Bruce McCamish often feels drawn to Sevier County – both by his camera, and his subject.
“To shoot it and see the process, and all the good things that are happening and humans loving each other, it really does help cleanse those bad thoughts and memories,” McCamish said.
A year later, though, those bad memories are still sharp. As wildfire tore out of the Great Smoky Mountains and into Gatlinburg in late November 2016, Bruce watched through his viewfinder.
“It felt like it was surreal, a real thing wasn’t going on,” he said. “And I had to pause so many times as I took images because I could not believe what was happening.”
McCamish shared some of the first images of the destruction, which were widely distributed on social media. In the weeks after the fires, he witnessed people flocking to help, photographed lost pets, and saw families in pain.
Once the smoke cleared, he kept coming back. A few weeks ago, he came to Chalet Village to shoot photos of new construction.
“It’s really encouraging to see it,” he said. “It’s encouraging to see Mother Nature and how she’s recovering in places.”
He feels compelled to capture these images because after seeing Sevier County at its darkest hour, he wants to focus on the light.
“This is hope personified,” he said, standing in front of the re-built Roaring Fork Baptist Church.
He said he hopes to share the feeling he feels behind the camera – peace.
“It puts you back in a sense of normalcy,” he said. “Just like the building comes out of the ground it does the same thing for the soul.”
Even while focused on the silver lining, it’s hard to forget the cloud of smoke. The images McCamish shot in the fire tower one year ago are burned in his memory.
“You can see the intensity of the flames,” he said.
Wind battered the fire tower so hard, he had to time the clicks of his shutter between the gusts. Still, what he saw shook him more.
That feeling remained in the following weeks, as he saw the damage up close. He recalled finding the burned skeleton of a little girl’s bicycle.
“I was crying when I shot this,” he said.
He felt so moved by the image, he went and bought a new bike and donated it to a local charity. Even with this pain, he wants to share what happened with the world.
“That’s what I do, I tell a story,” he said. “I don’t want to glorify the fires, but I try to find beauty in everything.”
“I want it to be real,” he added. “So people can identify with the images, so they can feel something. I’m very blessed to be able to tell a story with my lens. I really am.”
One year later, McCamish returned to the fire tower where he rode out the storm. The weather was calmer, but the view was familiar.
“It never gets old,” he said, looking out over the mountains. “You can see the entire park from here.”
As the sun set, and the shadows grew longer, that night a year ago felt closer.
“This groups of cabins here was on fire,” McCamish said. “And then you had the Spur lit up, but it was smoky.”
That’s the beauty of seeing things through his lens – he can interpret the world how he wants it to be. As the light faded, the mountains became layers of purple silhouettes.
“You wouldn’t know anything is different,” McCamish said. “You can’t see the scars, the shadows are just as beautiful as they were, the air is quiet. I mean looking at this, to have that happen – no words.”
It’s why he wants his images to make people think about what’s next, not what’s in the past.
“Even though this was a catastrophic, horrific event, it’s still just a part of our story,” he said. “And with every tragedy comes beautiful stories of humanity helping each other and love.”
That, he says, is the story he is called to tell.
To see more of McCamish’s work, reach out on Facebook.
Smokies Strong:Special Section
What we knew then: The 1st week of wildfire coverage
Smokies Stronger: Sevier County one year later
True Volunteers: Stories of heroism and generosity from the wildfires
When disaster struck Sevier Co., Dolly and the My People Fund stepped in to help