Roman Cho, California Wildfire Photography

The California Wildfires

The scale of the recent California wildfires is hard to comprehend. Over the past two years, they’ve displaced tens of thousands, destroyed nearly 24,000 homes, and scorched more than 3 million acres.

Now, take a moment and try to imagine what 3 million acres of burnt land looks like.

Unless you’ve seen it, I’m not sure that you can; the number is so large that it feels abstract. Similarly, discussing 24,000 destroyed homes facilitates a sense of detachment to the families who lived there. Sweeping tragedy lends itself to dehumanization.

Considering a body of people that large peels away the humanity of those involved. Victims are no longer individuals who lost their photo albums, pets, and sense of security. Instead, they are a data point in a series of statistics and a fleeting news story from nearly two years ago.

So, how do we unpack an event of this scale? How do we redirect our focus to the individuals affected and their ongoing needs? We turn to those who make sense of the ideas our society struggles to process: artists.

Enter photographer Roman Cho.

Roman Cho, California Wildfire Photography
Courtesy of Popular Science

Defining Influence

Roman went to school for music before switching to photography. He started out taking “typical live music shots” for his friends’ bands then graduated to actors and politicians. He was inherently interested in portraits and figures who influence our culture. In his words, “anybody who was interested in making a difference or making a change in our society.”

His quest to capture people with sway put him in touch with a wide array of celebrated comedians, actors, and athletes. However, his search for influencers soon had him looking outside of the spotlight.

“It’s not just famous people,” he chuckled amiably. “I also find excitement in photographing people who I describe as ‘unseen hands’ who make a difference but are not quite well known or—by choice—are behind the scenes.” Roman’s photography is his way of pointing to the shadows and saying, “no, no, no, this person needs to be paid attention to because what they’re doing is changing the way we approach the education system, or they’re changing the type of food we eat through their work and we just don’t know it.”

This unique focus is one of the key factors that drew him to the aftermath of the Santa Rosa, California wildfires.

Ashes Fell Like Snow

Roman Cho’s involvement documenting the October 2017 Northern California wildfires is the textbook definition of fate. His project, Ashes Fell Like Snow, began with a chance encounter.

He met a man named Dan and his wife in 2016 ago at a food conference in San Francisco. “We really hit off and Dan [said] I live up in Healdsburg,” an area about an hour and a half north of San Francisco in Sonoma County. “I have a nice place up there. Come on up after the conference is over, just hang out for a day.

Healdsburg | Courtesy of

Roman took him up on his offer. “Healdsburg is basically wine country,” he recounted. It’s a small, quiet town that bears no resemblance to the congested city of Los Angeles where Roman lives. “[Dan] introduced me to some of his friends some of who live in Tularosa which is fifteen miles south of Healdsburg. I would go there like two, three times a year and that’s how I got to know [the area].”

Roman, an avid cyclist, was in town for Levi’s 2017 GranFondo—a well-known bike race held in Sonoma County. “So, me and my buddy, we went, we rode 100 miles, we had fun, then we came back [to Los Angeles]. A week later the town was on fire,” even during this interview, years later, his voice still held echos of disbelief.

“The town that I loved visiting and hanging out—that has some of my friends up there—is burning. The community center where we would have the after party for the ride is now an evacuation center.”

An Outpouring of Support

Roman, now fully invested in the Sonoma County community, checked in on his friends via Facebook. In real time he witnessed the outpouring of community outreach in Santa Rosa. Everyone was doing what they could to help those affected from starting clothing drives to organizing food banks.

Roman Cho, California Wildfire Photography
Juan and Florentina | Courtesy of Roman Cho

“People were reaching out saying I have a room that’s available if anybody needs it and I was thinking, that is remarkable. There are some things that I don’t know if I would see in L.A. like this degree of community support.”

He was touched by what he saw and wanted to help. “I’m a starving artist working for myself. I don’t have a whole lot of money to contribute to this. So I thought, well, the real way I could help and contribute is to photograph these people, [record] their stories and help spread them to the general public.”

“When your house burns down and you lose everything, literally everything, except the shirt that you were wearing at the time [of the fire], you don’t bounce back from that in an instant. And [this is a] community where 5,000 homes have burnt down. They’re looking at five to ten years of recovery. So I thought these people need more in-depth, thorough attention on them and what they’re going through.”

Roman Cho, California Wildfire Photography
Walt Flom | Courtesy of Roman Cho

He didn’t take this task lightly; Roman went into it with the understanding that he had to give himself entirely to the project. “I said, well, if I’m going to do this and if I’m going to be bothering these people who lost everything and have been really traumatized, I can’t half-ass it. I really have to give 100%. I have to really push myself.”

