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2020 Hindsight: Looking Back While Helping Heal

As a photojournalist, Shmuel Thaler has spent much of his life capturing history through the lens of a camera.

The complicated history of 2020 — a year of turbulence, loss, hope and, connection — is documented in “2020 Hindsight: Looking Back on a Tumultuous Year in Santa Cruz County.”

The book is a collection of photos by Shmuel and his photojournalist colleague Kevin Painchaud, as well as analysis and essays by local writers and leaders including Wallace Baine, Gail Pellerin, Dr. Misty Navarro, Jacob Martinez, Rachel Anne Goodman, George Ow, Jr., and many more. In nearly 100 full-color pages, the book explores Santa Cruz County’s experience with the COVID-19 pandemic, social justice, wildfires, democracy, and community.

A book about an impactful year is, by design, having a big impact on the community it chronicles.

All proceeds from the book’s sales benefit the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County’s fire recovery fund. In addition, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education created a robust digital curriculum to go along with the book, a copy of which is being provided for free to every high school junior in the county.

“We wanted to do something that helped make sense of what we were going through,” says Thaler. “We lived through something as a community and we wanted to create a record. My job as a photojournalist was to create a history of what happened.”

The book was published in cooperation with the Santa Cruz Community Foundation, Community Printers, Bookshop Santa Cruz, and the support of community leaders, including Ow, who serves on MBEP’s board of directors.

Thaler, a staff photographer for the Santa Cruz Sentinel for the past 33 years, experiences the history of his community in a hands-on way few could imagine. Deeply connected to the community in which he lives, his photographs have been published in every leading newspaper in the United States and he has twice been honored with awards in the prestigious National Press Photographers Association Best of Photojournalism. His photograph of Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills and Mayor Justin Cummings went viral and was seen by millions.

The convergence of Black Lives Matter protests, a turbulent election year, and a global pandemic fueled the start of discussions between Thaler and Painchaud, the project’s other principal photographer, to start a book project. Then, in a year already so filled with monumental challenges for a community, came the wildfires, adding whole new layers to the year.

“People in Santa Cruz County losing 900 homes, that’s a huge percentage of our community here,” says Thaler.

He and Painchaud spent weeks on the fire lines: As other Santa Cruz residents evacuated or holed up behind tightly-shuttered windows to try to keep out the smoke, Shmuel left home each day to document the devastation, the bravery, and the human stories behind the headlines.

“When things like fires are happening, that’s when the newspapers are most important,” he says. “Not only am I trying to get dynamic imagery, but the stories, the pictures, the captions are telling people what’s going on in the community and what they need to know.”

The book took on a higher purpose, says Thaler, when he and his collaborators enlisted the help of the County Office of Education. “This amazing team of educators created a curriculum,” said Thaler. “Then the generosity of a group of people, including George Ow and the Community Foundation, has given a free book to each of the 3,400 high school juniors in Santa Cruz County.”

“Basically, they are the ones living through history and who are going to write the future,” says Thaler, “and they are the ones that are going to be engaged in social justice.”

“2020 Hindsight” — through the discussions and reflection it evokes and the funds it raises— are Thaler’s way of giving back to the community he loves.

“There are a lot of people who lost their homes in the fire, a lot of people who lost loved ones to COVID. It’s really hard to say we survived this because some people don’t,” said Thaler. “But as a community, we need to support each other, and this book is part of that.”

Thaler is now working with his friend, NPR producer Nikki Silva, of the Kitchen Sisters team, on “Lost and Found,” a project documenting the objects recovered from homes after the CZU Lightning Complex fires, and the stories behind them. That exhibit is expected to be on exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History this summer.

“It’s such a privilege to do what I do,” says Thaler. “So in general, I try to really give back to the community, and the book is the biggest way I can do that.”

Copies of “2020 Hindsight: Looking Back on a Tumultuous Year in Santa Cruz County” are available online and at Bookshop Santa Cruz.