Photo

After the Earthquake: Surveying the Wreckage of Christchurch, New Zealand

In the immediate aftermath of the February 2011 earthquake, the New Zealand government virtually sealed off the inner city. Somehow photographer Sabin Holloway gained access.

by Sabin Holloway
07 August 2015, 3:55pm

In the immediate aftermath of the February 2011 earthquake, which killed 185 people and virtually destroyed Christchurch's central business district (CBD), the New Zealand government sealed off the inner city. Guarded by the New Zealand army and police, and later by international disaster relief workers, even business and property owners couldn't get in.

Well-known Christchurch photographer Sabin Holloway was contracted by a city business-owner to photograph their building's damage for the company's engineers. This week he opened an exhibition of large-scale prints of photos he took from inside the red-zone. It's the first time any of them have been seen in public.

VICE: Hi Sabin, how come you've sat on these images so long?
Sabin Holloway: It's still really raw for me and a lot of other people who lived through the quake.The CBD was my playground. I lived and worked there, partied there, and knew it like the back of my hand. When I was allowed in after the red-zone went up, it was deathly quiet—spooky even. Going into a place where you were used to noise and activity, and finding it silent and deserted, it felt like you were underwater. It was surreal—that's why I've called the exhibition Deep Water.

Was there a process involved in photographing the aftermath?
Not really, I'm a professional photographer and director of photography, so I use some kind of order or process every day of my working life. Something like this though, it's so overwhelming that you've just got to run on instinct. It was destruction on a massive scale, so I did make sure I covered the whole central city. That was all on foot, by walking around.

Having access to a wrecked city when there's army and police keeping everyone else out must have been a pretty unique experience. Tell us about that.
Yeah, it was pretty horrific for so many people who couldn't get in. I tried my best to help out friends. People who owned businesses or apartments couldn't get in to grab anything. There were hard drives with everything on them—tax records, property deeds, business records. My red zone access was granted because I had an appropriate safety plan approved, and because I was working with a structural engineer I was able to go into buildings with permission of my friends, and salvage what they needed. I salvaged what I could and helped out where I could.

How many prints are there?
I've printed up nine on a large scale. They need to be large-scale to convey the scope of the event. Those will be on display at The Tannery, a great art-deco inspired space that was the first major retail rebuild after the quake. The exhibition will be hanging until September 4, which will be the five-year anniversary of the first earthquake.

So what happens to the rest of the photos after the exhibition?
I don't know. I guess it's kind of a unique documentation, because there were very few photographers granted access.

I've archived all the digital files. I was never in a hurry to get them out there and seen, and I guess I'm still in no hurry. It's nice to know that there is a large body of work safely stored though. Maybe they'll gain more significance with time.

Deep Water will be hanging at The Tannery, 3 Garlands Road, Woolston, in Christchurch New Zealand until September 4.

Interview by Grant Bryant