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 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.