A beloved icon of Christchurch architecture, the Basilica, where director of the documentary “When a city falls”, Gerard Smythe’s grandparents married in 1906 and was an alter boy in his youth. Photo: Guy Frederick
It is something which will bond Cantabrians for a long time to come. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone’s is different. The 7.1 earthquake which struck in the early hours of Saturday 4 September 2010 marked the beginning of thousands of aftershocks which would test our individual and collective spirits to this very day.
Violently shaken from slumber to consciousness I recall my panicked voice crying out, “Earthquake! Earthquake! To the door! Get under the door!” Fighting the earth’s mighty force my partner and I scrambled to the door way. Naked and blind in absolute darkness, we gripped tightly to the door frame and each other listening to the deafening thud of our heart beat in our ears in between intermittent outbursts of smashing glass and rattling windows. Eventually we made a grab for the duvet as we were shivering with cold and the aftershocks, relentless in both their frequency and ferocity, forced us to remain under the door frame.
12:51pm 22 February 2011 is another moment in time that will be forever etched on my soul. Fear, panic, shock, disbelief, and dread are key players in my incessant nightmares which have resurfaced two years on. Due to leave town to go on holiday, we just had a couple of last minute stops to make in the city before heading on our way. My partner had just dropped me off to pick something up on Mancester Street while he went up the road a couple of blocks to collect his hiking boots which were being repaired. He never made it to the shop. He never even made it to the park outside the tiny brick repair shop. A matter, perhaps, of seconds between life and death. When it struck I didn’t know where to turn for refuge. Those few seconds played out in horrifying slow motion like a pivotal cinematic moment. Separated only moments before, by a mere block in the centre of the bustling city, my partner was my only concern. Images of him entombed in rubble flooded my head. Gripped by fear and panic, I ran out into the middle of the street. The air thick with mortar dust, obscuring my vision and catching in my eyes and mouth, I ran screaming his name over and over.
It was the next few seconds I would replay in my mind over and over. Appearing amidst the gritty plumes of dust, I saw him emerge from his car, unscathed, on the wrong side of the road. I would discover later that as he saw the buildings start to fall he veered onto the opposite side of the road to avoid them. Luckily the September quake a few months before had wiped out those buildings so his path was clear. Sadly however, many others, 185 to be exact, were not as lucky. Countless others were left behind to mourn their friends and loved ones, while others lost their homes, their businesses, intimate relationships, and their mental stability.
Over the last few months Christchurch based photographer, Guy Frederick, has been working on a photojournalism project to discover just how others in our community have made it through these difficult and often dark times. Funded by a 2011 NZ Mental Health Media Grant, Guy spent time with a handful of Christchurch residents, listening to their stories and learning what they had done to cope. While each individual is unique, so too are their stories and responses to feelings many of us have felt at some point over the past two years; fear, vulnerability, grief, anxiety, and depression (diagnosed or not). “These stories are not controversial or sensational,” Guy says, ”they are about the unspoken stuff – the thoughts and feelings of the shared responses we have all lived through and are continuing to live through in Christchurch. It is historic, current and ongoing, all at the same time.”
Having the opportunity to speak with mental health professionals and hear the candid stories of the thirteen participants throughout the course of the project, gave Guy an important insight into the common issues people suffering post traumatic stress are dealing with and the variety of ways which different people respond positively. Guy hopes visitors to the exhibition will take away some comfort and helpful advice for those who perhaps have not yet had the courage to ask for help.
The portraits are where Guy’s passion and talent really come into play. After interviewing each individual, together with the subjects, they chose the location for the portrait based on somewhere “they were during the earthquake or where they sort refuge and peace,” Guy explains. The most powerful images Guy found were the ones in people’s very personal environments like their home, which he says is a place of certainty, security, love, companionship, and family. The images Guy says he found particularly powerful were where the homes were now red-stickered and likely to be demolished. “(They’re) almost like a social history snapshot of how time was.”
Guy’s clever planning and magical use of light to create particular moods are what give them such beauty. The golden warmth cast across the Basilica, in the portrait with documentary film maker, Gerard Smythe, represents the city’s former golden years (top image), and with Jolene Parker (second image), photographed in the fading light where fond memories were made in her grandmother’s house, now demolished, are remembered in the shadow of the quake. There’s a touch of hope too, in this image, symbolised with the lone bloom thriving amidst the weeds of the demolition site. Jolene recounted how her grandmother’s gracious departure from the home she had made for herself and her family for 62 years, was a source of strength and inspiration for her. Just like the lone flower amongst the weeds, we all have the strength within us to recover and thrive once more.
The Space Between Words exhibition is on at the new Christchurch Central Library on Tuam Street, next to the bus exchange until 28 October. Be sure to check it out and to see more of Guy’s stunning editorial and fine art photographic work, visit his website.
To learn more about Guy’s journey and process in creating The Space Between Words photojournalism project, visit Radio New Zealand to hear a short interview with him.
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