Beautiful Disaster

Hurricane Sandy, like many disasters today, was a media event. Striking images flashed across screens. The skyline divided into light and dark. Small groups of people huddled around power strips ...

Hurricane Sandy, like many disasters today, was a media event. Striking images flashed across screens. The skyline divided into light and dark. Small groups of people huddled around power strips, vying to charge their phones and laptops. A photographer paused astride a bicycle in a deserted street. Uneven media coverage matched the uneven development of the city itself. While images of a flooded lower Manhattan quickly proliferated online, devastated neighborhoods like Far Rockaway, Queens, and Midland Beach, Staten Island, remained largely invisible. In stunning images and accounts, #SANDY: Seen Through the iPhones of Acclaimed Photographers exposes the life and aftermath of the disaster in outer Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, as well as in New Jersey and Connecticut. As a collection it also comments on the potential of mobile photography in times of disaster, revealing the tension between viewing the storm as a mediated and an immediate event.

#SANDY serves as both a time capsule and a reminder of the storm’s lingering effects. It privileges neither the amateur (the twenty photographers featured are all professionals) nor the ephemeral, and thus works against dominant trends in digital, and especially in mobile, photography and technology.1 At the same time, the images and the book encourage and support grassroots action outside professional imagemaking. After Sandy, the contributing photographers opted for iPhones over bulkier equipment because they needed to move around easily and wanted “a democratic and immediate way to share their work.” To this end, they initially circulated their photos on social media, spurring donations and encouraging volunteers to join disaster relief efforts in affected areas. Subsequently, the photos in #SANDY went on sale as part of an exhibit that raised $19,000 for recovery groups. All proceeds from the book will go to Occupy Sandy to assist with ongoing needs in areas affected by the hurricane.

Successfully selling images of a disaster, however, often entails aestheticizing destruction. To make money, pictures have to be beautiful—and the ones in #SANDY are. Although framed by the introductory essays as immediate, emotional reactions to the disaster, many of the photographs are artful shots with careful composition and subjects that appear to have been posed. These are juxtaposed with firsthand accounts of the storm collected by the participatory documentary project Sandy Storyline.

It is here that the division between the beautiful pictures and the ugly reality becomes apparent. On one page, a photograph shows a parking lot that has become a still pool, perfectly reflecting the trees and clouds above it. On the opposite page, a Rockaway Beach resident recalls how the flood “wasn’t water by the time it got to my house. Gasoline, heating oil, paint, and who knows what other chemicals sloshed around with mud and sand.” An image of the brightly lit Empire State Building in an otherwise dark Manhattan skyline faces a Gerritsen Beach resident’s heartrending recollection of her fear, as floodwater rose in her home, that the decision not to evacuate would leave her responsible for the deaths of her three children.

Alongside accounts like this one, the beauty of the photographs does more to draw in viewers than to deceive them. The photographs show that beauty can coexist with—and not necessarily negate or sanitize—grim reality, and that many human experiences encompass both beauty and anguish at once. Disasters, too, are multifaceted. They can contain exquisite moments; beauty, in turn, can contain the seeds of devastation.

The most evocative images in #SANDY disrupt a central convention of disaster photography. They do not attempt to depict the enormity of loss and destruction by showing people alongside the wreckage of their homes and belongings. Instead, they detail the damage at a smaller, more human scale. A close-up shot of a rusted light switch framed by a dirt-encrusted ceramic plate mounted on discolored floral wallpaper lacks visible human suffering yet nevertheless gives a sense of the storm’s reach. Without the home’s occupant in the image, the photograph relies on the viewer’s embodied knowledge of the wall height of a light switch, generating a sensation of how high the water must have risen.

The typical disaster photo seeks to elicit sympathetic action, emphasizing the vast, impersonal nature of destruction to generate feelings of a common humanity. This photograph, in contrast, provokes a more empathic gaze. Its attention to an individual detail of an unknown other’s life suggests a more personal, less familiar kind of loss. The simple trace of the flood’s damage leaves room for the imagination. What effects of the storm did the camera exclude? What cannot be seen? In another picture, a grit-coated photograph lies on the sand. It serves as a reminder that disasters are also images untaken and destroyed, that documentation has its limits even with the rise of digital technology.

#SANDY does not offer answers to the challenge of representing disasters, let alone climate change. It speaks primarily to the need for recovery, rather than transformation. “Global warming is here,” says a message scrawled across the boardwalk in the Rockaways. This photograph, though, is smaller than many in the book. Surrounding it are pictures of other hand-written messages, a number of which address the storm by name (“Hey Sandy Fuck You!”; “Kiss My Ass Sandy”). Here, nature is anthropomorphized, anthropogenic climate change minimized. The scrawled messages to Sandy reassert human control in the face of disaster. They succeed, however, only insofar as the connection between human action and the complex causality of that disaster remains invisible. “Catastrophe,” writes Mary Ann Doane, “signals the failure of the escalating technological desire to conquer nature.” The celebration of iPhone photography in #SANDY reaffirms the power of technology to represent and facilitate recovery from catastrophic loss. Left unexplored, though, are the implications of this view, particularly in relation to the present fascination with technological solutions to large-scale problems like climate change.

Climate change, more broadly, raises questions of representation and technology. It demands that we recognize the role of various technologies (including iPhones) and associated imperatives of progress and growth in precipitating extreme weather events like Sandy. Cloud computing, for example, is energy intensive despite its portrayal as weightless and immaterial. Data storage is soon expected to become the fastest increasing contributor to emissions associated with IT manufacture and use (a sector whose global carbon emissions are already on par with the airline industry). The planned obsolescence of ever-upgraded electronic devices also entails high material costs, from the extraction of minerals to the exporting of e-waste. As with climate change, these practices have a globally uneven impact. The same week that #SANDY was released, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, killing thousands of people and displacing millions more. While its consequences have yet to become fully apparent, this ongoing disaster underscores the urgent need to think about what forms of representation and response hold the potential not only to speed recovery, but also to bring about a more beautiful and more just future.


#SANDY comes out in Fall 2014. Signed copies may be pre-purchased here. icon

  1. For more on the new uses of digital photography, see Susan Murray, “Digital Images, Photo-sharing, and Our Shifting Notions of Everyday Aesthetics,” Journal of Visual Culture, no. 7.2 (2008), pp. 147–163.