Photographers Reflect on Sandy and the Future

October 28, 2013 Updated: October 29, 2013

On the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, photographers examine what the storm means for our future.

NEW YORK—Anniversaries are only worth what we make of them. They can be the occasion for an obligatory press conference, a few token words, a pretense at remembrance. Or they can remind us of the unfinished business we have to tend to, and that the past is not behind us but very much still with us. 

As Hurricane Sandy’s one-year anniversary makes landfall, the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) will open an exhibition called Rising Waters, presenting over 110 images from professional and amateur photographers taken during and after the storm. 

Documentary images, and the people who create those images, have a crucial role to play in our collective memory and understanding of events like Sandy. They piece together individual realities to form a larger, more nuanced picture that will inform our thinking about natural disasters going forward. 

An Exhibition, an Invitation to Discussion

The exhibit is the result of an open call MCNY issued in January. MCNY’s jury of curators received 10,000 images after the deadline was extended until July to capture more of the ongoing recovery. 

“One year later, Rising Waters presents a visual history of the worst storm ever to hit the New York City region,” said Susan Henshaw Jones, MCNY’s Ronay Menschel Director in a press release. 

“New Yorkers have short memories, but these images will shock and amaze, and this exhibition, I hope, will spark conversations about how to make our city better prepared for future storms.”

Jennifer Cheswick, Timothy Briner, Samira Bouaou, and Accra Shepp are a few whose photos were chosen for the exhibit.

Kindred Spirits With Focused Lenses

As Sandy descended like an angry spirit upon the city, Cheswick was on duty at the Brooklyn VA Medical Center, where she works as the chief engineer. She’s responsible for maintaining the hospital’s facilities for its patient population, which, due to incoming patients from flooded hospitals, was double the usual number. 

She and her team didn’t sleep, worried about the high wind and the threat of water to patient files. With their two sick children aged 4 and 1.5 by their side at the hospital, she and her husband watched news footage of Breezy Point swallowed in flames. The couple were filled with horror knowing that Jennifer’s elderly parents were there and could be in mortal danger.

In Brownsville, Brooklyn, fine art photographer Timothy Briner was out shooting for a project when the storm hit. Without missing a beat, he turned his lens to downed trees and anxious residents peering out of windows.

For the next two weeks, Briner rode his bike daily from his Ditmas Park neighborhood to the worst-hit parts of the borough, meeting and photographing people who were displaced or refused to leave their wrecked, sodden quarters. He continues to follow up with these people to this day.

Sandy’s impact on New York’s shores lent a deeper sense of poignancy to Accra Shepp’s project documenting New York City’s islands. The waterfront has been the focus of his work, but after Sandy, he now sees these vulnerable places in a new, more urgent light. 

Epoch Times photojournalist Samira Bouaou rushed toward the surging water as the city fell eerily dark and quiet. Moldy shells of houses in the Rockaways showed her the extent of the storm’s damage, while acts of kindness among strangers showed her a different side of New Yorkers.

It Takes a Village

Jennifer Cheswick has a military background that arms her with a degree of stoicism. But watching a broadcast of her parents’ block go up in flames couldn’t have been anything but distressing. 

“Something happens when you know there’s nothing you can do,” she said in a phone interview on Oct. 15. 

“The roads were all closed. I couldn’t endanger myself just to do nothing… It was 2 a.m. and I just had to sleep and trust they were okay.”

Her mother and father, like many, refused to leave—a year earlier, Hurricane Irene came and went and nothing happened. This time was nothing like the old couple had ever experienced.

The next morning, an off-duty police officer at the hospital drove to Breezy Point and found her parents in a church, picked them up and brought them to Cheswick. 

They had put on life jackets and managed to get up the 150-foot walk and into another house with the help of four or five young people. They stayed there until the flames reached it and they had to move again. Cheswick’s mother was 75 years old at the time. Her father was 80, a cancer survivor. At the Brooklyn VA, a doctor friend gave him a check-up.

“[My colleagues] banded in and took care of me. They made it comfortable for us,” Cheswick said.

After the storm passed, Cheswick, her husband, and the children returned to their neighborhood to survey the damage.

