After years of chronicling the sea of humanity on Jones Beach through his camera lens, photographer Joe Szabo says he found some subjects worthy of a sharper focus — the lifeguards.
“I have a lot of respect for them,” says Szabo, 74, of Amityville. “To be a lifeguard on Jones Beach means you have to always be prepared mentally and physically — they have to take the test every May. It’s a lot of responsibility to make sure you’re the best you can be.”
Szabo, known for his photography of American youth, says the Jones Beach lifeguards also face challenges with which others in their craft don’t have to deal. They keep watch over a 6 1/2- mile stretch of beach off the Atlantic Ocean where many beachgoers come from areas such as Manhattan or the Bronx and have little swimming experience.
Some of the lifeguards at Jones Beach are in it basically for life, too. It hasn’t been unusual over the years to have lifeguards work there into their 60s and 70s because they enjoy being part of such an active and diverse facility, and because lifeguards there have formed their own “family.”
The Jones Beach lifeguards are simply a breed all their own, according to Szabo, and for that reason he’s put some of the hundreds of photographs of Jones Beach lifeguards that he has taken over decades into a new book, “Lifeguard,” (text by Greg Donaldson; $40, Damiani). His work has been exhibited around Long Island and also at at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.
Szabo started taking pictures at Jones Beach in the 1960s and concentrated his lifeguard shots at the beach’s Central Mall (the Field 4 parking area and center of the beach), a drop-off point for buses carrying beachgoers and the hub of the lifeguard action.
“This part of the beach is like Grand Central [Terminal],” says 18-year lifeguard veteran Tammy McLoughlin, 52, of Long Beach. “This particular beach is like no other.”
Szabo says that at other beaches there are one or two lifeguards on a stand. But at Jones Beach there are several on the main stand “constantly watching and watching to make sure everyone is safe,” because of the dangers the Atlantic Ocean can pose.
Rob Ortof, 64, of Bayside is a swimming coach who has been a Jones Beach lifeguard for 40 years. Ortof says the excitement of working at Jones Beach keeps him coming back.
About 6 million people visit Jones Beach each year, according to George Gorman, deputy director of Long Island state parks.
“You get to see the tradition and importance of it,” Ortof says of his Jones Beach lifeguard career. “At this beach we actually save people’s lives, '' Ortof says, because of the frequency of rip currents.
“Some days we’ll do 400 or 500 rescues — you become a lifesaver like a fireman or a cop,” he adds.
Firefighters, police, teachers and lawyers are among the many professions represented on Jones Beach’s lifeguard team, which is unionized and operates on the basis of seniority, including where a lifeguard is stationed.
“I don’t know of any other seasonal lifeguard union in this country,” says another lifeguard, Cary Epstein, 38, of Hewlett, who is an EMT and teacher at John Adams High School in Queens. He has been a Jones Beach lifeguard for 21 years and says the union prevented age discrimination that leads to other lifeguards being washed up after 35.
Epstein says Jones Beach lifeguards take their jobs very seriously, and Ortof says older lifeguards can use their lifeguard skills later in life, mostly for spotting trouble, while younger ones handle most actual rescues.
“We don’t look at it as a kid’s career; we’ve chosen our lifestyles to work around the beach,” Epstein says. “We will all be Ortof one day.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of lifeguards at state parks: 475
Number of lifeguards at Jones Beach: 50
Number of lifeguards at Central Mall: 41
Source: Lifeguard Cary Epstein