live here are suffering in life changing ways.
Erik: Was there a particular fire that heavily impacted you?
Josh: This Campfire that recently happened was the one that emotionally affected me the most. There are a lot of fires where maybe only one building burned. Obviously it's horrible, but recently we were faced with so many deaths and so many burnt buildings. All we saw were body bags being carried out, and I actually saw completely burned bodies. The image of that will definitely stay with me forever.
Erik: How do you adjust to and decompress after a situation like that? What is life after the wildfire?
Noah: It's really hard. I have a wife and an eight-year-old. My wife knows that when I come home I'm going to be zoned out for a day or two. Your heart is still there even though your body is back home.
Josh: I've only been married for about a year and a half. I've had to go through the motions of trying to explain to my wife. I tried to explain to her that there's so so many things that I've witnessed. I remember Noah texting me one time when I was at a baseball game and he was saying, “I'm just looking at these trees off in the distance and I just can't stop imagining what they would look like burning.” I don't know if it’s mild-PTSD.
Erik: How have the long periods away from home affected you and affected your family?
Noah: This year, I was probably gone roughly 60 to 70 days for fire coverage this season. It’s had a bad effect on my son. He picked up some OCD behaviors. This is something I'm sure actual firefighters have way worse than us, because they’re out at one fire for three weeks or a month. I don't want to say that we have it the worst, but it does take a toll.
Josh: My wife and I are talking about having kids and what it would look like during fire season if she was pregnant or if we had a newborn. Would I leave? Under what circumstances would I stay?
Erik: What are those conversations like?
Noah: I promised my family a trip to Hawaii to make up for it. The day before the trip the Camp Fire broke out. I skipped it and just ate the cost of the ticket. Usually it's something like that for me.
Josh: We're still talking about it. We're not sure exactly how it's going to go and what our rules are; which times I can or can’t go. My wife's father died five years ago and every year there’s what she calls his deathiversary. A couple years ago a fire broke out right during that time so I went through the fire. She was really upset. We're still trying to figure out exactly I'll get back to you in a few years.