“When we first came back to our house, we took pictures because we couldn’t believe what it looked like,” Cheswick said.

One of these candid shots is part of the MCNY exhibit. In it, Cheswick’s young niece walks down the block for the first time after the storm, her bubblegum-pink outfit a banner of innocence against the stretches of charred hellscape that surround her.

“She was having a hard time taking it in,” Cheswick said. “She wasn’t crying—just trying to take it in.”

In the following months, Cheswick and her husband would learn about the resiliency of children. They discovered that as long as her sons had a routine and the company of other children who had been through the same, they were remarkably upbeat—even though Christmas was a wash and visits to Home Depot were frequent.

It certainly helped that the director of her older son’s school, Little Tots Red Wagon, made sure that the students had a place to go.

Within a couple weeks, Theresa Hyland “moved mountains to get the school opened (in a different location) and gave us some normal back,” Cheswick said. “I think credit goes to her that there’s not lasting traumatic impact on my son. It’s what saved us as a family.”

With Empathy and Determination

The plight of those who lost their homes in Coney Island, Seagate, and Brighton Beach propelled Timothy Briner to drive out each day from Ditmas Park—and when the gas shortage prohibited that, he biked.

He met people with “dirt, sewage, and sand in their apartment, sleeping on wet couches, using their ovens as heat.”

“The smell was overwhelming,” Briner said during a recent phone interview. One woman who needed wheelchair access couldn’t leave her cold and unpowered apartment for 20 days. 

“They were confused about FEMA and how to get support. But they were also in surprisingly optimistic good spirits,” he said. 

His photograph, “Day 3,” shows a woman in her 60s named Marie pointing to a line of silt on her wall where the water had reached. She lived on the ground floor of Sea Rise II, an apartment building at the farthest end of Coney Island. 

“She didn’t want to leave because of fear of looting,” Briner said. “She was living in filth for 35 days, give or take, before they (the building management) asked her leave. According to her, they gave her three hours to pack up her things and move it.” 

Marie has family in Brooklyn, said Briner, but she and her daughter had had a falling out. Scared to go to shelters, “she didn’t want to leave something that felt comfortable even though it was a complete disaster,” he said. 

Over a month ago, the building’s renovations were finished and Marie moved back to the ground floor after bunking for months with someone on the fifth floor. 

Briner’s last visit to southern Brooklyn was a couple weeks ago. He reported that Marie is very glad to be back in her old space.

A Critical Eye to the Future

Cleaning up the wreckage and rebuilding homes is one thing and is crucial to reversing damage done to property and people’s sense of stability. But returning things to the way they were before the storm does not justify complacency.

Accra Shepp had no intention of making Sandy photographs, but a museum director convinced him that his voice as a photographer would inform future decisions regarding disaster preparedness.

“As human beings, without that intuitive understanding of a situation there’s no way to have any kind of meaningful understanding or think about creating a meaningful solution. It’d all be an abstraction,” he said.

Shepp has been creating photographs of the city’s smaller islands in the hopes that the images will spark conversations about land use in light of climate change. 

A week after Sandy, Shepp took his old-fashioned wooden camera out to Eltingville, Staten Island. The neighborhood is on the southeast shore of the borough, framed by a cape curving out from Great Kills Park and forming a harbor.

The boats from the marina had washed up onto people’s lawns and crashed into houses.

When he set his tripod down on the damp ground and put the hood over his head, in front of him was “a machine lifting boats off the ground—just scooping them up and putting them in the water, like a giant forklift with a belt.” 

Shepp snapped the photo right after the machine pulled the boat in front of him up and away, leaving behind a muddy ditch. 

“Everything that Sandy touched, it changed,” he said. “It changed my sense of my project and how people understood what I was working on.”

“A year out, my sense is that people put things behind them pretty rapidly, even people who lived through it,” Shepp said. 

“And I think that the consciousness we had in the weeks immediately after [the storm] is important to recall moving forward because it’s not the last storm that’s going to happen like that. Sea levels are not going down—they’re rising. The next storm doesn’t even need to be as big to do as much.”