In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated the Caribbean, the Northeastern U.S. and Canada, causing particularly severe flood damage in New York City.
From Oct. 28–Dec. 20, I Can Smell the Water, a free outdoor exhibition of work by photographer Saskia Kahn, will be shown as part of NYC Parks’ Art in the Parks program. Located at the Falmouth Street entrance to Manhattan Beach Park, the exhibition commemorates the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy and acknowledges the profound impact of the storm on the lives of New Yorkers.
I Can Smell the Water originated with the photographer’s discovery of a family album that had been submerged during the flooding. The recovered photographs featured Kahn’s grandmother smiling on a beach just after surviving the Holocaust.
The exhibition includes Kahn’s intimate beach portraits, presented as large banners, many of young people. “I often photograph youth,” Kahn says. “I think of how climate change and disasters like Sandy will challenge them.” To reflect on this fragility, Kahn submerged some of the photographs in the ocean at Manhattan Beach Park—an act of preemptive grief. She speaks more of the work in this interview.
What inspired the images in this tribute?
When the storm happened, I felt like I had a shield protecting me from thinking too deeply about its impact. It wasn’t until years later that I saw Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photograph that had been through Sandy, The Last Supper: Acts of God, on a trip to San Francisco, that I realized there was a lasting emotional piece to confront. I felt dread mixed with resentment that coastal living, maybe even New York City as a whole, would be an untenable place to live. My parents shared that anxiety for a while and even put the house on sale. So, it seemed like I should start saying goodbye to the place that shaped my identity. I walked along the beach, pre-, mid-, and “post-” pandemic, with my camera, savoring the landscape and making portraits of strangers who shared this love of the beach with me. While making beach portraits, I found this one family photo album from 1950 that had been nearly destroyed from sitting in saltwater in 2012. I decided I would intentionally submerge my photographs in the same ocean water to cope with what I call “preemptive grief,” finding an action I could do to get some mourning out of the way before the inevitable loss.
Where were you during the surge of the storm?
Right before the storm, my sister and I separated from our parents. We didn’t go through the trouble of trying to save anything from potential flooding because when the previous Hurricane (Irene) hit New York, we didn’t run into any issues. We were lucky to take our cars because any cars that stayed in the neighborhood were ruined from saltwater damage. First, we stayed with my boyfriend at the time in Queens, and then went to another friend’s house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I was a bartender at the time at a place called Freddy’s in South Slope, and with it being the week of Halloween, the bar remained open and was packed every night. During the storm’s peak, we walked through vast gusts of wind, past broken street signs and sparking electrical units until we reached the bar. The body heat inside and dank, wet air completely fogged the windows. I remember everyone’s hair being frizzy from the humidity. It was a fun adventure for my sister and me because we didn’t know until days later what the damage would look like. We were very fortunate. Our neighbors who stayed nearly drowned trying to salvage things as stormwater quickly rose.
Another memory that fueled focusing on the communities of coastal Brooklyn is that, after the storm, we didn’t have heat, electricity or hot water. However, I still had to assist a fashion photographer on a shoot in “the city.” I arrived hardly bathed and was quietly offended when I heard the other folks on set laugh about the storm being overhyped—”What storm?” they said. It underscored something I always felt as a Brooklyn girl: South Brooklyn and “the city” are not the same worlds.
What did you think upon finding the album? Your family survived the Holocaust. Did the devastation of the storm trigger a traumatic response?
Our basement was where many archives were stored—records, VHS tapes, my mother’s illustrations, and so on. I didn’t even know there was a photo album from the mid-20th century down there. It was thrilling to see the photos for the first time, even though they were fragile and nearly disintegrated. I felt like the photos were talking to me. One of them even had my birthdate written on the back. I wasn’t triggered negatively, but I felt intense motivation, and it was the first time I understood the meaning of belonging to a diaspora. In the photos, my grandmother is smiling on a beach full of life. How could that be? I knew about her story, as it was not a family secret that nearly her entire family was murdered throughout the Holocaust and that she survived concentration camps, the Death March and other traumas. But something about the beach summoned up a feeling of freedom and joy for her. I remembered that before the war, she grew up in a coastal town in the city of Liepaja in Latvia. I remembered that my maternal great grandmother also came from a “spa” village in Romania. I thought deeply about the role of water for my ancestors and how, for them, returning to the water must have brought a comfort that I can only fathom.
The other takeaway was that photographs are not historical records exempt from destruction.
The exhibit is outdoors. What do you want your audience to take away as they stroll down the beach?
I want beach-goers to feel celebrated, and [I want to] remind people that this is a public beach. Manhattan Beach has been increasingly policed and is located in a section of the city that’s hard to reach. There’s a dark history to NYC beaches, regarding gatekeeping and racial violence. I hope the photos’ presence will add to a feeling of inclusivity for all New Yorkers who come to the beach. And I think there’s an opportunity for this beach community to invest in climate action.