AWT contributing photographer Kisha Bari is passionate about art, photography and social justice. Born in Melbourne, Australia, she is an internationally recognized photographer whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire, GQ and NPR. Since moving to New York City in 2010, she has documented the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy on New York’s communities. We chatted with her about her current and upcoming projects.
You’ve gained your recognition as a music photographer. Why the shift to focus on social and political issues?
I’ve always loved photography with a deeper perspective. Images that evoke emotion and inspire people to really think about their life. I am a big fan of storytelling and war photojournalism as it not only makes me want to be a better photographer, but a better person all-round. My shift in focus was accidental, but I realized as I was shooting my Rockaway stories, that I really loved creating work that helped people and helped raise awareness for their issues. It was very fulfilling.
Do you think any one genre of photography is more or less important than another, in terms of both its wider impact and the photographer’s artistic expression or development? Do you think it’s possible to cross genres? For example, can editorial photography be artistic, can commercial photography be social or political?
I don’t think any genre is more important than the other. I think we need to maintain a balance in all aspects of life, including visual stimulation. Viewing or creating imagery for societal impact or purely for aesthetics is equally important to keep a healthy state of mind. I can’t view hard-hitting photojournalism all day, every day without getting a little depressed. I need a little bit of art, editorial or even fashion in there to keep perspective.
I think all photography borrows from all genres in style and technique. If you know all the rules, then there are no rules. Editorial can be incredibly artistic as well as social, and political issues can be very commercial. I say, a good image is a good image, no matter what genre, style, subject matter or purpose. It just must be impactful.
What draws your eye to certain subjects?
Oh lots of things! The light. The shadows. Reflections. The look in someone’s eye. A movement. A story. A shape. Color. Composition. Certain elements align and I’m compelled to capture them. I still remember photographs that I’ve missed!
You document stories about how Hurricane Sandy has affected the lives of the residents of Rockaway, an ongoing project. What’s been the most touching experience or story so far?
All of the people I have met were amazing to get to know. I had really emotional experiences with each and every person I interviewed and photographed. The Rockaway Peninsula is over 11 miles long and ¾ of a mile wide. The social and economic divide along that narrow strip of land could not be more diverse. I travelled and met so many different people from all backgrounds and walks of life up and down that whole 11 miles and it was humbling and awe-inspiring. Some of them I keep in touch with on a regular basis.
Gene Burke has been a resident of Rockaway since he was six years old. He saw the waves from the hurricane approach and devastate his neighborhood. Gene has seen many storms sweep through the peninsula, but Sandy was by far the biggest. He lives on the seventh floor of a building on Beach 76th Street.
“That night, the water came. I saw the ocean,” Gene said. “And the waves about a mile out, three quarters of a mile, were actually rolling on top of the other waves. This was a monster! And I saw it come over the boardwalk.” After that night, Gene looked after a friend who had a heart attack only a week before the storm. Neither of them had anywhere else to go. “We have no water, no electric, no food, no medical supplies,” he said. “I mean, I can’t think of one thing positive. Climbing steps with no emergency lights. You have to feel your way up 5, 6, 7, 8 flights.”
Beverley Penn and her husband had been living in the Garden Inn Suites Hotel in Jamaica, Queens for three months. Beverley suffers from Hypertension and Diabetes. There was no kitchen in her hotel suite and the hotel is miles from any kind of healthy cuisine.
Beverley’s journey to find a new home for her family had been a maze of frustrating phone calls and paperwork. On a daily basis, she carried around a six inch pile of papers, just so she had all the documents she needed for any given meeting for any different aid organisation or caseworker. It had become a full time job.
Beverley is happy to finally be in her new home. However, she says that it will never be the same. Everything in it is brand new. “There are no memories. There are no photographs of my family. There are no things from our history in there. That’s the saddest part of all.”
Semeo Doe and Nelson Sarweh. The Action Center – Far Rockaway
More than half of the public housing in the borough of Queens is in Far Rockaway. In the 1950s, Robert Moses’ urban renewal plan moved New York’s poorest residents to cheap land by the coastline. Thousands of units in high-rise public housing now create a concentrated poverty on the eastern end of the Rockaway peninsula.
