Local photographer’s exhibit focuses on storm-hit families
CAPITAL REGION It’s a touching family moment caught on camera: A father gazes adoringly at his baby while his wife, who is holding the child, plants a kiss on her tiny son’s cheek.
But the backdrop for the scene sets a discordant tone. The ceiling and the walls of the home they’re standing in have been gutted down to the studs. Chunks of sheetrock cling to the wood. Wires dangle from above. The dirty hardwood floor is strewn with construction equipment and debris. There are floorboards missing in places.
One day after Tropical Storm Irene raged through the region last August and two weeks before their baby was due, the couple’s home was flooded with 13 to 14 feet of water. In May, when the photo was taken, their home was still nowhere near inhabitable.
The black-and-white image of the family standing in their ripped-apart home is one of eight in Michele Calderon’s Schenectady Flooding Photographic Exhibit, which is being shown at sites throughout the area. Since October, the Scotia-based photographer has been seeking out Schenectady County families willing to be photographed in their flood-damaged homes, and she is still in search of more.
“I wanted to do something to be able to give back to the families that had lost so much. I wanted to do something that was different, that could have a different kind of impact,” said Calderon.
Her goal with the exhibit is to raise awareness that those whose lives were ripped apart by the storm are still struggling to put the pieces back together.
When she started the project two months after the flooding, Calderon went door-to-door in Rotterdam Junction looking for families willing to be photographed. It was a tedious process because in many cases there was no way to contact them other than by catching them when they were at their homes making repairs. When she did find them, Calderon’s proposal was often met with hesitation.
“Sometimes they were just so overwhelmed that it was hard to find people that even wanted to tell their story again and to be photographed,” she said.
When she did find families who were willing, her visits often turned into more than photo sessions. Calderon heard many heartbreaking stories.
“I was overwhelmed a bit by the impact that it had emotionally on a lot of these families,” she said. “It’s one thing to hear about it, and it’s another to sit for an hour and a half with a family and hear their story and really have all the details, a face-to-face conversation with them, while you’re standing in what once was their living room. It’s so much more real,” she said.
Once families agreed to be photographed, producing quality shots inside their homes was another challenge, due to a lack of electricity.
“All of the pictures were taken in very dark rooms. Plus, there was no sheetrock to reflect. They were very challenging conditions. Everything around me was brown,” she said.
Calderon blew up each print to 16 inches by 20 inches to ensure that viewers would be able to see subtle details like the dirt caked on the construction equipment and drywall screws protruding from studs. Each photo includes a short blurb detailing the hardships the subjects have suffered and those they continue to face. For effect, each photo was printed on metallic paper in black-and-white.
“Color represents the way something looks, and black-and-white represents the way it felt. It removes all the distraction of color and leaves you with more of just the emotional impact,” she explained.
Calderon is still looking for Schenectady County families to photograph in their flood-damaged homes. After being photographed for the exhibit, each will receive a separate mini photo session and a free 8-by-10 print.
“So many families lost all their photos,” she pointed out.
Those interested in being part of the exhibit should contact Calderon at 852-1012.
Funding for the exhibit was arranged through Habitat for Humanity of Schenectady County.
Anne Rockwood, construction manager for Habitat of Schenectady County, said the exhibit will help raise awareness.
“People think that the [rebuilding] project is done. If you drive through the communities, particularly in Schenectady County, it looks like it’s done, because the damage is on the inside now. … [But] there’s still houses that are being gutted; there’s still houses that nothing has been done to,” she said.
The photo exhibit was recently on display in the board room at the Chamber of Schenectady County. The pictures generated a fair amount of interest, said Gail Hopper, director of government relations and business services at the chamber.
“We’ve gotten comments about how good this is and how it helps keep the issues in the forefront of people’s minds,” she said.
To view the photographs and for more information, visit www.michelecalderonphotography.com/blog.
Calderon has included a plea on the blog for donations to the Schenectady County Rebuilding Families Fund, an initiative of the Schenectady Foundation. The fund was established to assist families hit hard by last summer’s tropical storms.