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“For everyone else, it’s over. But not for us:” Documenting the people who rebuilt Paradise

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In the aftermath of California’s deadliest wildfire, French photographer Maxime Riché documents the town of Paradise, considering what the physical and psychological trauma says about our relationship with nature.

On November 8, 2018, the Camp Fire became the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, claiming 85 lives and nearly erasing the peaceful town of Paradise. Sparked by faulty powerlines and exacerbated by insufficient safety protocols, the close-knit community of 26,000 was shattered overnight by the fire. While most who escaped were too traumatized to return, others set about rebuilding almost immediately, undeterred by subsequent nearby blazes like the North Complex Fire in 2020 and the Dixie Fire in 2021.

In the shadow of constant danger, what do these events say about the relationship between humans and nature? French photographer Maxime Riché’s latest series, Paradise, explores this question through a style he calls “speculative documentary.” Presenting both the material and psychological fallout, Maxime uses the events in Paradise to envision a future for other fire-prone communities striving for an elusive return to normality following such disasters.

Following two major Paris exhibitions at the National Library of France and the National Centre for Visual Arts, Maxime plans to publish his Paradise photobook in the coming months and find opportunities to exhibit the work in the United States. Having remained in touch with many of those he photographed, he hopes to “give back a little” to people who shared their troubled lives with him for the project. 

Five years after the Camp Fire, Paradise continues to rebuild. The town has installed new powerlines underground, removed a million trees, unclogged roads and installed a more rigorous warning system. The town’s housing market is also booming, though few homes are being built from non-combustible materials. Plus, the region’s geographic realities remain unavoidable.

“The truth is when you talk about the environment, you mostly talk about people living on the planet and how the environment changes because of our activities. Even though I photograph landscapes and talk about nature, the images also say a lot about us as a society,” says Maxime. “It’s hard to separate the two–we’re very much linked.”

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