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Q & A with Winnie Au
What inspired you to shoot in the Rockaways?
I went to the Rockaways primarily to volunteer and to try to do what I could to help the relief effort post-Sandy. It has been a crazy and devastating last few weeks for a lot of people, and because I personally escaped Sandy unscathed, I felt like it was important, as a (somewhat) young, able-bodied human being, to go out and help with the clean up and relief effort. So I was lucky enough to hitch a ride with my friend Christy last Saturday—who was lucky enough to get gas from friend and fellow volunteer Nick, who had brought extra gas with him from Philly—and we helped deliver food and supplies to the residents.
I had been documenting my experience with Sandy ever since it arrived, and this included going into blacked-out Manhattan, visiting Gowanus Bay-soaked Red Hook, and driving through city after city in New Jersey, all in the darkness. So admittedly I was also curious to see firsthand what the Rockaways looked like. I had heard of the WALL-E sized trash pile at Jacob Riis; I had heard the boardwalk had been completely destroyed; I had heard that it looked like a war zone. I wanted to see for myself.
What were some of your experiences like when you were there?
Seeing the Rockaways firsthand was at the same time incredibly sad and inspiring. It was sad, because everything that used to be there, a lot of spots that I could recognize from summer days spent on the beach, were completely decimated and only partially recognizable. People's homes, all of their belongings, lay in piles on every street. And everything was covered in sand and dust. The sand was blowing around the street, all throughout the air, and I regretted not having a mask for my face. It looked like a third world country. It was inspiring because when I went last weekend, there were people everywhere cleaning up, helping each other, feeding each other. I saw all different groups—military trucks, police, disaster relief units, churches, occupy sandy, community centers, even Home Depot—everyone came together to try to help bring some relief to the Rockaways.
At the same time, there was a lot of disorganization, and at times it was frustrating. I think there are a lot of people who want to help but don't know how to—don't know where to go, what to do. Or they arrive at a volunteer dispatch center, only to find themselves standing around, looking for someone who can direct them. So in the coming weeks I think it will be important for people to make sure there are people assessing what needs to be done where, and for the communication of that information to be made clearly and immediately. I'm sure it's a difficult thing to accomplish, when your workforce is made up of volunteers who come and go and don't necessarily have a continuous "boss".