Summer 2011

Dark at Heart

Evaluating the pain of others

Jocko Weyland

Covering the full range of disasters—from devastating hurricanes, tornados, and fires to routine mishaps and negligence—the genre of photographic representation to which the following images belong functions as raw data for consulting companies who do building damage evaluation and cost estimation. Occasionally staggering in the magnitude of destruction shown, these images can also be deceptively serene—they are by turns explicit, abstract, readable, beautiful, and inscrutable. Always devoid of people, they feature ripped-away walls, charred tangled heaps of metal, ravaged one-arm bandits, and Jacuzzis full of Styrofoam. On the face of it entirely utilitarian, they are after-the-fact tools for assessing catastrophes and accidents and deciding what’s wrong with manmade structures and how much it will cost to put them back together. As workhorses for this profession, they fulfill their role admirably and quietly, without calling attention to themselves. But they lead a double life. When seen outside the industry, their particular look and peculiar appeal is abundantly evident, despite their entirely un-artistic origins.

These are not the pornography of photogenic ruins or abandoned factories, the stuff of coffee table books published and bought far away from those melancholy sites of desuetude. They also do not belong to the activist school of photojournalism prone to aestheticizing violence by way of claiming that explicitly depicting war and suffering elicits awareness, sympathy, and a humanitarian or military response. Both those kinds of photography have a desire to provoke an emotional reaction, be it elegiac sentimentality, shock, or empathy; the ones here also aim to “bear witness,” which they certainly do, but they are not socially conscious or about feelings. They are not for public consumption, and do not try to be appealing to the eye, yet they often are.

In laymen’s terms, these companies act as a liaison between the building owners or developers and the insurance companies. Their role is to advocate, and the field photos, which can number from the hundreds to the many thousands for a given incident depending on the scale of damage, are an attempt to bring the truth to light. The world of insurance claims offers many possible scenarios, ranging from owners grateful for assistance in getting a fair settlement to cases that go on for years and are settled in court. At the end of the day, it comes down to compensation, to what can be agreed upon as a reasonable cost to restore what was destroyed.

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