New Orleans: Before and After
The man tilted his head back and laughed -- his hands and shirt covered in grime from mucking out a Hurricane Katrina-damaged home in the Gentilly area of New Orleans -- and said, "Man, you have your work cut out for you." He wasn't kidding …
A few weeks earlier, Blake Sell, editorial director at World Picture Network, sent me an e-mail asking whether I'd be interested in returning to New Orleans to shoot the "after" half of a set of "before and after" photos. Basically, WpN would provide me with a bunch of great images taken during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina by a variety of WpN contributors and I would return to the exact same locations and take the exact same picture. Another WpN photographer, Zoriah, had produced a similar set of "before and after" work from the tsunami in Phuket, Thailand. It graphically illustrated how quickly Thailand has recovered from the effects of the tsunami.
Blake e-mailed me hi-res versions of the photos WpN wanted me to revisit, and I made 8x10 prints of them before packing up and flying to New Orleans. These prints ended up being the most important tools for this assignment.
I started at my hotel, showing the desk clerks the prints and asking where they thought the pictures were taken. I repeated this endlessly with waiters, gas station attendants and random people on the street. Using this information I'd narrow down the location and then just keep asking, and driving and questioning -- for six days – until I found them.
Unfortunately, there were locations I never found. In the Gentilly area, the man laughed, gave the best advice he could and shook his head as I drove away. I never found that location.
Though finding the precise locations at the right times proved more difficult than I had anticipated, I found the people of New Orleans to be helpful and generous with their time. These people gasped or teared up as they looked at the prints, but they told me how important it was that I document the rebuilding or the lack of, as they often scoffed. I began to feel like this very "mechanical" assignment was important, equally as important as the documentary stories I usually pursue.
I was somewhat surprised to see rebuilding has been slow and often nonexistent since Katrina. Sure the water was gone and some trash picked up, but destroyed homes were still just piles of rubble, a burning building was now a vacant lot, a flooded car was now on blocks, a hotel's blown-out windows were covered in plastic and blue FEMA tarps covered damaged roofs. Everything seemed on hold, as if people are waiting for something.
Hurricane season begins again this month. The New York Times reports that the canals are repaired but doubts remain about New Orleans' ability to withstand another Katrina-sized hurricane. Maybe it is these doubts that keep residents and agencies from achieving the kind of rapid rebuilding that Phuket, Thailand, has achieved. My only hope is that in the future I can return to these same locations and capture a revitalized New Orleans, not one slowly decaying or ravaged by storms.
© Max Whittaker
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