After Sandy, conflict photographer turns his lens on natural disaster

Gilles Peress is a venerated photographer with more than four decades of experience covering human conflict everywhere from Bosnia to Northern Ireland.

“I’m more familiar with man-made disasters,” he explains.

But when the sun rose the morning after Hurricane Sandy, Peress left his home in Brooklyn and set out for Breezy Point, Queens, to document his first natural disaster. His photos show the Rockaways in a state of raw destruction: charred foundations, power lines dangling in floodwater, entire blocks flattened.

Peress’s arresting images were recently published in a new book of photographs, “The Rockaways,” which also features essays and reporting by journalists and Rockaways residents. The book is free; its publisher, Concord Free Press, asks that anyone who takes a copy donate to a Hurricane Sandy relief organization or charity of their choice.

Metro New York interviewed Peress about his time in the Rockaways.

What was it like that first morning?

It’s on the order of war. I’ve gone to many conflicts and Breezy Point looked like a war landscape. Untold devastation.

How did people — many of whom had just lost all of their worldly possessions — react when they saw you taking pictures of the rubble in the days immediately after the storm?

In Breezy Point there was almost no one. It was really emptied out. The people that were there were absorbed by the situation. They had other problems.

It sounds like it was almost a post-apocalyptic scene.

It’s very similar to many movies that have been produced in the last few years that are about climate change and global warming and disaster situations. So it’s very thematic in a certain way.

Are most of the photos from the weeks immediately after the storm?

It was in the week after. I was supposed to be on my way to Florida for another project. I was essentially delayed; I couldn’t leave New York with this whole situation happening. So I stayed about a week, 10 days.

It’s something that’s happened to me before. I was in New York for 9/11 and I was supposed to leave for Afghanistan. But in my experience it’s hard for me to leave when the city is in such trauma.

If you think about it, the city has had to deal with many traumas since the beginning of the century: You had 9/11, you had the collapse of the financial markets, the kind of problems that are so big. It’s big city, big problems.

And as it’s happening, you begin to realize the magnitude of it. But at first you’re not necessarily aware of that.

This is a fairly common experience of history, where in the middle of it, people don’t know that we’re in the middle of it. The whole thing— whether it’s about Sandy or 9/11 or the collapse of the financial markets— is how to deal with history as it happens. To not be ignorant of it.

It seems the answer for you has been to document it in photographs.

Yes, I want to be aware. I want to be aware of history as it unfolds.

This interview has been edited and condensed.




News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

US military tried, but failed to rescue journalist…

The U.S. military earlier this year tried to rescue journalist James Foley and other American hostages held in Syria ,but failed to find the captives.

National

Fate of captured beluga whales in hands of…

A Georgia aquarium went to court on Wednesday seeking federal permission to bring 18 captured beluga whales to the United States from Russia.

Local

After Eric Garner death, religious leaders meet to…

Interfaith leaders convened with city officials to discuss what the community can do to help dial down heightened tensions after Eric Garner's death.

Local

'Suspicious' Hamilton Heights fire caused by power strip:…

An extension cord overload caused the deadly fire in Hamilton Heights late Monday that killed a 15-year-old girl and injured at least 12 others.

Television

'So You Think You Can Dance' recap: Season…

And then there were six. It was a big night on stage as the Top 6 got to dance with each other, All-star partners and perform a solo routine.

Television

'Doctor Who' personality profile: the 4 Doctors

When the time comes for a new Doctor, there's always some anxiety over the big question: Who will he be? The series owes its longevity…

Television

Billy Crystal to commemorate late actor Robin Williams…

  Comedian Billy Crystal will pay tribute to late actor Robin Williams at television's Primetime Emmy Awards on Aug. 25, the show's organizers said on…

Going Out

Things to do this week in NYC, Aug.…

GAMES Hudson Common Open Aug. 21, 7 p.m. Hudson Common 356 W. 58 St. Free, www.hudsoncommonnyc.com The U.S. Open begins on Monday, but most of…

NFL

Giants expected to work Corey Washington into first-team…

The day of reckoning for the Giants' fringe players will fall upon them Friday night against the Jets.

NFL

Jalen Saunders still unsure what caused car accident…

Jets rookie wide receiver Jalen Saunders spoke to the media Wednesday for the first time since his car accident, but he didn't say a whole lot.

NFL

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL defense (DEF)

NFL

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL quarterbacks (QB)

Sex

Online dating for every generation

Frank Jackson and his mother Maggie are like lots of modern families: They have dinner together regularly, keep each other updated on their lives —…

Wellbeing

Going green could be the key to getting…

If we could just pursue the things that would actually make us happy, we could help the environment too, according to a New York researcher.…

Wellbeing

Metabolic syndrome could have a sugar link

Scientists in St. Louis may have found another culprit in metabolic syndrome, which can lead to heart disease and type 2 diabetes.  Uric acid is…

Wellbeing

Another way stress hurts your unborn baby

Mothers know to try staying calm during pregnancy, as stress has been linked to behavioral and developmental problems for their babies. But now, a new…