Ask anyone from East Hampton where we’re from, and we’ll never say “the Hamptons,” because we are not from “the Hamptons.” We are from the town of East Hampton—the stretch of land on the South Fork of Long Island, running from Montauk to Wainscott. “The Hamptons” is a place populated by second homes and share houses, a different world from where we come from.
For centuries we have taken care of our own, a fiercely protective community that operates like an extended family, and the only way to be included is by paying your dues. We know the nicknames of all the characters in town. We know how to give driving directions by only referencing landmarks that were torn down 15 years ago. We have experienced the boredom of a Wednesday night in March. We know there’s a difference between having a lot and thinking you have a lot. We learn to love your enemy, because someday they may marry into your family.
We call this place “Bonac,” taking the name from the Accabonac Creek that runs through the area.
To be a “Bonacker,” a true local, is defined differently by everyone. At one time, it meant that no fewer than three generations of your family had called East Hampton home.
Now, first-generation locals wonder where they belong, as they don’t identify with the city folk, but don’t feel they have any right to claim status as a Bonacker.
If you ask 100 locals to choose one person who embodies the town of East Hampton, you will get 100 different answers. Many call this town home, but few locals have an absolute sense of belonging. Some have been pushed out by the crushing cost of living, despite their families’ hundreds of years of history. I embarked on this body of work because I was tired of feeling that the town I hold so precious has only been defined by outsiders. Over the past four years I sought to demonstrate that the reason no one person could ever speak for the entirety of Bonackers is because there is no singular experience. The peculiar nature of collective memory makes us a community, but it is the rich spectrum of life choices and experiences that makes this East Hampton the biggest small town in the world.
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For the sake of privacy, I have intentionally omitted locations from landscapes and the last names of most people photographed. This is a story I want to share with the public, but the boundary intentionally creates a distinction between those who have shared a local experience and those who haven’t. For years, outsiders have attempted ownership of an identity that can only be cultivated over a lifetime.
Limiting captions also forces the viewer to step away from cultural perception of “the Hamptons,” and simply see the piece for what it is—a love story about a small American town. The art, the surfing, the architecture, the beauty, is all there. The elements that define local culture are also included, like living off the land; three generations sharing one roof due to the cost of real estate; living on a street named after your family; and knowing there was a time when it was safe to hitchhike as a teenager—because the car that picked you up in the middle of the night was inevitably a friend’s parent driving home from work.
Each person and location photographed represents a memory, minuscule points in time over the past thirty years. Implicit or explicit, these are the diverse faces and places that have shaped me into the person I am today—and I am just one example of how this town raises each of its children.
History is like lasagna, repetitive layers of birth and death and all of the layers in between. These photos are intended to trigger memories of those layers for those who have lived it, and those who are living it. This project has already inspired incredible conversations about how East Hampton has changed, and also how we have grown over the generations.
The most important lesson I’ve learned from this? Nothing is meaningless. No action, no conversation, no object. You never know how something seemingly insignificant may affect someone, and to change one person’s world is to ultimately change the entire world.
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Tara Israel is Narratively’s photo editor, born and raised among the local fishermen and seasonal Manhattanites of East Hampton and currently residing in New York City. Her photographs of East Hampton fishermen will be published on Narratively later this year. You can read about some of her recent projects and see photos of the questionable company she keeps at thetisraelirepublic.tumblr.com.