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'Eyes of Fire': ER doctor and photographer captures Peoria Fire Department for 20 years and counting

"Eyes of Fire" by Dr. Elsburgh Clarke
Dr. Elsburgh Clarke
"Eyes of Fire" by Dr. Elsburgh Clarke.

While some doctors play golf or tennis on their days off, one local emergency room physician spends his free time riding along with the Peoria Fire Department with his camera.

Dr. Elsburgh Clarke is an ER doctor at Hopedale Medical Complex. He’s been working in emergency medicine for more than 40 years and previously trained at LA County Hospital, where he began taking photographs.

“I started to do pictures in the ER. I have multiple pictures from back in the day, back in 1977, ‘78 when ‘ER’ was just coming about,” said Clarke, referring to the TV show.

Dr. Elsburgh Clarke

Growing up, Clarke said he always knew he would be an FBI agent, a fireman or a doctor. While he ended up as the latter, he always took an interest in fire departments, frequently following fire engines around whenever he could.

Once Clarke moved to Peoria in 2004 to continue his profession in emergency medicine, he met with then-Peoria Fire Department Chief Tony Ardis to ask if he could ride along with the department and take photographs. Ardis agreed, and the rest is history, literally.

“From 2004 to 2023, I've documented the Peoria Fire Department for 20 some-odd years, and it's never been done before,” said Clarke.

He said the dispatch center alerts him if there’s a major structure fire, and as long as he’s off work, he’ll rush down to the scene to become a “fly on the wall.”

“What I do is assess the scene, see who's there…and then from there, then I can pick and choose…always look at the eyes. The eyes tell the story,” Clarke explained.

Clarke’s portfolio, entitled “Eyes of Fire,” recently culminated in a “Peoria Fire 2022 Yearbook.”

“I want the world to see the eyes of a fireman…when they look at one photograph or one scene, it shows their dedication, their eyes, their intensity, their commitment…their loyalty,” said Clarke.

Dr. Elsburgh Clarke
Jody Holtz
/
WCBU
Dr. Elsburgh Clarke

Clarke noted he’s not interested in taking the standard, grip and grin type photographs. Instead, he wants people to see what this line of work really entails. And according to Clarke, the response from the Peoria Fire Department has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I do it because I love it,” said Clarke. “I always give them free shots. I mean, they get prints all the time. And they say, Dr. Clarke, no one has ever taken the time to show us that this is history…their wives and significant others, husbands have come up to me and say, ‘I saw the pictures that you gave my husband or my wife, thank you very much because we don't have that.’ And you get the grandparents and the kids you know, ‘this is my daddy’ or ‘this my mommy.’”

Dr. Elsburgh Clarke

Clarke also has received international recognition for his photographs through the photography contest, ViewBug. A black and white photo within “Eyes of Fire” has been seen in Germany, Ukraine, South Africa, and Russia. Clarke also entered a contest with the International Firefighters Association and won first place for newsworthy pictures.

“I'm honored and humbled,” said Clarke, noting that none of his work is produced with the expectation of any accolades. According to Clarke, the family he has made within the Peoria Fire Department is much more important.

“I get chills. They are my extended family. Seriously, I have never been so blessed and so happy to have them,” Clarke said. “They're like my brothers and sisters and they have welcomed me into their departments in full.”

Notably, Clarke said when he put this project into motion back in 2004, he always expected it to continue for this long. In fact, he doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.

“This is an ongoing project, because things change,” he said.

Clarke also occasionally rides along with the police department and the SWAT team. He said he’s really just a kid at heart who loves seeking adrenaline and highlighting the important work that first responders do on a daily basis.

“It is an honor. I can't, I mean, I can't begin to tell you,” he said.

For those interested in purchasing “Peoria Fire 2022 Yearbook,” or any of Dr. Elsburgh Clarke’s other work, email him at elsburgh@gmail.com.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.