Photographer hopes exhibit will help others cope with lava disaster

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    Melissa Schelling holds a collage of her photographs depicting her and her dogs’ experience evacuating lower Puna because of the lower East Rift Zone eruption of Kilauea volcano. Schelling’s exhibit, “Year of the Dog: Lava Evacuation,” is now in the Fountain Gallery of the Wailoa Center until Oct. 25.

Melissa Schelling had a photography exhibit planned at the Wailoa Center in Hilo long before Kilauea’s eruption forced her to evacuate from her lower Puna home earlier this year.

In February, Schelling began a personal project, “Year of the Dog,” with the goal of photographing dogs every day. She was scheduled for an October exhibit and ready to print her photos when the eruption began in May in Leilani Estates.


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.

As the eruption began, “suddenly we have to evacuate,” she said, and taking care of her own dogs became more important than photographing others.

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 active lava flow. In the before pictures, the dogs are seemingly “smiling” and happy. After, they’re more somber and alert. A portion of a Civil Defense message, in bold red letters, reads: “Thank you for listening. Have a safe day.”

Indeed, Schelling said in the before pictures, the dogs are happy on their land. In the after pictures, “they are in strange houses, and everything is different, and they look distressed.”

Another collage is titled “Toto, We’re Not in Puna Anymore” and includes shots of the dogs running through the verdant grounds of their old home juxtaposed against the red and orange lava images. In the center, the pups stand near their new home.

“I gave my dogs a job because they needed to be occupied,” Schelling said. Their “job” was posing in different locations, and Schelling said she made it fun for them. Every day, that was “concentrated time with my dogs.”

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

When she and her husband evacuated, they didn’t leave with everything at first, but weren’t able to get back to their home after fissure 8 opened up and crossed Highway 132.

A phone call she received from her husband, who was unable to get back to their home, “was so upsetting, Coco started having a panic attack,” she said. Schelling then had to rush the dog to a new veterinarian in Waimea.

“My job, what I had to do, was make her life as normal as possible,” she said. “How do you do that when you’re evacuating? How do you make life normal?”

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

“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, her husband and their dogs lived on 9.5 acres off of Highway 132, across the street from fissure 17, just outside Lanipuna Gardens. They lost their home and most of their belongings.

Schelling, who moved to Hawaii in 1996, said the week before the eruption stopped, a brush fire went through and destroyed their house.

“You feel horrible leaving everything behind,” she said about having to leave her home. “I miss Puna … but clearly I’m not supposed to be there any more. Something has guided me up to Waimea, so that is where I’m supposed to be right now, and I have to accept that.”

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.”

Photographing the eruption allowed Schelling to process what was happening, to look at it closely to see the effects it had on her and the dogs every day.

“Working on this (project), it helped me to survive the evacuation, and I was hoping it could help some other people, too.”

Whiskey and Coco, meanwhile, are adjusting to their new lives in Waimea.

Schelling said they have a small backyard, “but we can play Frisbee, and there are no poisonous toads.”

She will continue documenting “Year of the Dog” through February 2019. Daily dog photos can be seen online at and on Instagram at MyDogs.YourDogs.NotDogs.


“Year of the Dog: Lava Evacuation” is on display at the Wailoa Center Fountain Gallery until Oct. 25. Wailoa Center is free and open to the public 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Email Stephanie Salmons at

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