Amidst the self-portraits and anatomical mazes on display at this semester’s first BFA show at the Dorsky Museum on Friday, April 26, were 24×36 inch photos of abandoned shops and existing parking lots.
“Superfund Long Island,” a documentary project by fifth-year photography BFA Michelle Cambi, featured seven sites in the surrounding Long Island area, all of which had been affected by toxic spills.
These sites, recognized by Superfund — “the federal government’s program to clean up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites,” according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency website — have been toxically affected by spills seeping into the surrounding soil which tap into groundwater, contaminating water wells in up to two towns away.
Although Superfund is an organization dedicated to cleaning up these sites, Cambi’s documentary project proved that all of the sites photographed and many more that she explored had been abandoned and untouched.
The toxins found in the drinking water of surrounding Long Island areas were found to cause headaches, blurred vision, skin rashes, asthma, kidney dysfunction and cancer. Many of the sites Cambi photographed were located next to elementary schools, residential areas or have since been purchased and built over by major companies.
“A professor from my previous school was working on a similar project, focusing on sites upstate,” Cambi said. “My friend’s parents had cancer, and they were convinced it had to do with the poor drinking water in Hicksville. I became interested in how this affected Long Island, and decided to stick to that area since that’s where I’m from and it’s personal to me.”
Cambi found Superfund sites through online records of lawsuits. She also traveled to abandoned places, finding legal paperwork and blueprints with company names printed on them. She said that although some sites’ addresses were listed, many locations were hard to find.
Because of the toxins on or near Superfund sites, land is often inexpensive, making it a hot commodity for residential or business purchase. People are not informed of the land’s toxicity, and because not many people are aware of the Superfund organization, many people don’t know to look online for locations and their legal standing.
“It’s not that no one knows about it, it’s that so few people know about it,” Cambi said. “I’m not trying to create an uproar with my project, I’m trying to bring awareness to people and their surroundings.”
In tandem with the eight photos on display during the BFA showcase, Cambi also created a book called “Superfund Long Island,” containing even more photos taken during her project, along with a summary of the locations, toxins found on-site and side effects of those toxins being ingested.
Cambi said the most challenging part of her project was inserting herself into it. After trying to shoot an image dead-on and failing to convey the emotion she was hoping for, she took to shooting from lower angles and connecting to the space more in an effort to make the photos “more personal.”
“When I shoot photos, I tend to give off a loneliness in my work already,” Cambi said. “These sites gave off sadness anyway, so that wasn’t difficult. I didn’t change a thing about these sites. I just shot what was presented.”