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Paired Disasters

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It was perhaps unforgivable, but in fact at the time, I was completely calm and composed. In other words, perhaps it was just too much, too enormous to absorb.   – Yosuke Yamahata

Yamahata’s nearly 24 hour walkabout, camera in hand, of the city of Nagasaki the day after it was bombed on August 9th,1945 resulted in perhaps the most comprehensive photographic record ever made of the event. His harrowing images were strictly censored by both the Japanese and American governments following the nuclear blast, attesting to their persuasiveness and power as photographs.

Paired Disasters explores my reactions to natural and human-caused events that, like Yamahata's shell-shocked images, evoke tragedy, loss and uncertainty. The images are digitally combined photographic diptychs in which I pair contemporary and historic photographs of documented catastrophes with close-up, macro views of my home and surroundings.

By combining and contrasting intimate, small-scale images with impersonal, large-scale ones,

I create new contexts for stories that defy our logic or rationalization: A sudden volcanic eruption in Iceland, the aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki, serial wildfires in California, the Fukushima tsunami in Japan’s Iwate prefecture, the Mexico City earthquake (which, coincidentally, occurred twice on the same date in history, exactly 32 years apart). 


Many of the diptychs are based on pictures I've been collecting for years from newspapers, magazines and the internet, beginning in the 1990’s. Some are well-known—Yamahata’s photographs, or the felled roller coaster along the New Jersey coast due to the effects of Hurricane Sandy. Others are more obscure. A few are horrific. Many of the images relate to climate change and increasingly erratic global weather patterns. Most are simply titled after the name and date of the event. I try as much as possible to preserve differences of texture and detail that result from the image source, such as halftone dots, jpeg glitches, and television screen banding. These textures frequently oppose the velvety, shallow depth of field of the macro photos, further highlighting the differences of scale between the two. 


At the start of the project, I chose photographs that shared formal similarities— a stain on a piece of fabric, for example, paired with an explosion of a similar size and shape. As I continued working, I found deeper, more contextual means of linking the images, through deliberate cropping and content selection. Over time, I’ve increasingly integrated them, linking the contrasting points of view and their familiarity (or lack thereof), fusing the two source images into a single entity with an eye toward emphasizing the surreal nature of the documented news events and their intersection with my personal world.


Disasters are communal experiences that bridge cultures globally, affecting all of us at a non-verbal level, whether or not we can assign meaning to them. Some events are so overwhelming I’ve as yet been unable to make work about them: 9/11, for example. In some cases, I use humor as a coping mechanism for making visual “sense” of these occurrences and the way they are presented in the news and/or social media. By bringing them back into the light, I give rise to new stories, opening up new ways of seeing, digesting and finding connections within them– events that, in most cases, are ultimately inscrutable.

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