2016 Aftermath Project Grant

The Aftermath Project has awarded me the 2016 grant to produce a new body of work  Acknowledgment of Danger which will investigate the environmental legacy of the American military and the war economy on the American landscape.

I’ve been researching the subject for years and now thanks to Sara Terry , the Aftermath Project founder and to the 2016 judges,  I can begin.

From my proposal:

Vietnam, 1987, was the first time I saw the effects of war; conjoined twins were lying on a bed, their bodies connected at the waist. In utero, they had absorbed dioxin, also called “agent orange”. In the photograph I made that day, one child holds a nurse’s hand, the other fingers a cash bill offered in meek apology by a visiting U.S. war veteran.

The twins lived the pain of war even though they hadn’t yet been born when the US introduced environmental destruction as a war tactic. Defoliate the landscape, and the enemy would have no place to hide. It was a chemical version of the old “smoke ’em out” strategy.

War is the dirtiest business in the world and the United States is the planet’s most prolific and chronic polluter.

Decades and generations after armed conflict ends, civilian populations live amid war’s residue. Rarely is the American military held accountable. It dumps, it discharges and returns home, leaving someone else -­‐ from the Philippines to Iraq, from Vieques to Okinawa-­‐ to clean up the mess.

The situation within the United States is much the same. We live in a constant state of war’s aftermath with vast stretches of the American landscape contaminated by the business of war and armed aggression: unexploded ordnance, toxic chemicals, depleted uranium, radioactive particles, a filthy legacy stretching from World War II to contemporary wars of democracy.

Scratch a cancer cluster or dive into a superfund site and the likelihood is that the US military played a role. Some of the history is known -­‐ the down winders in the atomic west for example -­‐ but a great deal more is obscured, covered up, artfully redefined, with the lasting impacts of environmental pollution rarely connected to armed conflict and the American war economy.

With the Aftermath grant, I will document the toxic legacy of war on the American landscape.

I’ll be posting pictures along the way, beginning in New Jersey and the Passaic River, which is contaminated with dioxin as a result of agent orange production for the Vietnam War.



Geography of Poverty: December 7

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From November 5 – December 5,  2015,   photojournalism students at Columbia Journalism School looked at the geography of poverty in Morningside Heights and Harlem.  We will be presenting this work  at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on  Monday December 7 at 7:00pm as part of a conversation on poverty and economic inequality with Matt Black, Susan Meiselas,  and Alissa Quart.  The event is supported by the Magnum Foundation and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

7 PM – 8:30 PM, SAINT JAMES                                                                                  1047 Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street
New York, NY 10025
(212) 316-7540

Our video:

Our introduction text:

The Geography of Poverty: Morningside Heights/Harlem

It doesn’t take more than a short walk down the block to realize that Morningside Heights and Harlem are changing. Glassy high priced apartments stand in place of crumbling lots.   Banks and gourmet shops outnumber bodegas and barber shops. A neighborhood where taxi drivers once feared to venture, is now marketed as the Factory District, the newest destination for the city’s ever expanding creative class.

Two of the biggest players driving the gentrification are this Cathedral, and our university. Needing money for repairs, the Cathedral leased its land to luxury housing developers whose high priced rentals units have helped push the cost of housing in Morningside Heights up 30%, one of the sharpest increases of any neighborhood in the city.

Meanwhile, Columbia is re-shaping Manhattanville to the north, with a $6.8 billion 16 building development rising on what used to be a working class commercial warehouse district.   As the first building, the Jerome L Greene Science Center, designed by star architect Renzo Piano nears completion, a visual picture emerges of a neighborhood co-existing but in sharp contrast.   On one side is Columbia and its $9.2 billion endowment.   On the other side just across Broadway is the aging, underfunded, and poorly maintained Manhattanville projects, home to 2,700 residents where the average annual income wouldn’t pay a semester’s college tuition.

Already, Morningside Heights has the highest income disparity of any community in the city with the top fifth of residents median income at $207,000 per year, and the bottom fifth only $6,000 a year.

While institutions work to mitigate the impact of their development – Columbia is paying $100 million in community give backs and the Cathedral continues to be a vital social service provider – without truly affordable housing and commercial rent regulation, gentrification will inevitably mean eviction. In New York and in most cities, this process is marked by race. The newcomers are generally white and more privileged. The existing communities are more black, brown and the working poor.   In Harlem, this change is particularly profound given the community’s historic place as the center of African American culture.

The reconstruction of New York City is often captured through before and after comparisons showing seemingly instantaneous growth.  In our four-week investigation, we had the unique opportunity to photograph neighborhoods in the midst of transition. Poorer residents, and small business owners still call Harlem home.   Can these people who trace their communities back generations, find a place amidst the “Enclaves”? Further, can there be peace and harmony within communities, and a sense of belonging for long-term residents and newcomers alike, without addressing the causes of structural inequality?   It appears, for residents of Harlem and Morningside Heights that the fight is over.   Gentrification is seen as a fact of life, an unstoppable force, for better or for worse.

December 7, 2015

Aleksandra Konstantinovic, Erin Golkaskson, Fahrinisa Oswald, Kevin Milian, Harriet Dedman, Luciante Hoffman, Max Siegelbaum, Victor Vaiana, Wendy Lu, Ben Parkin

Professor Nina Berman

njb22  (at ) columbia.edu