• Features
  • Walking on Broad Channel Island with Maureen Drennan

    Maureen Drennan came to photography in her mid-30’s and received a Masters in Photography at the School of Visual Arts. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, USA, where she grew up, and teaches photography at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. Her work pays a particular attention to remote places and communities on edges, often fragile or in transition, yet very different from her environment and what she is accustomed to. This is how Maureen got interested in the island of Broad Channel.

    What is your relationship to photography?
    Before I got my MFA in photography I was casting about not really knowing where my passions were. I got a Masters in Archives/ Librarianship with a specialization in photographic archives (what a mouthful! haha) and it was during that education that I became intrigued with photography. I was scanning and cataloging a collection of prison mug-shot photos from the 1940’s in the mid-west and they were fascinating. Although I realized how passive my role was as a scanner and cataloger and that I wanted to be behind the camera, making images. I started taking photography classes and fell in love with the medium and the way I interacted with the world as a photographer. I love engaging with people, listening to their stories, watching them while they talk, having an intimate connection with them.
    I draw inspiration from people I engage with and photograph. There is definitely an intuitive attraction and often its people’s vulnerability as well as resilience that resonates with me. (I’m sure it’s due to my own feelings of vulnerability and solitude). When I approach strangers I am direct but friendly and ask them lots of questions about themselves. If I end up talking with them for hours before making any pictures that’s fine, I enjoy the interaction. You never know what is going to happen, what they will share with you. It can be an enriching and humbling experience. I feel very fortunate that people open up to me so much, I think its because I am a stranger and not a family member or friend that people feel comfortable exposing more.

    “The fragile state between adolescence and adulthood mirrors the changing environment that is affecting this island community.”

    They understand that I’m not judging them. Our relationship grows in an intimate way pretty quickly. I have been invited to subject’s weddings, first communions, sadly a few funerals, and I correspond with my subjects through cards and texts long after I have photographed them.

    Introduce us to your project Broad Channel.
    Through my photographs I seek out the vulnerability and fantasy of living in a small island community seen through the eyes of the young women and girls who reside there. The community is Broad Channel, Queens and it’s a lifestyle conditioned by water, vulnerable to storms, tides, changing weather, and yet, in close proximity to one of the largest urban centers, New York City. Broad Channel is a multi-generational, mostly blue-collar neighborhood with a rich history of being resistant to change. There is this enduring fantasy of living near the water that is in direct opposition to the reality. The residents love living by the water, but there exists a delicate balance between the community and the natural environment. As the effects of climate change shake this balance, the community has been confronted with the harsh reality that their home and community may not be as secure and idealistic as they think it to be.

    I began documenting the community in 2012, several months before Hurricane Sandy imbued the project with unforeseen turmoil. Flooding from the storm devastated the community; many lost their homes and possessions. The arduous recovery underscores the conflict of living close to the water, especially when leaving, to them, is not an option.

    I am particularly drawn to the young girls and teenagers in Broad Channel because, like their environment, they are in a transitional place with an uncertain future. There is a subtle border between defiance and vulnerability. The fragile state between adolescence and adulthood mirrors the changing environment that is affecting this island community. The settings and themes I seek out are those of change or transition, often to imply notions of loss and hope at once. I investigate what it means to live a life removed. I work with photography as a lens for understanding people, to merge with them psychologically and place myself in their environs, and I hope that viewers see my projects not only as documents of time and place, but also as avenues for self-reflection.

    Rob Stephenson Portrays the North American Urban Environment

    Tell us more about the place, how did you find out about this island and why did you decide to explore it?
    In the summer of 2012 I was on my way out to Rockaway Beach where I had been photographing surfers and I spied these houses on stilts that were in Broad Channel. I got off the subway and stared walking around photographing and talking to people, I thought, ‘Wow, this is crazy, houses on stilts, what’s this all about?’. I feel like many of my projects “find me” as much as me “finding them”. When I’m starting a project, I don’t have a plan. I follow my intuition and try to be open to my surroundings and curious to any opportunity that arises.

    After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, how did this affect your approach through the project?
    The destruction was not interesting to me, what was interesting was the resilience of the residents. I was not attracted to the usual photos of destruction, I tried to make subtler pictures. Hurricane Sandy and the struggle to come back to normal lays bare the paradox of living close to the water. The residents are enriched by the water, it defines them, but it might ultimately be the thing that forces them to leave, because the water keeps rising, and you can only come back so much.

    Enjoy her photographs on her website.