Recently, I was asked by a firefighter I was photographing, “What kind of lens are you using?” He’s an amateur photographer and naturally just as curious about my gear as I am about his.
In fact, I’m so much more interested in his gear that I’m embarrassed to say I had to look at the lens to answer his question. Oh, of course I know it’s a Tamron lens and that it has quickly become on of my favorite tools for the work I do creating portraits of firefighters around the nation. But to tell him specifically it’s the SP 17-50mm F/2.8 just doesn’t roll off my tongue easily.
I never learned to pay much attention to the technical details of the equipment I use. That goes for my computer, my smart phone, or even the car I drive. I’m one of those over-confident people who starts using the equipment first then reads the manual later.
I wasn’t trained to understand the ins and outs of the gear. I’m not as interested in what’s in or on the camera as I am about what comes out of it.
I can proudly say I was trained by New York City firefighters in the days, months and years that followed 9/11. They taught me to look with my heart when framing a portrait. They showed me how to listen to their sorrow with my ears and with my lens. They let me into their private domain where I was allowed to share their tears of grief, their humor, their camaraderie, and a few too many meals. They even brought their children for me to meet and photograph.
After the deaths of 343 firefighters in the World Trade Center, many of the families of surviving firefighters wanted their sons and husbands to quit before anything happened to them, too. These brave men and women asked me to show their loved ones just how passionate they are about their jobs, how proud they are of their engines and trucks, and how much they love the members of their crews. Together, they are a family connected by their commitment to serve their communities and protect each other while protecting us all. We saw that again in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the support they showed to other first responders in Newtown, CT.
So it’s important to me to find the humanity, the dignity, the courage, and the pride of firefighters and reflect it in the photos I take of them. The challenges of the work requires simplicity, ease, and speed. I’m always working against the next alarm, the next 9-1-1 call, the next joke, the next moment - whatever it might be. Being ready emotionally is just as important as having my equipment ready.
Over the past 11 years, I have counted on my Tamron lenses to be there for me.The 17-50mm is no exception. I trust it to do the job I need it to do without worry. So if I’m photographing a man about to retire after 30 years of service, I can focus on him, not my equipment. I can talk him through the moment to ease his shyness, I can ignore the poor lighting conditions and limited space, I can laugh with the crew surrounding me lobbing jokes and tossing teases to my subject while we try to get the shot before the next emergency.
The joy of working with the Tamron 17-50mm is that it provides me with the flexibility and ease I need in this environment. Working in such tight quarters I rarely have need for a longer focus, but often require quick adaptation from a close shot to a wider one without losing essential time to change the lens or even switch cameras. I may be in the middle of an intimate portrait then catch from the corner of my eye the catlike steps of a crew preparing to thank a retiring captain for 30 years of service with a traditional prank of affection.
There is no time to change the lens, just get the shot. Thankfully, with the Tamron 17-50mm, I’m ready for anything that might happen in a fire station!
To learn more about the project go to www.FireFighterArchive.com.