Disasters shine a spotlight on our ways of living. The strengths and inefficacies of our systems are exposed. Disasters provide us with an essential opportunity to learn how we can become an ever more connected, humble, and loving society.
In 2018 my family's home and hometown was destroyed by the historic Camp Fire. I learned first hand that the world as we know it can change in an instant, that loss can be ambiguous, and that processing grief is essential to any meaningful recovery. As we face a future of increased disruption, disasters can be an opportunity to learn to live in greater harmony with each other and a dynamic planet.
What matters now?
Disasters can destroy the pillars of consistency and familiarity upon which we build our lives. They shake our belief in a stable, predictable future. Superficial stories are stripped away, revealing what is truly most important. "What matters now?", we ask ourselves. In the liminal space that results, we have the incredible opportunity to build a community that works for all life.
Storytelling as healing
For those who have experienced disaster, storytelling helps make sense of what was lost, what was experienced, and what could be. For those outside of the disaster, art tugs at the heart. It’s through story and image that emotion can be conveyed; the burden shared, action be inspired.
The climate crisis is already here. We have lost our homes, towns and even family and friends. To stop this governments of the worlds must act. NOW.
The Out of Ashes photo series began with a candid photograph of my parents after a day of sifting through ashes of our family home in Paradise, CA. It was immensely significant for me to be able to capture this moment- one that will forever define my family. Out of a desire to connect to my community during a period of defragmentation, I reached out to friends and neighbors who were also affected by the Camp Fire and offered to photograph them. These portrait sessions involved cathartic tears, tender embraces, and cherished family stories. The project grew as fires destroyed other northern California communities. Gradually, the project came to be called Out of Ashes, signifying the journey that is beginning in each portrait. Out of ashes each will rebuild their lives.
Out of AsheS
The Out of Ashes series caught the attention of community members and climate organizers. In 2022, several photographs from the series were selected to represent climate-driven disasters in grassroots climate activism campaigns. One image from the Out of Ashes photo series was selected for a public art campaign by Stop the Money Pipeline, a national climate coalition of more than 200 organizations working to bring about divestment from the fossil fuel industry. The image was divided and printed on 12 A4 sheets of newsprint. Over 50,000 of these poster packets were distributed around the US. Individuals and organizations reconstructed and wheat-pasted the image in public spaces to raise awareness about the human toll of climate change. The organization has called this campaign the nation’s largest street art action. Ten images of the Out of Ashes photo series were selected to represent the “face of climate change” during a climate protest in San Francisco. The event hosted a gallery-style exhibition of the photos in the street as well as 30ft x 50ft projection of a series of images onto a downtown San Francisco building.
Onagawa is a coastal town that was devastated by the 2011 Tsunami. Rather than rebuilding the same vulnerable infrastructure, the community took bold steps to reimagine and redesign the town to prevent catastrophic damage from future disasters. In Onagawa, rebuilding the social infrastructure was a necessary precursor to rebuilding the physical infrastructure. The Japanese government provided both immediate and long-term subsidized housing for all survivors, ensuring residents could remain and participate in the rebuilding process.
We went to Onagawa in 2019 to learn their story of resilience and gain insight into the arc of recovery. We were deeply moved by the wisdom, openness, and hospitality of the people of Onagawa.
In 2019, a tailings dam for an iron ore mine collapsed and released toxic mudflow into the community of Brumadinho resulting in a terrible loss of life. The community is still grappling with how to hold the mining company Vale responsible, while they remain the primary employer in the community.
In 2021, I went to Brazil to meet with community members, recovery experts, and indigenous elders to learn about their response to the disaster and their path forward.