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Jumping Into the Fire Service, Lens First

Thu, 03/02/2023 - 11:19
Amanda Stanis is the East Hampton Fire Department’s new photographer, succeeding Michael Heller, who held that role for about 30 years.

Michael Heller’s name is still spoken with reverence in East Hampton. Before he retired to Rhodes, Greece, in 2022, he was an authority in photojournalism on the South Fork, documenting, in particular, fire department operations for many years as the official photographer of the East Hampton Fire Department.

Mr. Heller left behind big boots to fill, but now a new person has stepped up as the fire department’s photographer. Her name is Amanda Stanis, and she’s the fourth person in her family to enlist as a volunteer with the East Hampton Fire Department.

“It’s not like anything I’ve done before,” said Ms. Stanis, 25, who is a 2017 East Hampton High School graduate. “It’s definitely exciting. It can be intense because there’s so much going on at once.”

When a call comes over the radio, oftentimes there are three other members of the Stanis family dashing out the door. Ms. Stanis’s twin brother, James, is a volunteer firefighter, as is her oldest brother, Brian, and her middle brother, Keith. (Keith Stanis is a firefighter by profession for New York City.)

“I’ve had a camera since I was 14,” she said. “I actually failed photography class in high school — and now it’s my career.”

That isn’t such an odd twist of fate when one considers Ms. Stanis’s preference for candid shots and street photography over formal classroom and homework assignments. She also loves settings that get her adrenaline going.

It was the Stanis family culture that first drew her into the fire department, and a few conversations with Mr. Heller that solidified her interest in the photographer’s role. She had the opportunity to shadow him before he moved to Greece.

“I usually shoot at sunset or in lit environments, not in the middle of the night. Usually the [fire] calls are at night,” she said. “I don’t like to use flash because it takes away the dramatic lighting of a fire. I work with the light from a fire truck; sometimes a flash blows out the smoke. Balancing the brightness of fire and the darkness of the night is tricky — it’s a practice. I like to try and get expression on the firefighters’ faces, which is very hard.”

When she’s not volunteering with the East Hampton Fire Department, Ms. Stanis can be found taking jiu-jitsu lessons with Mark Tutill. She works as a freelancer doing events, portraits, and food photography for restaurants. Her portfolio can be found on Instagram at @esterinaxx.

She acknowledges that the fire department is a very male-centered atmosphere, but said she feels she fits in there because she’s so used to being around her brothers and their peers.

Fire Department Chief Duane Forrester said he’s glad to have Ms. Stanis on board. “Having a department photographer is an important way for us to capture history of the department. . . . You can have anyone take pictures, but you won’t get the quality pictures that you would get from someone who has been studying photography and knows how to take a picture at the right time, capturing what’s going on in that moment,” he said.

Chief Forrester also said he sees “a lot of similarities in the pictures that Amanda has taken” to those that Mr. Heller took over his years with the department.

She has a vote of confidence from Mr. Heller, too, who happens to be in the midst of relaunching his fire photography career in Greece, where firefighting is a nationally administered paid service.

“I hope she’s able to do what I did,” Mr. Heller said in an interview. “She’s enthusiastic. . . . I wish her all the best.”

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