Santa Monica College students and faculty offer free family portraits to Woolsey Fire survivors

By Jennifer Pellerito

Student portraits of Woolsey Fire survivors Bruce and Carla Bates (left) and the Tompkins family were a first step toward rebuilding family photo collections

Among the many personal possessions lost to the Woolsey Fire, irreplaceable family photos taken before the age of digital photography are perhaps the most heartbreaking. To help people displaced by the 96,000-acre conflagration rebuild their lives and keepsake collections, Santa Monica College recently offered free family portrait sessions to Woolsey Fire survivors.

The idea dates back to 1993, when SMC photography instructor Blue Fier offered free portraits to survivors of the Old Topanga Fire that destroyed more than 350 homes and 18,000 acres in Malibu. This time, students with SMC’s photography, cosmetology and fashion departments got the chance to gain valuable experience while giving back to the community.

“The students, it’s great for them. This is a real-world situation,” said SMC Photography Professor Craig Mohr, who helped coordinate a full day of 20-minute photo sessions supported by hair and makeup crews. After each session, each family received 10 digital images and a matted 8×10 black-and-white print.

The decision to shoot in black-and-white was a practical one.

“A lot of people are still living out of suitcases,” said Mohr. “We did not want them to feel that they had to buy clothes, because they may not have gotten a lot out when they left.”

Mismatched colors or patterns become less obvious in black-and-white, he explained, allowing the images to take on a more timeless quality.

“This event today is an opportunity for us to create new memories,” said Bruce Bates, a Malibu resident photographed with wife Carla Bates and their two golden retrievers, Buddy and Dolly.

Just before the fire hit, the couple evacuated to a relative’s home in Oxnard. Their experience with the Thomas Fire in 2017 had left them with a false sense of security, Carla said, because their neighborhood was untouched and they were able to return home quickly. This time they watched as their neighborhood went up in flames on a live local news broadcast.

“We didn’t doubt that the fire was going to come to us,” said Carla Bates. “We just didn’t know it wasn’t going to be put out.”

Aside from a few documents and hard drives they managed to collect in the hurry to evacuate, they lost everything. The hardest part, Carla said, was losing sentimental objects such as family portraits and an heirloom necklace that belonged to her mother.

Bruce Bates said it took some time for the reality to set in that they had no place to stay, no change of clothes — not even a toothbrush. But family, friends and community members quickly rallied around them with help and support.

“You realize that you have way too much stuff,” he said, laughing. “It helps you understand what’s of value. … The amount of outreach from the community of Malibu and beyond has been insane – unbelievable.”

SMC fashion merchandising student Tracy Hurtado talked about helping another family explore SMC’s Career Closet, an on-campus wardrobe of professional clothing that students can borrow for interviews and networking events, which was made available to families during the photoshoot.

“It’s great to be able to give back to the community and help people create new memories,” she said.

The Tompkins family — Jon Tompkins, Kathryn Alice, their two boys, dog Sky and cat Morgan — posed with bright smiles while an entire team of students coordinated taking photos, touching up makeup, and even squeaking a dog toy to draw the pets’ attention toward the camera.

“It really has been devastating, but people have been so kind to us,” Kathryn Alice said.

“I thought this would be a great idea. We lost our pictures, we lost a lot of memories, so let’s start some new ones,” added Jon Tompkins.

“It’s never going to be the same, but you make it better.”