MOUNT DESERT — When photographer Rogier van Bakel said thank you to local first responders for saving his daughter’s life, he did it with thousands of words.
A wedding photographer for the last 12 years, van Bakel took a different approach when capturing about 40 firefighters from three different Mount Desert Island volunteer departments.
“It’s damn hard to get people to smile,” said van Bakel. “Once I got a few of them to smile, it felt like a strange juxtaposition to the seriousness of what they do.”
Details of that harrowing January night when he nearly lost his second daughter are still crystal clear for van Bakel. His 13-year-old daughter, Jolie, is normally a very punctual person, he said. When she went to a friend’s house, Jolie had promised to be home by 4 p.m. By 5 p.m. when he hadn’t seen her, van Bakel called the friend’s mom. She told him the kids were going snowmobiling with dad and also thought it strange they hadn’t returned yet.
“When I heard that I was immediately ill at ease,” van Bakel said. “I’m not really a panicky guy.”
Leaving his youngest daughter with a friend, van Bakel headed to Long Pond with Jolie’s friend’s mom to investigate. They had already called 9-1-1 and a few first responders were at the scene
No one had any idea at that point that Jolie, her friend and friend’s father had fallen through the ice on a snowmobile on Long Pond in a snowstorm. Miraculously, the three had managed to crawl from the open water to higher ground on ledges surrounding the pond and were yelling for help and trying to keep from freezing.
Standing at the shore of Long Pond, van Bakel recalls conversation going on a responder’s radio and the only word he could make out was “bodies.”
“You’re just beside yourself with strange energy,” he said. “I thought they were already deceased.”
Seeing the look of panic on van Bakel’s face, the responder reassured him there were more bodies coming to help with the search and no one had been located yet.
“The temperature was about 25 degrees and dropping,” said van Bakel. “How these kids came through that without serious wounds, I still don’t know.”
After a four-hour effort, the lost party of three was lowered from the rock ledge they had climbed to from the open water. On the verge of hypothermia, all were taken to the hospital and have made a full recovery.
In the weeks to follow, van Bakel’s wife, Debra Deal, went to each of the firehouses with volunteers who had been part of the effort to thank them personally.
When van Bakel came up with the idea a little bit later to offer the first responders a photography shoot, no one offered to start the process, he said.
“Clearly the ball was in my court,” said van Bakel, who arranged the first photo shoot in June. “They were all somewhere between positive about it and excited about it. I shot all the photos inside the firehouse.”
At each session, volunteers dressed fully in their personal protection equipment or ‘turnout’ gear and grabbed a tool they would use at an emergency scene. Some donned oxygen tanks, others had their identification tags or a flashlight and all of them wore the helmet that represented their town’s department.
“I was really struck by everyone in front of my camera,” said van Bakel, “because they were really the perfect blend of ordinary and exceptional.”
From a photographer’s perspective, van Bakel was serious about capturing those who helped rescue his daughter. He went and purchased lights for the photo shoot and relied on a technique learned at a workshop by Maine photographer Gregory Heisler.
The photos were shot at the end of the day with no ambient light present in the firehouses. In addition to the beauty dish posed 7 feet high and shining down on his subjects, van Bakel took two strip boxes and set them on each side of the volunteers.
“What I wanted for them was to both look amazing, hero-esque, and yet relatable and sort of normal,” said van Bakel. “That little light around the temples, I call it the hero light. It works really well for firefighters.”
Those sessions also provided a lot of insight for van Bakel into the people from his community who become volunteers.
“I met firefighters who were barely 21,” he said. “I met firefighers that were past their 60s.”
They ran the gamut of professions as well, he said, including an innkeeper, scientist, photographer, teacher and fisherman.
He has thought even more about the choices a volunteer responder makes when joining a department. Who would you call in the most dire situation in your life, van Bakel asked. He then admitted, many of us can’t think of someone who would just drop everything and rush to our aid.
“These people don’t just do it for their best friends, they do it for anybody, anybody it takes,” said van Bakel. “They are doing something that doesn’t come natural to anybody.”
We are taught to avoid danger and run away from threatening situations in order to survive, he explained. These people somehow have shut that off and are willing to put themselves in danger for another person, someone they don’t even know.
“They do it because somebody has to do it,” said van Bakel, adding it is not for fortune or fame.
When the photos were shared on the public community Facebook page Bar Harbor Barter and Swap, van Bakel received lots of positive feedback on the post and in person.
“Most of all it made a lot of people realize this is a resource that really needs to be supported in word and deed … and maybe monetarily,” said van Bakel.
One woman thanked him for doing it, explaining that it had provided a lot of healing for her and others in the community. When the near-tragic event happened in January it received lots of media coverage. Many people felt emotional about what had happened and were unable to name it until they saw the images.
For van Bakel, it was about saying “thank you” in a way that showed not only what these people had done for him, but what they do for their community.
“Even the firefighters probably didn’t know what was in store for them,” said van Bakel. “If I’d been a baker, I’d have baked them pies. I just happen to be a photographer and that’s all I could do. It’s all that made sense to do.”
For van Bakel it was the best way to express the gratitude he and his family had for the volunteers who put themselves in danger on that cold January night to bring Jolie safely home to them.
“Maybe these will be photos they have for a long time and show their kids,”
van Bakel said. “I am lucky to have her and we are lucky to have them.”