December 16, 2009 / 11:15 AM / 8 years ago

Book Talk: Deep below Manhattan with the Sandhogs

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?

A: The “man-trip,” the train that takes you to where they’re actually mining and drilling the rock, that can be a 25- or 30-minute ride down. You’re in a 12-foot diameter tunnel. That’s when you feel it’s really claustrophobic. But I was amazed by the beauty of the landscape, rich color, beautiful light. It’s beautiful and very surreal.

Q: How dangerous is the work the Sandhogs do?

A: They say a man a mile. So far, about 24 (have lost their lives). The most dangerous time is when they’re doing traditional drill and blasting, which they have to do to get the tunnel boring machine down there. People get injured all the time.

Q: Besides pictures of the excavation, you also include portraits of the individual men. What did you want to show?

A: I wanted to capture their energy and their lively personalities and the soul down there. Before I went down the tunnel, I only saw black-and-white photojournalistic archival photos and you’d see the workers, but they weren’t foregrounded. I felt they were strong, dedicated, sincere men. A lot of them are generational Sandhogs. It’s in their blood.

Q: How did you win over their trust?

A: Initially, before I got down in the tunnel, I would go to the site and hang out outside the Hoghouse, the above-ground locker room. They thought I was crazy, ‘What are you doing here in the cold?’ I said, ‘I want to spark the public’s awareness of you guys through the arts.’ They were like, ‘OK, whatever.’ But they saw my dedication, they saw I wasn’t going to give up. Then, when I first started working with them, I always brought back the photos, so they truly became collaborators.

Q: Are the Sandhogs all men?

A: There was one woman in the 1980s, and she lasted like three shifts.

Q: Why do you shoot on film?

A: Film has a lot more detail, more range in terms of light and dark, and very high contrast. In terms of the quality and the details in the shadows, film is amazing. You can get it on a high-end digital camera, but I‘m not bringing a $45,000 camera down into the tunnel. You also don’t have the grit you get with large-format film. Film still interprets light differently. With long exposures, when you develop the film you get these hues that digital would be too clean about. It’s a different beast.

Editing by Paul Simao

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