One month after superstorm Sandy hit the New Jersey coast, Kevin Burkitt and wife Shannon Welch picked up a camera and headed out into the darkness of night to document the wreckage.
Armed with a headlamp, low-light lenses and a tripod, Burkitt captured ghostly images of destroyed buildings — once cherished homes, businesses and landmarks spanning Manasquan to Sea Bright. At the time, Burkitt didn’t know the photos would amount to anything more than an artistic attempt to understand the tragedy.
“No real agenda, rather, we would just go where there was destruction,” Burkitt said.
The pair shot almost every other night for about a month, returning with their camera as towns lifted restrictions and later again in the year when construction sparked up.
Two years later, Burkitt and Welch’s project — 91 Days, Countless Nights — tells the story of Sandy’s aftermath and recovery, not only what’s being fixed and what’s not but also how the charm and culture of the Jersey Shore are being transformed.
“It has been hard to shoot these pictures,” Burkitt said. “Initially there were so many people who needed help and assistance that I didn’t want to pick up my camera. But I realized if I don’t take these pictures we are never going to see it.”
A selection of the photographs was chosen as part of Sandy: From Destruction to Construction, an upcoming art exhibit at Morris Arts’ Gallery at 14 Maple from Sept. 6 to Feb. 12, 2015. Other artists part of the exhibit include Roddy Wildeman, Bruce Perlmutter and Laura Petrovich Cheney.
Burkitt, 37, a media technician specialist at Brookdale Community College, launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise $1,350 to pay for the cost of frames, mattes, glass and prints for the exhibit.
Any funds raised above that goal — the campaign ends July 6 — plus any proceeds from the sale of the Sandy exhibition photographs will be donated to Manasquan Organization of Volunteer Efforts, a non-profit organization which provides case managers, educational seminars, emotional/spiritual support and furniture bank assistance to residents in long-term disaster relief and recovery.
“I reached my goal in 48 hours, and thought, ‘I can’t keep that money, I just can’t do it,’” Burkitt said. “My commitment is to give back to the community where I grew up to help the people affected by the storm.”
Named when Burkitt heard a local news report on the state of the recovery 91 days after Sandy hit, the project offers a rare glimpse of the Monmouth and Ocean County neighborhoods affected by the storm at night, while the world sleeps.
“It’s an ever-changing landscape,” Burkitt said.
Watch a video featuring photos from Burkitt’s project:
“There are no rules to what I take pictures of,” he said. “It has to slow me down, make me think.”
Welch helps scout out locations for Burkitt, in addition to finding shows to display the work and other opportunities for promotion.
“This is our project and we both feel a sense of artistic responsibility to capture what we can before the landscape is changed forever,” Burkitt said.
Burkitt is a Manasquan native, and he and Welch returned to the borough recently to live. Though they were without power for two weeks after Sandy, the couple’s home and property suffered no damage beyond a downed tree.
“It makes me numb, seeing the destruction,” Burkitt said. “The Shore is supposed to be about fun, fishing, drinking, bar-b-ques with your family. When you are taking a picture of a family home and all that is gone, it makes me sad.
“It’s cleaned up now, roads are passable, communities are livable. But houses are still boarded up, still being raised. When you are used to something for 30 years and it is changed, it’s challenging.”
Burkitt shoots between five to seven images each night he goes out. He uses a Nikon D3s and one of three special low-light lenses to take long exposures — ranging from seven to 10 minutes each photo — to capture as much natural light as possible.
Then at home, Burkitt, who teaches a digital media course at Brookdale, edits the photos by converting them to black and white and applying a custom filter he created to dial up the contrast and illuminate details like footprints in the sand and to make the images, he said, “as rough and harsh as possible,” like out of a bad dream.
“Shooting at night with a long exposure, you get a different effect,” Burkitt said. “The sky is the best part — the clouds become pillowy and wispy, you get beautiful star trails and incredible details.”
The photos show houses in all states of transformation — ripped from their foundation right after the storm, boarded up and abandoned, fenced off and under construction and rebuilt and on stilts.
There are no people in the photos. But it is not uncommon for Burkitt to be approached by concerned neighbors.
“Sometimes I am mistaken for a gawker,” Burkitt said, especially immediately after the storm. “When people come up to me, I show them other photos on my iPhone … explain how I am not just taking pictures but documenting. … I want people to know I am not trying to harm anyone.”
The couple’s work is ongoing. Burkitt said their goal is to have 125 pictures — they have 88 now — for the project by the end of summer. Next up, they’ll visit Oceanport and Union Beach, Bay Head and Mantoloking and Ocean County.
“We have a lot of shooting to do,” Burkitt said.
All photos courtesy of Kevin Burkitt and Shannon Welch. Learn more about the 91 Days, Countless Nights project at 91dayscountlessnights.com. Email Kevin Burkitt at firstname.lastname@example.org