A Burning Notre Dame

Within the first few minutes of arriving in Paris, I found myself running toward a burning Notre Dame. Before any of this, when I got to my Airbnb, the only thing I wanted to do was drop off all my things and go for an adventure in a city I’d never been before.

I brought my Fujifilm X-T3 to pair with my Fujinon 16mm 1.4 and 90mm 2.0 lenses. I didn’t want to carry anything after a long flight from New York to London and subsequent train ride from London to Paris. I went with the smallest pairing and my personal favorite focal length — the 24mm equivalent, the 16mm.

I typically stick to one focal length — usually a prime lens — a day, or per adventure, and shooting in black and white + RAW. This helps me push the specific focal length to find creative framing, and black and white helps me focus on light and shadow. Paired with my X-T3, I was ready to explore and started to make my way to the Louvre.

I was in awe of the city as I crossed the Pont du Carrousel when some people around me started to notice smoke in the sky. We looked around, but couldn’t see where it was coming from. As I continued to cross, more smoke started to appear, and we slowly started to notice the Notre Dame was on fire. Cars around us started to slow down as they also noticed the large groups of people and bikers at a standstill on the bridge staring at the smoke.

I quickly started to take pictures, but I was way too far with my 16mm. On instinct, I knew I had to get as close as possible because documenting this moment was the only way I could be of any help. One of my biggest influences and heroes, Harry Benson, who during the many unforeseen and insane situations he found himself in, did the only thing he was best at — documenting the moment.

It’s something that’s always stuck with me and sits in my heart. I knew I had to make my way towards the danger, but I had no clue where I was going. Following the riverside looked like it would lead me there best, so I made way with haste. Everyone around me was in shock, at a standstill looking at the overbearing smoke.

The smoke covered more and more of the sky — the closer I got, the more the fire ragged on. I started to notice everyone around me also taking pictures on their phones and recording videos, and I knew that I wanted to make this key element of the photos I would take of the beloved cathedral burning.

By the time I was close enough, the fire was intense and so were Paris’ crowded streets. Many people cried and walked away, while others stood by waiting to see the outcome. I got as close as the police barricade would allow. While I stood there, I saw many people talking on the phone with relatives and friends in disbelief on the other side of the line.

Within what felt like 5 minutes, authorities started to push us away to widen the perimeter, a good idea not only for them, but also us who by this point couldn’t breathe in fresh air from all the smoke we’d been inhaling up front. By this time, the sun was low and my brain a mess, so I decided to find food and rest for the remainder of the day.

At the restaurant, I went to that night, the supermarket right after, and during my walk back to my room, I’d hear “Notre Dame” buried in some French words I could faintly understand. Everyone was still talking about the incident all around the city for the next few days.

On a cloudy second day, I had a boat tour scheduled first thing in the morning. This time, I chose to explore the city with my 90mm to focus closer on the people of Paris. On this tour, we passed the aftermath at Notre Dame. Everyone stood and stared as the boat made its way along the Seine River.

The following days were calm compared to my first. I would pick a single lens for each adventure and go explore the Parisian streets. I wanted to capture the people of Paris as much as I wanted to capture its landmarks, but always seeking something new I may have never seen before.

After seven whole days and multiple adventures, I was off to my next stop — London. I’d planned to visit Notre Dame, but that was never possible after the fire. I hope to be able to enter the legendary landmark on my return to this extraordinary city.

"My name is Nelson Wolf. I’m an aspiring writer & director, and I’ve been shooting since I was 8 years old. After seeing Goodfellas and 2001: A Space Odyssey at this very young age, I fell in love with the frame, moving and still alike. Scorsese and Kubrick opened my eyes and soul to what film truly was, and I wanted to emulate their skills with a camera in relation to symmetry, movement, and most importantly — storytelling. I immediately took possession of my parents’ Canon AE-1 and have been taking pictures and studying film ever since."

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