Staten Island has been in the news in the last few years, and generally not for happy reasons. The borough was slammed by Hurricane Sandy four years ago, and many neighborhoods have yet to fully recover. Then came Eric Garner’s death at the hands of police in 2014 and the viral cell phone video that sparked a wave of protests. Paul Moakley, Time magazine’s deputy editor of photography, made a short video in which he interviewed the man who took that cell phone footage; Moakley’s video won a World Press Photo Multimedia Award in March of 2015.
But Moakley, a native of Staten Island, is also steadily bringing a different kind of attention to the borough. He has lived there for most of his life – including almost 15 years at Alice Austen House, where he is curator and caretaker. His mission, he says, “is to bring attention to Alice Austen by showing contemporary photographers who work in her spirit.” A pioneering female photographer, Austen made experimental images as well as social documentary work about immigration.
Moakley has curated three or four shows a year at the Alice Austen House; this year, the museum is hosting the borough’s first photography triennial through August 31. It includes the work of 35 photographers, most from Staten Island. The jurors, James Estrin, Meagan Ziegler Haynes, Elizabeth Renstrom, and Monica Valenzuela, whittled the number of photographers down from hundreds of submissions and scheduled a slate of public programming. “We’re trying to raise awareness about the vibrant arts community here,” says Moakley.
Staten Island has also been Moakley’s ongoing subject: since he began taking pictures at 18, he has been working on a series of photographs about the Catholic high school he attended, Monsignor Farrell High School. “In the spirit of the photographers I admire, I felt like I needed to work on something very personal,” says Moakley. “I wanted to go back into my past and explore growing up in an institutional religious environment, and figure out something about growing up.”
Moakley grew up in a blue-collar family and says art wasn’t really something he thought about pursuing. He went to St. John’s College, where he studied to be a teacher, but along the way, he took a photography course. In one of the first classes, the teacher showed a film about Mary Ellen Mark and her project Ward 81, about the women’s security ward of a mental institution in Oregon. “She was incredibly inspiring,” he says. “Mary Ellen Mark is a god to me, and I wanted to make work like that.”
He spent more of his time taking pictures, ultimately accepting a job at Photo District News (PDN). “I really got my photographic education at PDN and Newsweek,” he says. Since 2009, Moakley has been at Time, where his responsibilities have included going to Liberia in 2014 with photographer Jackie Nickerson for Time’s Person of the Year issue on Ebola doctors. He is also one of the founders of the well-regarded photography blog LightBox. “I look to work with people who are passionate about and fully engaged with their subject,” he says, adding. “I always believe that if you make the work that’s most connected to you, it comes through.” Moakley himself is proof of that.