CNN Photos

Aftershocks of the Christchurch earthquake

When photographer Peter Hoffman heard of the February 2011 earthquake that devastated the town of Christchurch, New Zealand, he knew he had to return to the town where he had lived briefly in 2004.

“The Christchurch I lived in was really bordering on utopic. I know that may sound like hyperbole to many, but the combination of the wonderful people I knew while I was there with the beauty of the coastal landscape was enough for a perpetually landlocked Midwesterner to feel like he’d found the best place on earth,” he said.

“I had been thinking about the city ever since I left and memories of my time there became less concrete and more mythical and that started to bother me – and I wanted to dispel the notion that anywhere on earth could be as perfect as I’d remembered it. When the earthquakes started it was clear to me that I didn’t have any excuses not to go back.”

One of the biggest, and most personal changes to the landscape for Hoffman was the disappearance of his old running route.

“The path was just the most magnificent place to run. It essentially zigzagged along the cliff’s edge high above the sea and afforded the view for an amazing sunrise. It still registers with me that what I’ve seen there is probably some of the most beautiful sights I will see, and now that trail is largely gone. A lot of it actually fell into the sea with the quakes.”

Hearing of its loss drove his desire to return.

“That’s when I knew I had to get back. The changes clarified the notion of impermanence to me in a way that nothing else had before.”

With that in mind he returned Christchurch, to see how the earthquake had changed not only the landscape, but the people living on it.

When he arrived, a friend had set up an interview with a local newspaper to help publicize the project, which led to another story in another newspaper, all of which helped Hoffman reach many of his subjects.

“I made it a point to say that I wasn’t necessarily looking for drama-filled stories, or stories of life and death. My main interest was not in painting a picture of a damaged place…but trying to figure out how living with constant shaking was affecting the psychological dynamic of the general population.“

He had those who were interested in sharing their stories hand-write them in a journal.

“I had hoped that with this approach, whatever was at the forefront of people’s minds regarding the situation would sort of naturally spill out onto the page. Those first things you want to talk about are generally the changes most important to you.“

Hoffman used a few different cameras on this project, including a Leica M6 and a Fuji x100, but says some 1950s-era Rolleiflexes did most of the work.

“I use old Rolleiflexes because they are intuitive tools to me and very versatile. As cameras they are well-designed and just get in the way very little. I enjoy the slower process using these cameras, the separation that film forces upon me, not seeing the work until it is processed. I feel like it just lets me be more present in the situation as a photographer.”

He says he doesn’t consider himself a purist and does shoot digital quite often, especially when on assignment.

“Using film is a different process and sometimes I find the more appropriate route. In a way, digital photography and film photography are different mediums to me, like drawing versus painting.”

Hoffman hopes his work provides a more personalized view of the situation in Christchurch, which for many outside the city is seen as a single event – the earthquake that ripped through the city on February 22 two years ago.

But the area has been hit by several quakes and aftershocks since then.

“They are a complete lifestyle change for the city. I went back because I love the city and I want to share that with others, and this is the way that I best know how.”

- Cody McCloy, CNN