Determined to help and armed with his Canon 5D Mark iii and Sigma Art lenses, Roman made his way to  Santa Rosa.


“When I was driving up from L.A., it was about two weeks after the initial wave of the fire,” Roman mused. “I only had like four people that I reached through email who agreed to be photographed at that point. And I was kind of weary and nervous…I only have four people, I’m driving up 300 miles—am I wasting my time?”

He only had a few close connections in the area. Once he exhausted those, he reached out to friends of friends and cold pitched people on Facebook.

Roman Cho, California Wildfire Photography
Johann and Gloria Heinzl | Courtesy of Roman Cho

Roman’s most pressing fear was how the community would react to his presence. Would they be hostile? Defensive? It had only been fourteen days since their lives burnt to the ground—was it too soon to come in with a camera and ask for their stories?

But when he finally arrived to start his interviews, he faced an additional challenge he wasn’t expecting: finding his subjects.

“I was driving blind, through Google Maps because the thing that you may not realize…is once you get to the neighborhoods, it’s not just the houses that are burnt down. The street signs have been burnt down. [Google Maps says] turn left at some land and you have to trust that this is it.”

Roman Cho, California Wildfire Photography
Jeremiah Kahmoson | Courtesy of Roman Cho

The First Interviews

One of the first people Roman interviewed was Todd Witzenberg. Todd agreed to meet Roman at his wife’s parents’ home then drive them both up to where his house once stood. The men met and before they got in the car, Todd pressed Roman on the purpose of the series.

“So I meet [Todd] where I said I’d meet him. He says, now okay, what is this for? And I explained why I’m doing this: the media is going to go away after the initial wave. The community is going to be forgotten, but the community may need help for the next five, ten years. I’m photographing and interviewing people to help keep the awareness going.”

Todd said OK and they left to take his photo. It wasn’t until months later that Todd told Roman that, initially, he wasn’t at all interested in being photographed and interviewed. In fact, it was only when he heard Roman explain his reasoning that he was compelled to follow through with his promise; it was obvious that the photographer was coming from the right place.

Roman Cho, California Wildfire Photography
Todd Weitzenberg | Courtesy of Roman Cho

A combination of timing, motivation, and luck that made Roman’s project a success. A different artist with a self-serving purpose would have been rejected. However, Cho wasn’t there for himself. He was there to serve the community and his honesty inspired honesty from his subjects.

“Once I started photographing people…they weren’t really holding anything back. They were really revealing and quite open and at a certain point, it seemed therapeutic that they were relieving themselves of the burdens that they had experienced and… trying to get an understanding of what they experienced by talking about it,” he said earnestly. “I realized the best thing I can do is just shut up, listen and be there for them.”

An Expanding Community

Word-of-mouth endorsements for Roman’s work soon had his shooting schedule chock full.

“[During] the initial round, I ended up talking to 50 people and did a series of 30 photo shoots over the course of eleven days,” Roman rattled off. “It was kind of nuts. I counted it at one point and [my] average was about three photo shoots a day. The most I ever had was five photo shoots in a day.”

The journey was worth it, but not without personal cost. “I was up there for two weeks photographing people and I came back and I was emotionally just drained, physically and emotionally just drained.”

In December 2018, Roman returned to Santa Rosa to mount a three-week public exhibition of Ashes Fell Like Snow. While there, he photographed more people, added to the story, and caught up with his first subjects.

“Right now,” he said, “I would like to continue and to follow up to see how these people are coming along in the next two and the next five years.” While Roman plans to continue his work, the extent of the project depends on how much he’ll be able to afford out-of-pocket.

“In a community of about 100,000 people, 5,500 residential homes were burnt down. So on the one hand, photographing 50 people in eleven days is quite a lot. But when you look at the bigger picture, it’s a drop in the bucket.”

Future Projects

As Roman decompresses from Ashes, he’s also gearing up for his next project: Culineria. His next portrait series focuses on the people (of course, behind the scenes) making important changes regarding sustainability in the food industry.

“It’s a project that I’ve been working on for the past seven years, so now I’ve got to focus on putting together a book proposal. So that’s my big focus for the next several months if not the year.”

As Roman Cho continues putting the spotlight on those who most deserve it, we will keep listening, watching, and learning. Keep an eye out for updates on both of Roman’s projects and be sure to leave any questions or comments in the section below.



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