The Man Behind The Helmet


When I first initiated this project, there were two categories of events I was very keen to see: childbirth en route to the hospital, in the rescue vehicle, and at least one fire. Let’s kill the suspense immediately; to my great disappointment and the vast relief of the men, the child never came. The delivery of a baby into the world is a potentially difficult situation, fraught with many unknown factors, for the mother and for the child. It can easily get out of hand and turn into a very serious problem. It left me with the fires, and I had the opportunity to follow my team in several occasions.

Fire is a really impressive monster. A primitive, destructive force, which devours more or less anything it touches. Furniture, paints, chemicals, plastics. Everything that is part of our environment.

At the beginning, I failed to see why it inspires such passion in almost all the firefighters, and especially the reason of the flicker of excitement I saw in their eyes. I asked them many questions before witnessing my first fire. I truly wanted to understand why they seemed so filled with wonder when they left or came back from an intervention, or showed me some pictures of “their” fires. The most frequent answer was that fire is really the most important of all the topics studied during their training, theoretical or practical. Of course, I understood the logic of this answer, but something was missing. This could not totally explain the expression I saw on their faces.

I finally got to meet the beast. I had already followed my team during several interventions, but on false alarms, or small fires hidden away in ventilation shafts or running on electric cables between the floors of a building. On these occasions, I had not been able to actually approach it, because these kinds of fires can be very unpredictable, much more than a great one. The first time I really met this force of nature in all its fury was in a warehouse located in the suburbs of Lyon (you will find the article here).

And I understood. At first sight, when you don’t know anything about the firefighters and their job, or if, like me, you never had the opportunity to follow them, it is not always easy to appreciate that it is not the fire which sparks this fascination, but rather the fight between man and the creature. After I had accompanied these men and listened to their debriefings, that’s what I really felt. From time to time, some media itching for publicity or sensationalism like to make their headlines with stories about arsonist firefighters. You have to know that this is only an urban legend. Firefighters are very wary of fire. They are extremely conscious of the consequences and the risks, the deaths, the destruction, the wounds. They are not immune, and they know it. Every firefighter has a very clear conscience that his job does not simply consist in playing with a garden hose, but can lead him to risk his life to rescue someone trapped at the heart of a raging fire. During this warehouse fire I was talking about, a rumor had it that people could be trapped inside. Fortunately, it was not the case, but the men of my team took this information very seriously and prepared accordingly.

Every fire demands a different approach. I had the opportunity to observe it in various situations. An electric fire under a vast complex, with a movie theater, a hotel, a casino, a congress center, precisely during a convention where everybody had to be evacuated. Garbage can fire; clearly an arson, as the can had been installed directly under a gas main. Several trash can fires in public housing buildings, lit up by some youth seeking some excitement or avid of rebellion. Domestic fires, caused by a deep fryer suddenly bursting into flames, or office fires, fed by a profusion of papers…

Here are some of the pictures I took. Others will come with my next publications and the different companies I will follow.