By the Grace of Devastation
December 23, 2012
Author: Mathijs Rotteveel
A Dutchman on a bike. Surprised by this unusual appearance, the US authorities that blocked the Breezy Point area let photographer Julien Dony through the first barricades. Yet, at the second row of fences he was stopped again by an attentive officer notifying him, “Sorry, I can’t allow you in. Guns have been drawn.” Dony explained that he came all the way from Amsterdam to photograph what hurricane Sandy had left. After he told the story of Dutch history, saturated with the struggle against water, the policeman let him in.
Dony had been lured to New York by the news stories on what media wittily called ‘The Frankenstorm’. Well over a month ago, Sandy was a media event for which hundreds of international journalists gathered in New York and New Jersey. They wrote, told or filmed their spectacular stories but then, only a few days later, they were gone again, attracted by news stories in Syria and Palestine. What remained was a devastated coastline and thousands of people left without food or homes.
With the Dutch history of fighting against the sea in his mind, Dony cycled to Breezy Point, Staten Island and later visited Seaside Heights in New Jersey. A week after the storm, he captures the affected area in the moment between destruction and rebuilding. Of course, Dony also heard the emotional stories of Sandy’s victims, the Americans that lost their houses or their loved ones. That’s what the media focused on. Dony chose another perspective: He devoted himself instead to the surreal beauty of the ruined beach villas, the luxury yachts that have been tossed around like dice and the torn down blocks of houses.
His pictures deliberately show no action, hope nor grief. They don’t show compassion with the victims. Dony was surrounded by an odd flock of people who strayed around the wounded areas after the media circus had left. But, he excluded from the frame the U.S. Army Humvees that brought thousands of soldiers from across the country to help clean up the catastrophe. He doesn’t show the employees of the utility companies nor the people of the state law enforcement agencies. We don’t see any engagement with the staggered residents who, demonstrating the American resilience, had already started to rebuild their ruined residences. He just shows blue skies above calm contemporary ruins.
Dony is convinced that he passed the barricades because he’s not an eager journalist hungry for hot news, but an artist looking for surreal beauty. That’s what he thinks he found. “Sandy took a lot. But it seemed like she gave back a world not meant for human beings”, he says. He doesn’t want to bother his viewers with the contemporary rules of conceptual art. He doesn’t want to be different nor does he want to shock. He shows no need to criticize catastrophe journalism. He just tries to show the tranquil aesthetic grace he encountered. The grace of Sandy’s devastation.