Starting tomorrow, the day after the anniversary of when Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the East Coast of the U.S., the publishing house Concord Free Press is giving away copies of The Rockaways, a new book which features Gilles Peress’s images of the storm’s devastation in one of the hardest hit areas of New York City and essays by high school students and other residents of the neighborhood. All 4,000 numbered copies of the book are free, but in exchange, everyone who receives a copy is asked to make a donation to a charity of their choosing or to a person in need, and to pass along the book so the giving continues. The Rockaways is the eighth book published by Concord Free Press, which co-founder Stona Fitch calls an experiment in “generosity-based publishing.”
“Like everybody else, I was really moved by the distress of many of the people affected, especially the poorest part of the population in the Rockaways,” says Peress. “I think of all of us felt on some level: How can we help?” Hamilton Fish, former publisher of The Nation and a member of the Concord Free Press advisory board, edited The Rockaways and approached Peress about donating images to the effort. “It was a no-brainer. I said yes after the first sentence,” Peress says. He adds, “It’s up to you and your conscience and your wallet to donate to what you think is a worthwhile cause–hopefully dealing with the Rockaways and hopefully dealing with income disparity.”
“We’re about linking art and activism,” Fitch says. Concord Free Press’s other seven books have each raised $50,000 to $60,000 in charitable donations. Designers, writers and publicists donate their time; Kodak provided digital printing for The Rockaways and for Concord Free Press’s previous book, Round Mountain, a collection of short stories set in a small town in Vermont, which was released after Hurricane Irene caused massing flooding in the state. The Rockaways is the publisher’s first photo book. Fitch calls Peress’s images of the ravaged working-class neighborhood “powerful.” He says, “When you’re given something so beautiful and powerful for free, it has a great effect for inspiring generosity.” By stirring donations, Fitch says, the book can “help address the problem that was being photographed.” He acknowledges that people might be reluctant to pass The Rockaways along, “because Gilles’s book is so beautiful.”
Peress, who spent the night of the storm with his family in Brooklyn, first ventured to the Rockaway peninsula on October 30, after the rain stopped. He revisited several times, and also photographed the storm’s aftermath on Staten Island and the New Jersey shore. “The storm cracked open the economic and social structure of the city,” he observes. “What was left behind was evidence one more time of disparities in income and living conditions. If we have pride as citizens and our ability as New Yorkers to come together, we really should address this issue of income disparity.”
The storm’s arrival had delayed Peress from traveling to Florida to shoot photos for Postcards from America, a project with fellow members of his agency, Magnum Photos. “Once I’d gone to the Rockaways, it was very hard for me to leave the city behind,” he says. “There’s a pull to stay in the city and be a part of the common experience.”
It’s a pull he says he felt after 9/11. That’s when he, curator Alice Rose George and photographer and educator Charles Traub created “Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs” the volunteer-run gallery set up in a vacant storefront in downtown Manhattan. Anyone – professional or amateur — who brought in photos of New York after the terrorist attack could donate two images to the exhibit, where they were displayed anonymously. Digital prints were sold for $10, and all monies were donated to Children’s Aid Society. Peress had wanted to use his images of Sandy’s aftermath for charity, but says, “Here is New York for me was an experiment in citizen journalism. I didn’t feel like repeating that.” He was unsure how to use them until Fish approached him about publishing The Rockaways for free.
Peress also liked Fish’s plan to include essays by high school students who had participated in Rockaway Stories, a documentary project coordinated by the non-profit Rockaway Waterfront Alliance (one of a dozen non-profits listed in the back of The Rockaways where donations are suggested). “I’m always interested in fostering other voices than the experts or the professionals,” Peress explains. “Not to diminish anything from journalists or journalism, but …there’s a predictability [to it]. Also I’m always fascinated by what young people have to say about historical events.”
The book can be ordered via the Concord Free Press website, and is available at McNally Jackson Books and the gift shop of the International Center of Photography, both in New York City.
Peress says he plans to return to The Rockaways and explore other collaborative projects with the residents; he’s considering creating a book with an open binding, so people could contribute their own art to it and then pass it along. He says his images are “a small contribution,” but adds, “My modest hope is that we not forget the Rockaways and Sandy,” and the vulnerabilities the storm laid bare. As Hamilton Fish writes in the book’s introduction, “There will be more Sandys and Rockaways each year—how we choose to respond is up to us.”
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