Whether or not we care to admit it, each of us embarks on a new project or experience with preconceived notions. We get these ideas in our heads about what and how something (or someone) is going to be before we actually get down to business.
So it went for Josh LeClair, a Milwaukee area-based photographer tasked with documenting a few days in the lives of volunteer firefighters in East Fishkill, New York, a town about 70 miles north of Manhattan, for Marion Body Works, a Wisconsin-based company that manufactures fire and emergency vehicles.
These ostensibly gruff men, blue collar Northeasterners with accents as heavy as their fire suits, ended up being enlightening and empathetic interview subjects that brought substance to the project.
We were dealing with a lot of older New Yorkers, and they’re tough guys. They have a tough exterior. [But having] these conversations with these guys really showed how much heart and soul they have. They’re really worried about if there’s somebody facing death and how they can get there as quickly as possible to do their job as well as possible.
East Fishkill Fire Department owns about a dozen Marion-built apparatuses and has been buying from the company for more than three decades.
There’s a longstanding relationship and both parties wanted to show that off. [Marion] wanted me to talk to guys that have been using the equipment. Some of them have used Marion equipment their entire career.
Even though Marion asked Josh to shoot promotional videos centered around the actual firetrucks, the company wanted him to focus on the people who operate the equipment for their main video segment, “Fighting for Fifty-Six Square Miles”.
They wanted to make this more about the people putting in the hard work and being a firefighter on a regular basis. So, it’s less about ‘this is why you should buy a Marion fire truck’ — we did those videos as well — but they wanted this one to be about East Fishkill [firefighters] and why they’re so awesome at doing what they do.
The inspiration for this video came from content produced by Yeti, a company which makes outdoor lifestyle gear and creates content about the individuals who use their products as opposed to the products themselves.
Yeti has made a name for itself by not bragging about themselves in any way, shape, or form, and by doing videos that are more about people and their stories.
And man, do the people of EFFD have stories to tell. Josh spoke with four of the firefighters, all of whom gave interesting and compelling interviews. Still, one man’s recollections resonated especially strongly with Josh: those of First Assistant Chief Frank Lacalamita.
There’s a lot of guys that were forewarning us that ‘oh, Frankie — he’s going to be a tough [interview].’ But Frankie, as much as he would not want me to say this, was probably one of the most emotional interviews that we did.
He talked about a specific fire that they went to [where] he tested the temperature and immediately thought of his kids, who were about the same ages as some of his fellow firefighters who were about to go in. He was terrified that he’d essentially be sending them to their death because it was that hot.
In order to get these men to discuss their most intimate professional experiences, Josh had to listen carefully and ask pointed follow-ups.
It’s really just a matter of just making sure that, instead of having a specific list of questions and only doing those, you ask a question and then dive deeper into that question until you get that answer.
If you don’t get it on the second one, then you dive even deeper because everyone has that emotion. You just have to figure out how to actually make that connection.
Once Josh finished up the interviews, he shifted his focus to filming the firefighters in action. The footage at the end of “Fighting for Fifty-Six Square Miles” comes from a controlled burn that is part of the department’s training regimen. This gave Josh a chance to sit in one of the firetrucks and film the crew driving to the burn site.
For me, it was like being a little kid again. I’ve had the opportunity to have a camera in my hand and be in an ambulance on another job. I’ve also been in a medical helicopter before. Any time you get an opportunity like that, it’s just like ‘pinch me, I can’t believe this is happening.’
Despite the fact that this wasn’t an actual emergency situation, Josh still got a sense of what it takes to commit to this kind of work. This work, it should be noted again, is completely volunteer-based. Here’s a slice of what could happen at any given moment.
At three in the morning when everyone is supposedly sleeping peacefully, if they get a call, they go to the fire station and get the truck.
The wild part is, we followed the firetruck one time, and they went to somewhere ten minutes from the fire department, and it turned out to be a false alarm. So, the fire alarm went off and there was no issue whatsoever, but they have to go there and check it out anyway. I’m impressed that they’re willing to do something that not a lot of people are willing to do.
The unorthodox nature of this line of work makes it incredibly difficult to attract new people to the job. Seeing the firefighters adapt to these setbacks firsthand gave Josh another level of respect for these people.
It’s very difficult for them to do recruitment right now because there’s a lot of people who are like ‘I’m not going to be a firefighter.’ That was something that really impacted me — just seeing these guys who are putting in the work day in and day out and are hustling as hard as they can to make sure that people are safe.
I feel like people maybe don’t appreciate how much time and effort goes into this as well as the mental and emotional stress that they have to deal with.
See more of Josh’s work at leclair-photo.com.
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