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Puna photographer hopes her eruption pictures help others

October 20, 2018

HILO, Hawaii (AP) — A Big Island photographer who lost her home in Kilauea volcano’s latest eruption hopes her photographs can help others affected by the disaster.

Melissa Schelling had planned an October photography exhibit in Hilo called “Year of the Dog,” a personal project where she would photograph dogs every day for a year. But the eruption forced her and her dogs to evacuate their lower Puna home in May and her plans changed, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported Thursday.

Being in the middle of the eruption, Schelling’s focus shifted to the lava overtaking her neighborhood and she aimed her lens at the spectacle, capturing both her property being threatened and her own dogs’ reactions to the evacuation.

Schelling says her photography allowed her to process what was happening, to look at it closely to see the effects it had on her family, and she hopes her work will help others who have also lost their homes in the area.

The exhibit was always supposed to be about dogs, she said, but “as soon as the eruption happened, I had to change all the ideas I had because it was the biggest and most important event happening to me right now. I could not ignore it, so my show had to be about evacuating.”

She spoke Wednesday from the Wailoa Center’s Fountain Gallery, where “Year of the Dog: Lava Evacuation” is on display through Oct. 25. The exhibition looks at the effects of this year’s lava disaster by combining daily photos of her own pups — Whiskey, a mutt, and Coco, a border terrier — lava near her home, and messages from Hawaii County Civil Defense.

Whiskey and Coco were “very frazzled,” Schelling said. “You can see it in their faces. And dogs react to what their humans are feeling. So even though we were trying to be calm during the evacuation, our dogs could tell how upsetting it was.”

One collage shows before and after photos of Whiskey and Coco, along with three shots from the same location, before, during and after an active lava flow. A portion of a Civil Defense message, in bold red letters, reads: “Thank you for listening. Have a safe day.”

According to Schelling, the family evacuated as soon as lava began flowing in Leilani Estates and they have since purchased a home in Waimea.

Daily photography ended up being extremely important, providing a distraction from the lava, she said.

“You still have to deal with all the issues, but if you have something else that takes you away from the trauma — the lava trauma — that helps,” Schelling said. “I think it helps to stabilize you.”

Schelling said she would love to reconnect with people she knew in Puna through the exhibit, but “also I was hoping this would help some people.”

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