Zoe Roth’s face is synonymous with disasters, all because of a picture her dad took when she was almost five years old.
The picture — which features Roth standing and smiling in front of a burning house — has circulated the internet for years in different forms. But seeing as it’s been over 16 years since the original picture was taken, she's not as recognizable as she once was.
In fact, it wasn’t until a tweet by UNC student Kaitlyn Boeckel gained traction that people realized Roth is not only a meme, but a Tar Heel, too. Roth is now a senior majoring in peace, war and defense. She transferred from American University in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2019.
From Roth's perspective, it’s just a picture from a controlled practice fire, two blocks away from her family home in Mebane, NC.
“Sometimes I like to think, ‘I wonder how many people see my face,’” Roth said. “I always think it's really cool, but when I meet somebody for the first time, I don't usually bring it up. I don't think that it's something that defines me very much. When I meet people, I like to tell them other things about myself because this isn't something that I chose or something that I think reflects who I am.”
On the day the picture was taken, Dave Roth, Zoe Roth’s dad, had recently gotten his first digital camera. When his wife came home and told the family about the burning house, they took a family field trip down the street. The famous picture of Zoe Roth was just one of many they took that afternoon.
In 2008, Roth submitted the photo of Zoe Roth to the JPG Magazine's “Emotion Capture” photo contest. It was published in the print edition of the magazine, then later online, which is where Dave thinks the photo was picked up.
“It was just pretty neat just to see this house fully engulfed in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Mebane, but not for bad reasons,” Dave Roth said. “So, we got a lot of pictures of it. I got pictures of Tristan (Zoe Roth’s brother), other pictures of Zoe and different angles of the thing. And the photo we ended up with, I'd love to tell you that it was some brilliant master plan on my part to get that photo, but it was just one of many photos taken that day, and she just happens to have this great look on her face.”