What Happens When a 'Wildfire Wedding Photo' Goes Viral

As climate change brings more frequent and more destructive natural disasters, more people must face the challenges of living life as scheduled on the edge of chaos.
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Rarely do wedding days go as planned: The ring-bearer gets sick, a caterer brings chicken instead of fish, but couples adapt. But for couples in wildfire-prone areas like Colorado, hurdles can be significantly more serious. "Wildfires are a part of life," says Sara Kramer (née McLaughlin), who married Michael Kramer on June 9th as the 416 Fire raged in southwestern Colorado.

The Fort Collins-based Kramers had been planning to trade "I Do's" at Cascade Village Lodge in La Plata County, but when area officials declared a state of local disaster that evacuated the venue, Sara and Michael relocated their wedding to a relative's house in nearby Durango. That evening, they excused themselves to take a photo outside, embracing against a backdrop of tangerine-orange smoke.

It wasn't long before journalists approached. The image, captured by photographer Alexi Hubbell, went viral.

It's no surprise that people are drawn to images like this. "Natural disasters are some of the most viscerally powerful things we see on this planet," says disaster researcher Mika McKinnon. "And to have that juxtaposed with a wedding—to have that contrast between chaos and order—is an aesthetically interesting thing."

Even so, Sara says she and Michael were shocked when international news agencies expressed interest, and equally shocked when the backlash began and people criticized their intentions. For Sara, a restoration ecology master's student, the photo simply reflects the risks of her reality; it doesn't glorify the fire or serve as a means to fame.

"It was initially taken as a personal way to remember how the fire had so greatly shaped our day and impacted local family and friends," she said in an email. "As it gained attention we quickly realized it could be used to help the communities of Durango and Silverton through donations, and spread the word that they need help."

The Kramers live in a wildfire-adapted community. They're prepared for and understanding of wildfires as features of their lives, going so far as to recognize how they're ecologically essential. "It is a tragedy when people lose their homes and livelihoods," Sara says. "[But many] news outlets focus heavily on the negatives of fire without discussing the potential for so much beneficial change."

Some journalists detached from that lifestyle have focused on the beauty of the image at the expense of tragedy, Sara adds. She found that writers who were more drawn to the drama of the wedding lost interest in the story after she failed to focus on that in interviews.

As widespread curiosity about the Kramers' wedding photo highlights, most of us don't live in the shadow of natural disaster. The New York Times recently found that, since 2002, 20 percent of the United States' population has sustained 90 percent of total losses from such events.

But that may soon change. Many natural disasters—including wildfires—are increasing in intensity, frequency, and duration. Last year was the most expensive on record in terms of damages from natural disasters; in 2015, wildfires burned nine times the acreage they did in 1984, as a direct result of climate change and fire mitigation practices.

That means populations unaccustomed to natural disasters will soon feel their effects. Recording our pursuits of normalcy in the foreground of wildfires, storms, earthquakes, and floods may not lose its novelty entirely, but more and more of us will have to grapple with the cognitive dissonance that accompanies living life as scheduled on the edge of chaos.

Learning to reckon publicly with this reality is a life skill, experts say. There are benefits to photographing and sharing our experiences with natural disasters—but also many ways we can inadvertently cause harm.

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"Everyone's a citizen journalist right now," says Terray Sylvester, a freelance news and editorial photographer. And the moment we post to social media, we're complicit in what happens because of that post. But thinking like a professional photojournalist may help us avoid posting "disaster porn"—anything that sensationalizes the suffering of others.

Sylvester, who has covered wildfires as well as the still-active Kilauea eruptions in Hawaii, says photojournalists reporting on disasters should keep three things in mind to avoid taking morally questionable images: "Can the people in your photos rationally feel exploited or taken advantage of? If you are sharing your work widely, you should be asking yourself, is there a real public purpose to it? And then, are you creating situations that put first responders' lives in danger?"

Mika McKinnon, who has learned to avoid accidental exploitation after years of volunteering in and researching disaster zones, points out that, if someone is at a disaster site by choice—if they "went out of their way to visit a disaster in order to gawk at it"—it may not be their story to tell. For instance, Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources has arrested 40 "lava chasers," including tourists, for loitering in lava zones since the Kilauea eruptions began.

When she presents on disasters, McKinnon warns viewers about sensitive material and lets them choose whether to see it: "I accidentally developed this approach because I was giving real-life disasters as examples in my talks, and it turned out that a six-year-old kid in my audience had her grandmother die in the landslide I was talking about. You don't want to make a six-year-old sob hysterically."

When it comes to avoiding re-traumatization, "we don't have really firm best practices," McKinnon says.

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For every 10-second news clip of extreme damage, there are many more moments of people suffering the subtler consequences of those extremes. But people suffering the impacts of natural disaster can ethically communicate the drama they've experienced—and when handled with enough sensitivity, these images can be hugely influential. Sharing photos can build empathy, which increases the likelihood of outside assistance, McKinnon says.

When people take photos of a moment of celebration during a disaster, it doesn't mean they've forgotten all the pain nearby: "They aren't thinking, 'Oh, score, I've got the most dramatic backdrop ever'—they're trying to deal with their life going on," McKinnon says. "Not everything goes on hold just because things have gone sideways."

Iconic photojournalism from past fires reflects that value. Sylvester appreciates the images of golfers playing during Oregon's Eagle Creek fire last year, and beside the current Kilauea fallout. "These photos catch public attention because they show there's no dividing line between normal life and disaster, and that really brings home for people that this can affect all of us," he says.

Both Sara Kramer and photographer Alexi Hubbell echo that sentiment in their Instagram photo captions, which call out the many firefighters battling the flames, and suggest ways to help Durango residents through tourism.

In the end, McKinnon says purposefully excluding the fire from photos would be wrong in a different way: "Real life isn't Instagram-perfect and you have to reflect your reality. If it's happening anyway and you're in a safe space, and you're not harming others or exploiting the harm of others, then you might as well," she says. "[The fire] will be in their memories forever," McKinnon adds, "so shouldn't it also be in their photography?"

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