Josh Edelson reveals what drives him to capture images of raging wildfires, and shares why climate change photojournalism just might save the world.
In 2019, there were more than 50,000 wildfires across the United States alone. That’s approximately 4.7 million acres of land burned to the ground. Each year, we hear news after news about this harrowing natural disaster, and each time, the devastation grows.
However, reporting on this information is helpful in keeping us informed. It also reminds us that climate change is in fact real and that photojournalism on our changing world matters. Images help remind us that this is real, it’s happening, and this is what it looks like.
Freelance photojournalist Josh Edelson shares stories about his prior life and how he ended up covering wildfires, and why photographers should continue to document climate change and natural disaster events. Here are his words.
Are you looking for images of wildfires? Explore wildfire stock images here.
Getting Started in Photography and Photojournalism
I majored in advertising and started out as a copywriter—otherwise known as the creative who comes up with interesting slogans and copy. Unfortunately, the money was terrible, especially since I was trying to break into a tiny ad market in San Diego. So I abandoned ship and gave into the allure of the almighty dollar by jumping into the mortgage and real estate industry right as it was exploding in growth. The money was great, but I was bored and felt like the right side of my brain was going into atrophy. So, I started buying cameras and taking international trips multiple times per year. Then it all just clicked.
I wanted to be a writer so I could create an impact; to affect some sort of change. I realized I could achieve that same goal with a picture that I could with a piece of writing, but that a picture does it faster! So I started taking travel photos, then got bored. Then started doing portraits, then got bored. I wanted to take photos of things very few people see. Then I discovered the news, and to break in, chose a subject that very few people chased—fires. Ultimately, it wasn’t until I met my mentor Noah Berger that it all came together.
What My Photography Mentor Taught Me About Photojournalism
The biggest piece of wisdom I took from Noah was that to make it as a freelance photojournalist, you need to have a bread-and-butter source of income. For me, it became corporate photography. Covid has changed things a bit, but typically, about 80% of my income comes from my corporate work (headshots, corporate events, and advertising shoots).
I’ve found that the corporate work and my photojournalism work (wildfires, protests, etc) are pretty symbiotic. The corporate work pays about ten times what a typical news day rate is, so the corporate pays the bills and allows me to continue shooting photojournalism. Photojournalism, although it doesn’t pay much, is exciting and keeps my edge sharp and is more of my core passion. Both sides help with the other.
Developing a Passion for Covering Wildfires
There’s nothing that makes us (and more specifically, me) more humbled than witnessing the raw power of nature. And it just so happens that wildfires are right in my backyard. In the state of California, the media has full access to wildfires, and most of them are within a 5-hour drive for me so I can get to them quickly. Wildfires are dangerous and destructive, but also beautiful. Fire creates its own light, is totally unpredictable, and creates these striking visual scenes that when paired with a story are really impactful.
I’ve covered maybe 50 fires. I’ve learned many of the patterns needed to stay alive. For example, always have an exit so I don’t get trapped and surrounded by flames, always keep my vehicle on (fire can consume all the oxygen in the area making it impossible to restart your car), and many other tidbits of information I’ve learned along the way. Sometimes there’s an amazing shot within reach that I have to let go because it’s too risky to get. It happens all the time really.
The Ethics of Photojournalism and Capturing Tragedy in Wildfires
Content Warning: This section contains graphic details of photojournalism that may be sensitive to some readers. Discretion is advised before continuing to read.
Probably the most impactful, and I think the only time I actually cried on a fireline was when I found a coroner during the Camp fire in Paradise, California, and followed him to a scene where they found a body. They lifted a metal roof from a mobile home up to reveal the completely charred human remains of an elderly woman. Her lips and eyelids were burned off, but I could still see the look on her face, frozen from the moment she died. I struggled for weeks with the ethics of what to do with those photos. Would family members discover the woman died after seeing her photo on the covers of newspapers? Would our access be affected if I filed photos of the body? Was it too gruesome to show? Does the public deserve to see this?
I made the incredibly difficult decision not to file the photos, but I still struggle with whether or not I made the right decision. Over the next few days, I went on to photograph dozens of more bodies and remains, but only filed photos of the body bags. That was the only intact body I saw on that fire.
The Emotional Toll and Photographing With Friends
It usually takes me about three days to totally decompress from capturing images of a wildfire. I’ll be there for days, living in my car, always alert, and my entire world is about fire and getting the story. When I get home, my wife will want to talk to me about what to get at the grocery store or about a conversation she had with her mom and all I can think about are burning buildings and destruction. It can be hard to come back to reality.
Talking with my photojournalist friends who capture images of wildfires and interacting with people on social media is what I usually do to parse through all my thoughts. Sometimes I’ll be in a normal place—like a shopping center—on an errand, and I just keep thinking about what it all would look like on fire. I call it “fire brain” when I can’t disengage. My head is still up there.
I used to shoot alone, but over the past few years, there’s four of us who pretty regularly pair up. We usually double up in two cars to have a smaller footprint and communicate with our custom-outfitted radios. Pairing up helps us stay safe by being able to bounce ideas off one another as to where to go, and whether or not it’s safe. Shooting alone is definitely more dangerous and scary, but sometimes it enables you to get images that no one else gets.
Advice for Photographers Wanting to Document Wildfires
- Tip #1: Stay out of firefighters’ way. What they do out there takes priority over you, and no shot is worth getting in their way.
- Tip #2: Always wear proper PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). That means Nomex, helmet, goggles, gloves, fire shelter, boots, etc. Being out there in shorts and flip flops not only endangers you, but it makes other media look bad.
- Tip #3: Never block a road with your car. And always park backwards.
“Media” members have been ruining our access lately by violating all three of these rules, making it more difficult for us to effectively do our jobs. And to be frank, it’s embarrassing.
I’ve learned that if I miss a fire because of a family obligation or other personal reason, there WILL be more. There always are, unfortunately. And it’s not enough to just go document. I feel driven and compelled to push the envelope creatively to stay ahead of the curve and to continue to deliver impactful images that cut through the clutter and bring the story to you in a way that forces you to stop and say “wow.”
Huge thanks to photojournalist Josh Edelson for sharing his thoughts and insights with us. If you’re interested in contributing wildfire images to stock, click here to sign up and get started.
Top Image by Josh Edelson/AP/Shutterstock.
For more interviews with photographers and creatives, check out these articles: