'Ashes Fell Like Snow' by Roman Cho captures faces and stories from 2017 North Bay wildfires
Northern Californians have seen increasingly devastating wildfires up close in recent years, but sometimes a new look from afar allows us to see events and their aftermath through a fresh lens.
Southern California freelance magazine photographer Roman Cho will revisit the Sonoma County fires of October 2017 in hopes of shedding new light on the subject, with a free public photo exhibit titled “Ashes Fell Like Snow,” to be displayed through most of December at Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square.
Cho, 43, a cycling enthusiast, who has friends in Sonoma County, has been visiting the area since 2016. Last year, he participated in the 2017 Levi’s GranFondo mass ride through the county, followed by a festival at the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa.
After returning home to Los Angeles, he soon saw and heard disturbing news on television and social media.
“A week later, the fires went up, and the Finley Community Center was now an evacuation center, and I saw friends post all these updates on Facebook about what was going on in town, offering rooms to people who needed them, and I was really moved by it,” Cho said.
“I was really taken aback by the amount of community outreach that was happening and how much community members were coming to help each other,” he said. “I thought. ‘I would like to help. How can I contribute?’ I didn’t have a lot of money so I thought the best way I could contribute was to come up and photograph these people and gather their stories.”
Knowing that the national news outlets would soon move on to other stories, Cho reasoned that people who lost homes to the flames couldn’t leave the experience behind so easily.
“They couldn’t just move on. They were in it for the next five to 10 years to recover to back where thtey were before,” Cho said.
“I thought the best I could do is keep the story in front of the general public as much as I could, and give the public a better understanding of what the people of Sonoma County went through.”
Cho returned to Sonoma County in late October of 2017 “without a real good plan,” and spent two weeks photographing and interviewing local people about the fires. He made return visits over the following two months.
“I found people through word of mouth, through recommendations and through reaching out to strangers through Facebook. I ended up photographing 51 people. I had them talk about their experiences. The idea was that their photos would be accompanied by their interviews,” he explained.
For the outdoor exhibit at Old Courthouse Square, presented by Luther Burbank Savings and hosted by the City of Santa Rosa through its Art in Public Places program, the large-scale photographs and printed versions of the brief interviews will be displayed together on custom-built stands.
“I tried to get a sample of everybody that was involved in the event, so some of them obviously are people who lost their houses, and some didn’t lose their houses, but they had to evacuate. Some people didn’t lose anything but they were involved in the relief efforts. Some were in the first responders category, or from the city government,” Cho explained.
“One rule I did have for myself was to not photograph property without the owner present, for the most part, because I didn’t want to be the voyeur in this sensitive spot,” he said. “I didn’t want all these owners who were going through this tragedy to feel intruded upon. So I didn’t take a whole lot of landscapes. I felt it was important to treat the community with respect.”
The photographer had hoped to include undocumented immigrants affected by the fires, but was unable to get anyone to agree to be photographed, which he could certainly understand, he said.
Cho is careful not to present his project as a journalistic endeavor.
“I consider myself more of a storyteller,” he said.
You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707- 521-5243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @danarts.