NEW YORK—As everyone in New York City likely realizes, Hurricane Sandy made landfall one year ago today. Though we know what happened on Oct. 29, not all of us were here for it. I’m one of them. Overseas at the time of the storm, I was limited to experiencing Sandy largely through photographs—all of it—the storm, the aftermath, and the cleanup. I left New York and it was one city. I came back a year later and it was another.
In my quest to understand what happened between Oct. 29 and the following spring, photographs have been my greatest allies. Sometimes photographs are more than words. They allow for a more immediate emotional reaction and connection. They can surprise, enlighten, and delight. The truly good photographs make us look once, look again, and think.
In the immediate aftermath of Sandy, I remember feeling guilty over my reliance on photographs to understand what terrors had been wrought from wind and water. But as the city revisits the storm that changed everything, a visual representation seems most apropos. A strange statement for a writer, maybe, but there’s good logic behind it.
A talented photographer friend once described to me the evolution of some of his professional decisions. He was working for an entity within the U.N. to help combat human rights abuses. He wrote reports and made presentations on his reports to rooms full of important people in suits. Then one day he realized that on some level, the written word could never have the same impact as a photograph. He left and devoted himself to making pictures, and the world is arguably better because of that decision.
I often think of that conversation as I work. Though I didn’t agree with my friend enough to drop my pen and pick up a camera, he did make me realize the inarguable power of images.
A perfect chance to test this maxim is an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. From Oct. 29 through March 2, Rising Waters is a simple, beautiful series of photos that moves through several stages of Sandy: the storm, the destruction, coping, the sadness, the relief, and the cleanup.
Some of the most powerful images in the exhibit are a set of prints by one photographer. A tiny card explains how the photos were made in less than 40 words. The photographer spent days wandering the city while it lay in almost total darkness and used a slow shutter speed.
Though the eerie, masterfully done images are enough to pull you in, those few written words of explanation tie everything together. Even a startling photo of the East River with the dark skyline of Manhattan in the background can benefit from a few choice words.