Book Talk: Deep below Manhattan with the Sandhogs

Wed Dec 16, 2009 6:11am EST
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By Nick Zieminski

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - New Yorkers use some 1.5 billion gallons (3.78 billion liters) of water a day.

That water reaches the city through two huge underground pipes that have not been repaired for nearly a century. Before they can be taken offline, a third water tunnel needs to be fully operational, and that won't happen for several years.

The task of digging what's known as Water Tunnel No. 3 began in 1970 and falls to a group of men called Sandhogs -- urban miners working deep below the city.

Their tough, dirty job is the subject of "Sandhogs," a new book by photographer Gina LeVay. She spoke with Reuters about the men she met, the landscape deep below Manhattan, and the advantage of shooting with a traditional film camera.

Q: We're in Times Square, one of the most photographed places in the world. You found a place that had almost never been photographed -- only about a mile away. How did you pick this subject?

A: After the 2003 blackout in New York, I was starting my final year of graduate school. I began thinking about how the city works, its infrastructure, thinking I should explore my style of portraiture with city workers. My friend who works at the Department of Environmental Protection, which runs the water system, said you should check out the Sandhogs. I said who, what?

I knew the water comes from upstate (New York) but had no idea this mammoth excavation was happening 800 feet below us. I became fascinated by the simultaneity of city life and this subterranean environment. Nobody knew about it. I had to find a way to get down there.

Q: You're deep below ground in a confined space. Did it feel claustrophobic?   Continued...