The discrimination against women to be hired in powerful roles is a battle we still contend with daily. News stories of gender prejudice and pay gaps often hit headlines, and despite uproar it is a reoccurring problem that remains unsolved for no legitimate reason. In this respect, it actually seems unsurprising that before 1976 women were not allowed to apply to be a firefighter in the state of San Francisco, and even once this law was lifted it took 12 years for any women to actually be hired.
However now, 30 years since they first hired women, San Francisco has “about 16% women, which is far above any other department,” says photographer Christie Hemm Klok, who has made this shift against discrimination the focal point for her book, The Women of SFFD. “But the reason for that was a court mandate that required the San Francisco Fire Department to stop with its discriminatory practices. After that the first seven women were hired into the SFFD,” she explains.
Christie began working with female firefighters back in 2016 after she had left her job at a tech magazine with the intention of heading back to the freelance realm of working. “I’d lived in San Francisco for a few years by 2016 and had seen women on firetrucks. I thought I would give the project a try,” she tells It’s Nice That.
In the photographer’s beginning stages of research she discovered the United Fire Service Women, and at just the right time. “I sent an e-mail asking if they would be interested in helping me find female firefighters to photograph in San Francisco. I received a reply pretty quickly that they were interested, and had begun the search for a photographer to shoot a group photo of all the women in the department due to the upcoming 30 year anniversary of women in the SFFD in September, 2017.”
Christie’s point of contact for the project was a firefighter and executive board member of the United Fire Service Women, Mary Minogue-Reidy. “I told her about my proposed project and she was completely on board to help make that happen. As soon as Mary and I met we really clicked, I’ve been lovingly nicknamed her little sister.” The first shoot, and gateway to a much larger project, was a shoot with the firefighters, current and retired “at Crissy Field, at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge,” says the photographer. “It gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of the firefighters as well as get my project idea out there. After the group shot in October 2016, the project really took off.”
Once acquainted with the current firefighters Christie began “driving all over the city meeting women at their firehouses,” she explains. “As someone who had very little interactions with firefighters before this, it was really fun for me to go on ride alongs. I never went to a fire, but I did go to two different stabbings, and a lot of medical calls.” The process of accompanying these women, in their tense and important working environment, meant the photographer had to be understandably considerate. “I wasn’t sure what to expect when I showed up at the firehouses,” says Christie. “I never knew what kind of shooting situation I was walking into, which can be stressful when you are trying to light a portrait, I had to be quick on my feet and flexible in my approach. Aside from the technical, I also rarely had much conversation with the subject before I showed up. I had instantly clicked with Mary, but I didn’t know what to expect for the rest.”
Yet, Christie speaks about photographing her subjects with complete compassion and admiration. “Luckily one of my first shoots was with Willa Ortega at Station 13. As soon as I walked in I felt like I’d known her forever,” she explains. “Aside from being hilarious, she is also so genuine and sweet. While shooting Willa, Battalion Chief, Anita Paratley stopped by the station and I honestly couldn’t believe how amazing this woman was. Not only was she a complete bad ass Battalion Chief, but she was so outgoing and friendly. I instantly loved her, I really could talk to her for hours on end. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be let into their lives. Honestly, it was a true honour.”
On asking Christie how the female firefighters described or felt about their profession Christie explains: “Whenever they would talk about their jobs or the department it was always with such pride and passion. I don’t think I met one woman who didn’t say it was the best job in the world. All their paths were different. Some had fathers that were fighters and some had completely different careers in marketing or the food service industry, but however they got there they were so grateful to end up where they had.”
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of women being part of San Francisco’s fire department, the photographer also explains how the women are only looking to the future. “When I would ask them about the 30 year anniversary and how they felt, no one ever brought up that it had only been 30 years and that the department had been forced to let them in,” she explains. “It’s amazing how dark and hilariously cynical they can be but when you bring up this anniversary pride just exudes from them. I really liked that. It could be easy to find the negative in an anniversary like this but they are a group that looks forward. They are here now and they are kicking ass.”
Christie’s book, The Women of SFFD is available to buy here.
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