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Photographers donate family portraits to Almeda Fire survivors

Sonia Mendez and her sons lost their home in the 2020 Almeda Fire. They were among 38 families to get new portraits taken from volunteer photographers at Talent Elementary School over the weekend.
Tim Tidball Photography
Sonia Mendez and her sons lost their home in the 2020 Almeda Fire. They were among 38 families to get new portraits taken from volunteer photographers at Talent Elementary School over the weekend.

The 2020 Almeda Fire destroyed around 2,600 homes in the Rogue Valley. Residents have been rebuilding since the fire, but it’s a slow process. For families in the Phoenix-Talent School District affected by the fire, simple things like family photos are a small part of recovery this holiday season.

Most of the kids have left Talent Elementary School on a recent overcast Friday afternoon, but Tim Tidball, a photographer from Medford, is here taking portraits.

“Okay, you guys got to show mom some more love,” he says, directing a woman and her two sons from behind a long telephoto lens. “There you go, see? That changed your whole expression.”

Tidball has been shooting portraits in the Rogue Valley for years. He’s one of a handful of photographers who recently volunteered to shoot family photos for residents who lost their homes and possessions in the Almeda Fire.

“It just kind of sounded like a good idea,” Tidball says. “After being in the valley for 27 years and how the community has supported my business. I kind of jumped on the idea of helping the community, especially the ones who lost their homes in a fire.”

He’s taking photos of Sonia Mendez and her two sons. On the day the Almeda Fire cut through communities in Talent and Phoenix, Mendez was away from her kids, visiting her family in Mexico after the death of her grandfather.

“It was tough being trapped in Mexico and not being able to come back,” she says. “My oldest [son] got them to safety. My husband had to stay behind and get help to residents in Phoenix to also evacuate. It was my oldest son who had to take my other two.”

“Coming back and when they gave me the news and there was nothing,” she says. “I couldn’t say the word home because I had no home to come to. So, I learned what it meant to be home. It was with my loved ones.”

Now, they live in Medford. For the past year Mendez says they’ve mostly been getting the essentials for daily life, so having family photos taken feels like a kind of rebirth.

“This is our new life. Getting a portrait was such a great idea. Kind of like, this is a new start and be happy together and just see a new memory,” she says.

Inside Talent Elementary, in the school library, Brian LeBlanc is taking photos in front of a backdrop of black construction paper, several potted red petunias and a white plastic Christmas tree. LeBlanc was not personally impacted by the fire but, he says, many of his friends lost their homes.

“Being a part of this community over the past few years kind of makes you feel it,” he says. “So, to be able to have the opportunity to create some family photos for families that lost the stuff, heck yeah, I’ll do it.”

LeBlanc is shooting Lorenzo Diaz, his wife and their three daughters. They were renting a house in Talent at the time of the fire.

“We just lost everything in the fire. Totally everything,” Diaz says. “It was just my wife and my daughters and my house. It was just time enough for [them to] get out.”

First, they moved to a hotel, then a house in the Applegate Valley. Now they’re back in Talent.

Over the weekend, 38 families from the Phoenix-Talent School District visited to get new portraits. For the Mendez and Diaz families, it’s a small step forward in the rebuilding process.

“We lost all our photos, videos,” Diaz says. “So, it feels good, we can have a start again. Have our memories.”

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.