It would be an understatement to say that our world is changing rapidly. With natural disasters becoming more frequent and impactful, our emotional response to environmental shifts will shape our ability to adapt in the future. Although photographer Peter Hoffman has spent much of his career attempting to illustrate the ways humans have altered the environment, a surprisingly personal series of events led him to explore an opposing, yet related issue: how environmental changes alter human life. I corresponded with Hoffman over email about his project “Again and Again,” which looks at the shifting landscape caused by earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand.
JANNA DOTSCHKAL: When did you first get the idea to do a project in Christchurch? What motivated you to pursue a story there?
PETER HOFFMAN: I was a student in Christchurch in 2004, and it was a wonderful experience. I had always wanted to go back but it’s not the easiest trip to make. When I learned about the first major earthquake that happened in September 2010 I had started to think about returning seriously. The continuing aftershocks, and most notably the February 22, 2011 aftershock that caused widespread destruction and loss of life, instilled a sense of urgency in me to return.
There was a certain cliff-top spot in Sumner, a beach town outside of Christchurch that I used to love to run to and watch the sunrise. It was the kind of sunrise straight over the Pacific that you just wouldn’t forget. I thought that maybe one day if I had a family this would be one place that I have to show them. It’s worth the trip. That area collapsed and fell into the sea with the quakes. You can still go and poke around near there, but it’s not the same and it’s not safe. The impermanence of a physical place was jarring to me. It compounded what was already a time of questioning for me. I was questioning my career, life choices, et cetera. I had an application ready to submit to the Peace Corps and was also contemplating a move and a new start in a new state.
Then this place that I loved—really a patch of grass that was probably no more than ¼ an acre—fell into the ocean, and the only thing that mattered was returning.
JANNA: What kind of things or people were you looking for?
PETER: I was looking for anyone who wanted to talk openly about how the constant earthquake activity made them feel and how it changed their outlook on life. Because this event affected nearly everyone in the city in some way, there was a sort of fatigue in dealing with it, and this constant recognition amongst everyone that someone else probably had it worse. While that may have been true, I just wanted people to feel like they could vent and talk about their individual experience without having to worry about it sounding tired or trite. Once word got out, people came to me.
In the end, place became the dominant imagery of the project. I had gone down there with hopes of photographing a rebuild, but that wasn’t really happening. One of the common threads I noticed was that, in large part, life was not too different from before—just more complicated. Things didn’t work quite the way they were supposed to. Things were off.
For example, one family had to use a neighbor’s shower for months. Or the commute to work was now three times longer because of impassable roads. Or a family had to move because their home was not inhabitable anymore. Many people expressed that they felt like they were living in a place that was familiar yet didn’t quite make sense anymore. Some people compared it to limbo, or purgatory.
JANNA: What had changed since your last visit to New Zealand?
PETER: The obvious answer is the physical landscape. Besides the homes and spaces that had been destroyed, the most noticeable thing to a visitor was the fact that the central business district (CBD) was basically inaccessible. So much demolition work was being done. The CBD was the heart of Christchurch—all roads went towards it.
Imagine being in a city where the downtown is out of commission and you just have the surrounding areas and suburbs left. It’s like ripping out the heart of the city. Some of this has changed since I was there. I know the rebuild is moving along and new parts of town are emerging as cultural hubs, but they have a lot of work left to do.
JANNA: What struck you most about the people and their perspective on the situation?
PETER: I was impressed by their resolve and inner strength. “Resilience” was the buzzword that the media liked to use, but I think that’s a little too simplistic and a little too sunshine-y. Here is a community that has been faced with a difficult situation and there two options—you can let it beat you and succumb to it, or you can get on with your life as best you can, which is pretty hard when there’s always another possible earthquake. There were constant aftershocks for over a year, and you don’t really know when they have reached their peak until it is over.
A lot of people admitted that they’re sick and tired of things not being the way they were—but what’s the other option? I mean, I don’t know how long I could handle that sort of uncertainty before I would just be done with the situation and move. Many people did in fact move. When I speak to people in Christchurch now there seems to be more optimism—the ground is firmer and the process of recovery is further along, but I think that city will carry a new, sometimes heavy awareness with it for the foreseeable future.
All that said, there is some genuine resilience amongst the population. There have been great post-quake initiatives that were mostly geared towards using finding ways to make use of the ruins. “Greening the Rubble”, “Gap-Filler” and things like that. I love the humor and ingenuity in that town.
JANNA: How do you think the people in Christchurch will adapt to future earthquakes?
PETER: One upside of what happened is that they get to redesign their city. A lot of the buildings that fell were actually not up to code—so making sure that buildings meet specification is obviously a high priority now. The demographic of the city has changed, there’s been an influx of immigrants that have come in to help with the rebuild, and a lot of natives moved to areas further outside the Central City.
JANNA: How do you approach telling a story that is subtle and nuanced—showing the aftermath of past events—like this one?
PETER: Forcing myself to be patient has been important. I viewed my time photographing as a slow and studied collection process, and I tried to gather as many images as possible during my time in Christchurch. I spent a lot of hours walking around, meeting people, seeing where they took me and exploring on my own as well. I took notes along the way and let the stories I heard guide me to new locations and new people.
It became clear over time that this book functioned best as a narrative that didn’t claim to be about a specific place and time, but rather about the larger idea of visualizing unexpected change and tapping into that psychologically through photographs.
Obviously the work was made at a specific time and place, but in the end I see this work, as presented in final form, as work that takes place somewhere familiar to many people, whether or not they have ever been to Christchurch.
JANNA: What do you hope to accomplish with this project?
PETER: It might seem pretty ethereal, but I would love for the book to serve as a source of strength for anyone undergoing a consistent struggle in their life. For the most part, the way the book is presented, it’s not really clear that the work is made in Christchurch. I see the book as a story about a place and people that are coping, in limbo and in the end staying strong. There’s not really a concrete ending, but the latter part of the book alludes to humanity finding a balance with the natural environment.
A lot of the work I do is exploration or commentary on the relationship between people and their environment, but this is the first time I explored the natural world disrupting a people, and not the other way around. It made me more optimistic about people and find new love for them.
JANNA: What should the world know about this place and its people?
PETER: I could go on about how much I love New Zealand, but because the book tries to erase the concept of a specific place, I want the world to know that in the end we are all neighbors and we all have challenges to overcome. This place you are seeing here, the people and the landscape need your empathy and your consideration. I think that applies to every place, because there is some version of this cycle—destruction, rebirth, and rebuilding—happening everywhere you go.