In August 1987, Shelia Hunter was one of the first seven women hired into the San Francisco Fire Department. Now, thirty years later, she still serves -- as a Lieutenant at Station 33 in Oceanview. Photographed by Christie Hemm Klok for a new series and self-published book called The Women of SFFD, Hunter sits on a wooden bench in full gear, elbows resting on her thighs, helmet at her side. She looks strong, experienced and ready.
For Hemm Klok, who photographed as many of San Francisco's female firefighters as she could over the past year (including a giant group portrait at Crissy Field), the series was both a labor of love and a professional challenge.
“A lot of times I would show up to a firehouse and we’d get to know each other and find places to shoot -- and they’d get called away,” Hemm Klok says. “There were a number of times when I was just left in a firehouse with my gear.”
Before she started the project, Hemm Klok had no personal relationship to the fire department, let alone female firefighters. As a freelance photographer in the Bay Area, she gets a lot of work photographing start-up founders in their sleek, open-air offices. “I shoot mostly tech and I do generally like it and like what I do, but I needed something else, you know? As fulfilling as tech can be, I needed something to be passionate about and reignite the fire,” she says, no pun intended.
She contacted United Fire Service Women (an organization founded to help women enter the SFFD) with her idea and heard back from them immediately -- it turned out they were preparing to celebrate their 30-year anniversary in the department. They'd just started looking for a photographer to document their members.
According to UFSW, the SFFD has one of the largest populations of female firefighters in the country. Women currently comprise about 15.3 percent (229 individuals) of the uniformed members of the SFFD. By extreme comparison, in 2016 the New York City Fire Department had 52 women on a force of roughly 10,500 -- about 0.5 percent -- making it among the least gender diverse fire departments in the nation.
San Francisco is a city where you actually see female firefighters out and about, Hemm Klok says. And this, in turn, has brought even more women into the department.
Camille Wofford-Howard, four years into her career, says, "I knew I wanted to be a San Francisco firefighter when I started seeing female firefighters around town working on the engines and trucks. It hadn't occurred to me until I saw other women doing the job that it might be a good fit for me as well.”
Hemm Klok’s portraits take that visibility a step further, holding the women in rare stillness -- with proud stances and serious faces -- and allowing for a moment of reflection on their many contributions to the both the department and the people of San Francisco.
Getting those shots was hard, Hemm Klok says, and not just because her subjects could be called away by an emergency at any moment. Firehouses have a utilitarian sameness to them, so she had to get creative with backdrops. “We tried our absolute best to make them look different, because the women are all different,” she says.
And then there was the struggle of photographing a group unused to posing. “I tend to shoot in a little bit of a stoic, don’t-smile-at-the-camera way, so that was really hard for a lot of them, because they’re a smiley group.” While shooting each portrait, Hemm Klok says, “Behind me are seven firefighters making fun of them.”
Just two of the women were photographed in offices -- Joanne Hayes-White, the 25th Chief of the SFFD (and the first woman to hold the position) and Raemona Williams, Deputy Chief of the SFFD. In Hayes-White’s portrait, she sits behind a desk overflowing with phones, paperwork and various mementos from her 27 years in the department.
“I’m humbled by being in this position,” Hayes-White says. “Women have added greatly to the rich blend of members making up our department. It is important and value added to have a workforce that reflects the community we serve.”
For Hemm Klok, this project has taken her places she never thought she’d see and created relationships she never expected. “The amount of love and friendship I’ve gotten out of this is so surprising. My point of contact [Mary Minogue-Reidy] has become someone I talk to on a daily basis. Mary’s like a sister to me now,” she says. “It’s been a totally different way to get to know this city.”
As for Shelia Hunter, she’s not only one of the first women in the SFFD, she’s also the first mother to have her daughter join the department. Hemm Klok captured them in a close-up double portrait. “I definitely see her as a role model for all women,” Khristina says of her mother.
This family legacy is the start of a new chapter for the women of the SFFD. As Lieutenant Angie Romero, a nearly 20-year veteran of the department says, the 30-year anniversary is “the beginning of an era that will not end.”
'The Women of SFFD' hardcover book is available for order on Blurb. For more information, click here.