Working Towards The Image You Want

Documentary photographer Alexandra Hootnick (#CUJ13) shared the digital contact sheets of some of her favorite photos, from a vigil in the South Bronx, to her coverage of Hurricane Sandy. She told us how she got the shots and why she chose each one.

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What was happening here? Nicole Cuevas, 18, sister of the late Reynaldo Cuevas, stands outside of the 42nd Precinct in the Bronx, N.Y., at a protest vigil she organized for her brother. Reynaldo was fatally shot by the NYPD after he ran from the bodega where he worked, and where he was being held hostage by three armed intruders. Nicole, who spent three years in the NYPD’s high school Explorer program, has no interest in joining the police force now, which she called “trigger happy.”

Why were you shooting? I chose to cover this event for a class assignment.

How long did it take? I stayed about an hour before and half an hour after it ended. Because it was event coverage I shot for most of the time.

How did you approach this image & why did you choose this image from the rest? Nicole Cuevas had such a fierce determination to hold the NYPD accountable for the death of her brother. I wanted to show her emotion because it added an important layer of strength to the grief felt by many who were marching in the vigil.

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What was happening here? This is an image from a current project on the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota. Elmer Flying Horse Jr., 8, was taking a minute to collect himself before the Grand Entry at the Mandaree Pow Wow in Mandaree, ND. Flying Horse Jr., a chicken dancer, was chosen to be the Head Men’s Dancer next year.

Why were you shooting? A personal project. I lived in North Dakota this summer and am moving back at the end of this month. The oil boom has had a major impact on everyday life for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations and I’ve been working with people in area to figure out what the issues are, and how best to cover them.

How long did it take? All day. Because it was an event I shot more than I did earlier in the day, when I spent time with the Flying Horse family as they got ready for the powwow.

How did you approach this image & what did you want to get out of it? Elmer was representing his family (which has a serious powwow legacy) and was so proud to do it. Like any normal kid, however, he was a little apprehensive, which was clearer in the moment that his dad stepped away.

Why did you choose this image from the rest? I love Elmer’s expression and the lighting.

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What was happening here? After Hurricane Sandy I spent Thanksgiving with the Bellinas, a big, tight-knit Italian family on Staten Island who experienced some of the worst of the storm. They generously invited me to photograph their holiday dinner, which was donated by a local charity and had to take place outside of their three adjacent homes, because of ongoing repairs. Owners of houses that were yellow-tagged–meaning structurally sound but needing serious work–were in some ways the worst off if they couldn’t afford repairs. Relying on insurance has been a nightmare for the Bellinas and many other families. In this image Michael and his aunt Joanna took a brief break from work to set the table.

Why were you shooting this? It was part of a school project that evolved into a personal project when I saw how the most devastating aspects of the storm, for many families, began transpiring in the weeks and months after it occurred. There was major concern over the amount of time it was taking in Staten Island to turn on electricity and gas because it was November, and starting to get really cold and dark.

How did you approach this image & what did you want to get out of it? I wanted to show how even on Thanksgiving, the Bellinas were working nonstop to make their living conditions habitable.

How long did it take? I got there in the morning. For documentary projects I don’t tend to shoot that often; I waited for this moment to happen.

Why did you choose this image from the rest? Because of the face-mask, as well as the look on Michael’s face. His expression, along with his Aunt Joanna’s exhausted body language, convey the sense of isolation and despair that many Staten Islanders felt after the storm.

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What was happening here? This image come from my first two days in Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy. Joanna Tierno has a primary immunodeficiency disease and needs frequent blood transfusions to survive. She was highly susceptible to the mold and bacteria from the flood, which destroyed the basement and part of the first floor of her house, making the recovery effort difficult.

Why were you shooting? School project to cover the storm. My coverage at this point was more hard news.

How long did it take? This portrait was quick. I shot the frames and then moved to a new location. But I was on the island from morning until night.

How did you approach this image & why did you choose this one from the rest? I hoped to convey the overwhelming sense of despair people in Staten Island felt after the storm and. Luckily, neighbors and community members mobilized to help Joanna, but she had to risk her health every time she went to her house.

Alexandra Hootnick is a documentary photographer and writer who recently graduated from Columbia University’s Journalism School. Her work has appeared on NBC and CBS News, and exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York. Hootnick is based out of New York and in New Town, North Dakota where she is a working on a long-term project looking at the relationship between the state’s oil boom and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Native American Nations. Follow her @alliehoot.

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