Doc­u­ment­ing de­struc­tion

Glen Howey headed into re­stricted zones and cap­tured quake-dam­aged ar­eas of Christchurch to doc­u­ment the af­ter­math of the 2011 earth­quake for a book. Peter Bush finds out more

The Photographer's Mail - - Column - Peter Bush

The cover pho­to­graph on this haunt­ing book is of the shat­tered in­te­rior of Christchurch Cathe­dral; the back-cover shot, the equally wrecked Catholic Cathe­dral of The Blessed Sacra­ment. There have been a num­ber of well-pro­duced books, both pic­ture and text, record­ing the dev­as­ta­tion of the Fe­bru­ary 22, 2011 earth­quake, but this one — ti­tled Please De­mol­ish with a Kind Heart: Be­hind Christchurch’s Red Zone — is unique. It en­com­passes 220 pages of eerie, silent im­ages that take the viewer on a tour through the cen­tral ar­eas of de­struc­tion which were then mainly of­flim­its to the public.

My in­tro­duc­tion to this book was due to the en­thu­si­asm of fel­low Welling­ton photographer David Hamil­ton, who had at­tended an il­lus­trated talk by photographer Glen Howey, its cre­ator.

When David told me that Howey had vis­ited many of these re­stricted and off-lim­its sites for his nine-month solo photo coverage of the af­ter­math of the Christchurch quakes, I felt this was a photographer I had to meet.

And so we did meet, in the Welling­ton Li­brary cof­fee bar. The fol­low­ing is a brief record of our meet­ing.

At 44 years old, Howey is a fit, well-spo­ken per­son whose pho­to­graphic in­ter­ests range across travel, doc­u­men­tary, and land­scape, and, af­ter reading through the book, I feel he is also a very ca­pa­ble writer.

What hit me was the fact that the dev­as­tat­ing quake had struck in 2011 and, four years later, Howey was care­fully doc­u­ment­ing the bleak and silent trail of de­struc­tion with his eight-year-old Nikon D90 and 12–24mm f/4 zoom lens. One other ad­di­tion to the gear quota was a Man­frotto tri­pod, and sup­port­ing this lean list of equip­ment was a ton of nerve, skill, and pa­tience, and a small emer­gency kit con­tain­ing food and wa­ter that he car­ried in case, as he la­con­i­cally put it, he should be­come trapped in some dam­aged dwelling.

Howey said he was not sure what he would find on his first visit to Christchurch, some 18 months back, but, shortly af­ter­wards, he re­al­ized he had to do a book about the in­cred­i­ble im­ages he had cap­tured. For the next nine months, he made many re­peat vis­its from his home in Welling­ton to the south­ern quake scenes, of­ten for a week or more at a time.

From the start, he was as­tounded at how lit­tle had been done to clear the many red-stick­ered, quake-dam­aged sub­urbs he vis­ited.

“I’ve en­tered over 400 build­ings and homes, and I’ve worked hard to get a feel for each one. They de­serve that,” he ex­plained.

Some of these vis­its were made be­tween dusk and dawn, when all was quiet and the photographer-turned-cat-bur­glar could make his way more stealth­ily through the rub­ble and de­struc­tion of the city and sub­urbs.

To my ques­tion, “Have you a spe­cial pic­ture?” he sin­gled out the shot on page three of his book dis­play­ing the sim­ple mes­sage, “Please De­mol­ish With Kind Heart — Last Good­bye To You”, which he chose to use as the ti­tle for the book.

Later on, he was able to catch up with and be­friend Pemba Lama, the man who had penned these sim­ple and telling words. A Ti­betan, Lama was a Bud­dhist monk liv­ing in the sub­urb of Shirley. When his house was red zoned, be­fore leav­ing, Lama had writ­ten the poignant mes­sage on the sit­ting-room wall.

Howey felt some of his clos­est shaves didn’t come from crum­bling walls, but in­stead as a con­se­quence of twice ap­pear­ing on TV One’s Seven Sharp pro­gramme, right in the mid­dle of his quake-shoot­ing es­capades. His con­cern was whether the po­lice might be pre­pared to pros­e­cute him for tres­pass­ing in the dan­ger­ous red-stick­ered waste­lands. Thank­fully, they had other, more im­por­tant is­sues to con­tend with, so he just kept go­ing at what was then a de­mand­ing shoot­ing pro­gramme, be­cause, by then, many of the wrecked dwellings that had re­mained un­touched for over four years were sud­denly start­ing to be pulled down.

He cited some badly dam­aged houses in Sea­cliff that he had man­aged to en­ter through their splin­tered door­ways to pho­to­graph their dust-cov­ered kitchens, some with pots still sit­ting on the stove, and ex­pen­sive bath­rooms which had long since seen their last visi­tor. In many of these homes, he would be­come the last visi­tor that they would re­ceive be­fore the wreck­ing balls fin­ished them off.

When Howey did even­tu­ally meet up with some of the own­ers, he ner­vously won­dered how some would take his in­tru­sion into their for­mer homes. How­ever, most thanked him for his ef­forts in record­ing what was once their most-val­ued pos­ses­sion.

Five pages of the book fea­ture my favourite rugby ground, Lan­caster Park, now, of course, un­der the drab ti­tle of AMI Sta­dium, in Waltham.

The shots of the silent cracked stands and weed-in­fested grounds were taken some­time af­ter 4am, with a moody sky hov­er­ing above, and when Howey ven­tured high up into the cor­po­rate boxes, the alarm went off. As the cap­tion de­tails, “I was there for another three hours, no one turned up, and I dis­cov­ered this was of­ten the rou­tine.” No one seemed to care. As a 14-year-old, Howey had also played rugby and had once scored a try there, back when it was still Lan­caster Park.

Of his re­cent as­sign­ments, I was more than fas­ci­nated when he told me of one he had un­der­taken to the sul­phur mines of Java, and of the hor­ren­dous con­di­tions that the min­ers worked in. It sounded like a fast in­tro­duc­tion to a new ver­sion of Dante’s In­ferno, and it was a place where he had been very grate­ful to wear a supplied gas mask, not­ing that the min­ers worked with­out any pro­tec­tion at all.

But last words on his book: when it came to pub­lish­ing it, Howey gave full marks to Ge­off Black­well of PQ Black­well pub­lish­ing house, who did the de­sign and lay­out. As I have known Black­well from his ear­li­est days in the pub­lish­ing world, I felt he was a wise choice for Howey to have made for a first-time book.

Be­fore we wound up our long chat, I asked Howey if he had a favourite coun­try, and straight away he replied Cam­bo­dia, which is a place that he tries to visit an­nu­ally, of­ten with a class of his Welling­ton pho­to­graphic stu­dents in tow.

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