Since Hurricane Sandy, one of the only community organizations still providing hot food, medical care, education and relocation and legal services to the residents of Far Rockaway is The Action Center at 57–10 Beach Channel Drive. For the past 12 years, they have relied predominantly on private grant money to sustain their work. The Action Center received no further funding from the millions of dollars of Hurricane Sandy aid raised by federal and nonprofit organizations. However, they were presented with the Mayor’s award for exceptional community service. This award came with no monetary attachment.
In September of 2013, “How Sandy Hit Rockaway” was featured at the Photoville Festival in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Gene Burke, Mary Leonard and 75-year-old Hazel Beckett, among others, made the effort to come to Photoville to see their printed portraits and hear their stories exhibited. It was very emotional for all of us as their stories represented the thousands of others that were going through the same issues. It helped us engage in further discussion on issues of recovery and healing. It was really wonderful.
Are you aiming for a goal–donations, exposure?
My initial focus was to get exposure on issues that weren’t being covered in mass media. We all saw the destruction and what we call “disaster porn” in the media until it just moved on to other issues when the power in Manhattan came back on. I wanted to bring a human element to the stories and also bring to light the more convoluted and long-term issues. Like NYCHA’s neglect for their public housing residents. The obscene paperwork and the hoops individuals and families needed to go through for a $2000 FEMA grant. The months and months of displacement, the lack of aid in poorer areas, and it goes on …
Through these stories, I was able to inspire contributions to many of the aid organizations that were doing great things in the community as well as contribute to the “Bring Back The Boardwalks” silent art auction that raised almost $60,000 for local community organizations. My stories are also a part of the Sandy Storyline Project, which is an ongoing participatory documentary and archive of the recovery and rebuilding of the communities affected by Hurricane Sandy.
Who do you work together with on such projects—organizations, other artists?
Initially, I start on my own. I think I can do everything on my own until I hit roadblocks or have an idea that I don’t have the skills to execute. Then I get someone to help or teach me. It’s difficult for me to ask for help. Sandy Storyline was an incredible organization and resource for me. The founders and contributors helped me with my audio and really expanded my mind and skill-set. They also taught me how to collaborate and ask for help.
For a couple of years you’ve been working on a project called “Searching for Maz,” an “adventure” as you describe it–“Images and words that get me from yesterday to tomorrow.” Tell us about the “wild and adventurous woman” that you look for on a daily basis.
Maz is in all of us. She is the most dazzling, vibrant, stunning and best version of you. She’s not held back by societal constraints. She doesn’t say, “I shouldn’t do this or say that.” She’s the you that goes to Mexico, New York or Paris by yourself and meets amazing people because you don’t have any inhibitions and you’re entirely you.
I started “Searching for Maz” a couple of years back when I was working full-time for The Impossible Project. They make new film for vintage Polaroid cameras. The job was taking up so much of my time that I didn’t get to shoot any of my own personal projects. However, I was shooting a ton of Polaroid for testing and workshops, etc. I also was feeling a little lost at the time. I lacked a little confidence in myself and I wanted to bring back the “Kisha” that embraced life. The Kisha I found in Byron Bay many years ago, in Mexico, in New York when I first arrived. I needed to find the best me I could possibly be and embody that again. A few of my other friends felt that way also. I think New York winter just got to us.
So in the spring, I continued to shoot instant images and use the archive of images that I’d already shot and started to write stories and adventures of my alter ego, “Maz.” Usually the stories are either true or based on a life experience. It was a way to inspire adventure and excitement and empowerment in myself and also in others. We all have the capacity to embody this within ourselves, but sometimes we get caught up in life and forget. So we need to go in search of the Maz in all of us.
Photos by Kisha Bari
Featured photo of Kisha by Rommel Pecson
Audio produced by Kisha Bari, co-produced by Jacob Anderson (Semeo Doe and Nelson Sarweh) and Meg Cramer (Beverley Penn).