When we first saw the pictures that photographer Winnie Au shot on a recent trip to the Rockaways, we were stunned. Not only did Au manage to capture the wide-reaching and devastating effect that Hurricane Sandy had on the area, but she did so with a sensitivity to the subject that is not always evident in disaster photography. The resulting images render the tremendous scope of the tragedy without ever losing sight of the humanity behind all the upheaval, which is exactly what good art is meant to do—take the human experience and communicate it on a universal scale. We spoke with Au about what brought her to the Rockaways and what she foudnwhile she was there.
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".
What were some of the most and/or least hopeful things that you saw?
Seeing the remains of people's homes and all of their belongings, covered in sand, sitting on the street and waiting to be picked up by a trash truck was pretty sad. A large part of what was least hopeful was the sheer amount of destruction I saw. We drove through block after block, street after street, in the Rockaways, and it seemed that very few areas had been spared. Some people's homes had entirely burnt to the ground. I can't imagine what it would be like to lose everything you own.
I also saw the backyard of a lady who we delivered supplies to. (One of the images in the series). She had a beautiful backyard overlooking the water, but everything in the backyard is now completely ruined. It's a striking dichotomy—the beautiful view and what used to be a beautiful place to probably hang out and spend summer nights. You could really see how much people have lost, when you imagined how things used to be, what they had before.
As far as most hopeful things - it would be the sheer amount of people/strangers/groups who came out to help the Rockaways, as well as seeing the residents of the Rockaways helping each other. I think in all this tragedy a lot of people have shown that they really want to help their neighbors, and they do actually care about their community.
There's obviously a lot of work to do, but I think New Yorkers are especially good at picking up and doing what needs to be done to move forward. I think it will be important in the coming weeks and months for people to continue to volunteer and help out with the rebuilding and clean up, as it looks like an immense project.
See more of Winnie Au's work at her website winniewow.com