Tag Archives: Expanse

Flooded, Uprooted, Burned: The Tracks of Sandy on the Shore

After TIME commissioned me, along with four other photographers, to capture Hurricane Sandy using Instagram, I and many of my colleagues felt a deep personal need to go back and document the aftermath. I’ve covered disasters in other parts of our country, but this is my hometown, and Sandy was a storm of historical significance. I’ve often found that there is great power in telling difficult stories in a beautiful way. Interest in any given story wanes so quickly, yet it’s only through taking the time to go deeper that we get to a place of real understanding. I had to return to this story, and I wanted try to comprehend the scale of this storm. The only way for me to capture Sandy’s destructive fury was from above.

Stephen Wilkes for TIME

Storm surges over power the coastal areas and flood the streets during low tide in Milford, CT.

On the Sunday after Sandy made landfall, I decided to rent a helicopter and fly over some of the most devastated areas, including the New Jersey shore, Breezy Point and Far Rockaway. It was a beautiful day to fly, but unfortunately that beauty quickly eroded into shock as we began to get close to the coasts. It was everything I’d heard about, but it was difficult to believe what I was actually seeing. Once we got above the shoreline, I really started to understand the scale of the destruction. The expanse of land it ruined, the totality of the devastation — it was like a giant mallet had swung in circles around the area. It was mind numbing.

When I got home that night, the images still in my mind made it impossible to sleep. Through various points of this storm, it felt like we were all living through a science fiction movie. Seeing these devastated towns from above showed the cold reality of this storm’s severity.

From above, I realized how close particular neighborhoods were to bays or oceans. Sometimes, it was a matter of two blocks, and it’s a proximity not immediately apparent when you’re on the ground. In Breezy Point, for example, I knew that more than 80 homes had burned down in a fire, but nothing could have prepared me for what I actually saw. The blackened and charred blocks of homes viewed as a giant physical scar across the landscape. Seeing how much land was affected and yet how many homes were saved, made me think of the firefighters and how hard they must have worked just to contain this fire.

In flying over Staten Island, I was really struck by the marina, and how the boats were physically lifted from the pier and tossed together. It looked like a child’s game—huge, 40-ft. boats being thrown around like toys. We then flew over Oakwood, where I saw a house that had been lifted and dragged through a field of cattails; its path clearly visible days later, having left a trail of destruction through the cattails.

Sandy was a warning shot. I’ve had a unique view of what’s happened on a physical level. But the emotional toll has yet to be measured. It’s my hope that these images serve as a wakeup call — whether that call is about global warming, infrastructure, or just the recognition that the world is changing, it’s a reminder that we need to take special care of our fragile world.


Stephen Wilkes is a fine-art and commercial photographer based in New York. Wilkes was awarded the Photo District News Award of Excellence in 2011 and 2012.

Wilkes’ work will be part of Art for Sandy, a fundraising initiative to support Sandy relief that’s being hosted by 20×200 and TIME.



History in Color: Rare Photographs of Czarist Russia

A bright orange orb hangs just above the horizon under an expanse of blue and yellow sky. It’s hard to take an interesting picture of a sunset, and at first glance, there is nothing remarkable about this one. What is remarkable, however, is that this vivid image was taken a century ago—a time usually seen only in black and white.

The sunset is just one of thousands of color photographs that Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii made between 1905 and 1915. With funding from Czar Nicholas II, he set out to document the diverse people and landscapes of the vast Russian Empire. Prokudin-Gorskii planned to produce images that would be used in classrooms, but the widespread exposure he envisioned for his pictures was not to be.

Without an affordable method for mass reproduction and with the upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution, the photographs languished until the entire collection, including nearly 2,000 glass negatives, was purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948. But they too were unable to find a suitable way to present Prokudin-Gorskii’s work until nearly 100 years after they were taken—when digital equipment allowed the library to scan all 1,902 negatives and restore Prokudin-Gorskii’s pictures to their original color.

“His cutting-edge technology met our internet and digitizing cutting-edge technology in just an almost perfect cycle,” said Helena Zinkham, chief of the Prints and Photographs Division of the LOC.

Made public through the LOC’s website beginning in 2001, Prokudin-Gorskii’s digitally restored photographs were shared over the web and featured in a number of small exhibitions around the world. People were drawn, Zinkham believes, as much by the format of the pictures as the content.

“It is as rare as hen’s teeth to have color photography from that era,” said Zinkham. “So it just knocks peoples’ socks off, even if you have no direct connection to Russia.”

Among those who discovered Prokudin-Gorskii’s pictures online was Robert Klanten, the publisher of German publishing company Gestalten. “I saw a couple of these photographs and I was immediately in love with them,” said Klanten. This October, Gestalten will release Nostalgia: The Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II Captured in Color Photographs, which will feature 283 of Prokudin-Gorskii’s works.

Combing through the entire Prokudin-Gorskii collection, Gestalten’s editorial team was particularly drawn to the portraits and scenes from daily life—many of which were shot in a ‘snapshot’ style despite the three-second exposures necessary to create them.

