If you look at enough photographs of disasters, you will see people posing with high water marks. It is a genre of photography onto itself: over and over, they will point to the mark, put their bodies in front of the mark, or, in the case of professional photographers such as Wyatt Gallery, create photographs where the high water mark replaces the person as the main figure in the image. Sometimes “the mark” is a the physical trace of a high water line, and other times it is a memorial plaque. This post explores the possible roles that the visual culture of post-disaster high water marks play, especially given the prevalence of the genre across disasters, geography, and time. Why do post-disaster high water marks, and particularly the practice of posing with them, have such a robust visual culture? What sort of work do these images do?
1. Relate experience, embody understanding
Placing the body in relation to the high water mark often indicates what might have happened–or did happen–to someone during the storm. Is the mark over your head? Up to your chest? Would you have been wading or swimming? Might you have drowned? Posing with the mark is a form of embodied communication, whether the person photographed is a homeowner showing what happened to her home, or a tourist trying to relate to a disaster she was not part of.
The one-year anniversary publication of The Wave, a local publication out of the Rockaways, carries the headline “Sandy Was Here” and the byline: “photographs don’t capture what happened in the dark.” Documenting high water marks tries to capture what photographs of water do not– the experience of a body in water. Sandy was not only here, but “up to here.”
2. Communicate information
As visual texts, photographs can both make unfamiliar objects and experiences more accessible to understanding, and they have evidential force. That is, they provide both information and proof, which can leave strong and long-lasting memories (see Martin and Martin, 2004).
Memorialization is about linking memory to an enduring object or practice, such as a designated space or a reoccurring ritual. It is common practice to create a plaque at high water mark memorializing specific disasters; the high water mark stands in for the wider event. Following Hurricane Sandy, a wearable version of a high water mark became popular as a form of solidarity and, over time, memorialization. Artist Sebastian Errazuriz raised money for storm survivors by dipping the iconic “I ❤ New York” t-shirt in blue paint. The New York Times reports: “His design for what he calls his ‘I Still Love New York’ shirt was deliberate. He hung the shirt on the wall and measured five feet from the floor, dying the bottom.” The high water mark, at five feet, is iconic as opposed to a measurement taken from experience, but that is the point– high water marks stand in for disaster and experiences of disaster writ large.
5. Warnings and Preparedness
Finally, high water marks are used intentionally by the state, and others, as specific warnings to increase disaster preparedness. FEMA’s “Know Your Line: Be Flood Aware” High Water Mark initiative, posts “high water mark signs in prominent places, hold a high profile launch event to unveil the signs, and conduct ongoing education to build local awareness of flood risk and motivate people to take action.”
In an unofficial capacity, New York City artist Eve Mosher created a “High Water Line” artwork using the city as a canvas: “In 2007, artist Eve Mosher drew a chalk line at the 10-foot above sea level line around 70 miles of coastline in New York City. The intention was to engage people in conversations about climate change. Now, HighWaterLine is being developed as an open source tool for creating awareness and space for discussing adaptation, mitigation and resiliency in the face of climate change.” Unlike many of the other high water mark projects discussed so far, Mosher’s project does not implicate the body so much as land. The chalk line tells you not how your body might experience extreme weather, but how your dwelling, and even your entire neighbourhood, will fare in the future.
While Mosher’s pre-disaster high water line might be more about awareness and spatial risk, future water lines are also used more explicitly as protest. The image below is a high-water line warning linking the Keystone XL pipeline and oil to rising sea levels via climate change. Like Mosher’s piece, it is trying to bring the message home– in this case, to Wall Street.
Max Liboiron is a co-founding member of the Superstorm Research Lab, a mutual aid research collective investigating the social, political, and environmental fall out of Hurricane Sandy on New York City and surrounding area. On November 11th, she and other members are holding a series of workshops and a panel discussion.