The pictures themselves cover a remarkable range—both geographically and in subject matter. Portraits were taken against backdrops that range from lush Siberian forests to neatly planted fields to a dank and crumbling prison yard in Turkestan. Even simple scenes—a train track cutting through a rock-strewn landscape or mine workers filling horse-drawn carts—are striking when you realize they portray a land on the verge of revolution, both industrial and political. It is even more appropriate, then, that Prokudin-Gorskii captured these scenes with a groundbreaking photographic method.

“Most people think of the past as something that happened in black and white,” said Klanten. The use of color, combined with Prokudin-Gorskii’s less-formal style was revolutionary in photography, according to Klanten. “The way he approached the whole thing is kind of a precursor to modern photography…it is almost a democratic approach to photography.”

Nostalgia: The Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II Captured in Color Photographs will be released in the U.S. by Gestalten in October. 

You can explore the entire Prokudin-Gorskii collection at the Library of Congress

Remember Me, My Ghost: Documenting Ireland’s Notorious Ballymun Neighborhood

Ballymun was meant to be a new start. Ireland’s largest social housing complex, built in the 1960s on a sprawling expanse of farmland just a half an hour from the center of Dublin, was built to clear out the last vestiges of Dublin’s inner-city tenements.

But the under-floor heating, constant hot water, elevators and large apartments were shining achievements for only a short time in Ballymun’s history. With no amenities in the area and no infrastructure development, Ballymun became isolated, it’s population booming and nowhere for the people to go. Over the subsequent decades, the area became Ireland’s most notorious public housing complex, immortalized in U2 songs as a tragic and grim place, rife with crime and drug addiction. The buildings were poorly maintained, the elevators often broken, the open land between the flat blocks foreboding and dangerous after dark. A main road divided the community into factions around which criminal gangs organized. By the end of the 1990s, enough was enough. The government and community began Europe’s biggest urban regeneration scheme, dedicated to demolishing all of the existing houses and redeveloping the area completely.

Ross McDonnell

From Joyrider. A boy stands before a bonfire.

My new film Remember Me, My Ghost came out of my experience photographing Ballymun for a project called Joyrider. That project began in 2005, in the middle of this regeneration scheme, when I stumbled upon a scene of post-apocalyptic abandon one Halloween night. Witnessing the transition of a group of rebellious young car thieves into a fully-fledged drug gang seemed somehow alien to Ireland, a quiet and at the time prosperous European outpost. But social alienation breeds these conditions in communities like Ballymun the world over. That truth inspired the project, on which I worked until 2008. In 2010, when the Joyrider photographs had gained recognition and I had completed my first documentary, I was encouraged to think about making a feature-length dramatic film. I went back to the area to gather material, with a commission from the Irish Film Board.

I returned to Ballymun happy that my idea had found support but apprehensive. I knew that the infamous ‘block’ where I had shot the Joyrider images was now gone and that the particular incendiary phase of youth that I had been privy to capture was now in the past. In my mind I understood that an audience wanted a film version of the images. But I knew this was impossible.

There seemed to be no narrative in revisiting the subject matter of Joyrider; no beginning, middle or end to the filming I undertook with my subjects. I decided to scrap all of the work I had completed and make a fresh start: in all my time shooting in Balllymun I had never touched on the feminine, domestic perspective of life in Ballymun, something I had always felt I missed out on in editing the hyper-charged, brattish imagery of Joyrider.

Abandoning my camera and using only an audio recorder I began recording interviews with the women of Ballymun.

All of the women I interviewed, more than 12 in total and from many different generations of women in Ballymun, were strong and courageous. Many of the stories I recorded were both heartbreaking and heartwarming. A community like Ballymun has always had its trials and tribulations—crime and drug use in particular were very public scourges in the neighborhood—but behind the closed doors in Ballymun I also heard many similarities in the stories of the women, stories of domestic violence, drug addiction and absentee fathers. In the classic Irish way the interviews were long, drawn out chats over cups of tea.

One interviewee however—Rachel—was able to tell her incredible life history with such clarity, in a way that stood out from everything else I had spent months searching for in Ballymun, that I felt compelled to use her story as the foundation of the film. Her story had narrative, a sense that having been through many terrible incidents in her life she had emerged on the other side to become a stronger person. With the audio edited I began filming again, asking friends and friends of friends to perform vignettes while I directed them. I was looking for moments that carried a feeling of connection to the story itself but also moments that were clearly not documentary images from Rachel’s life, drawing visual tangents between these different elements of the story.

At the same time the demolition company that was in charge of knocking down many of the remaining Ballymun tower blocks granted me access to the empty buildings to photograph and film in the empty spaces before and sometimes as they were being demolished. Each one of these places, although empty, was filled with the personality and the character of the people who had lived there. I felt privileged that I might be the last person to witness these places intact. Most are now gone, returned to dust.

The film Remember Me, My Ghost, by photographer Ross McDonnell, premiered at the Cork International Film Festival in November, 2011, and is screening at festivals throughout Europe this year.