I drove into the Ninth Ward a year and a half after Katrina left it in ruins. Friends of mine who had already been there told me the devastation was “unbelievable.” I wondered what that meant—unbelievable.
My friends were wrong.
The Ninth Ward, in its ruin, was believable, but only in the way certain dreams are believable—post-World-War-III dreams. Miles and miles of empty houses. No voices, no cars—an eerie silence except for the distant rumble of dump trucks, the occasional crunching of wood. Now and then a darkened limo, or a Katrina tour bus, would drive through. The initial documentary Gold Rush—photography inspired by overturned houses, cars in trees, and mountains of debris—was plainly over. Dramatic spectacle had given way to pervasive loss—a condition far less tangible, and difficult to photograph. I’m not sure what I felt about what I saw. Disbelief? To be honest, I wasn’t able to grasp the disaster. It was too large to be emotionally comprehended, especially by someone who didn’t live there.
And then, despite my original intentions not to, I began to take photographs—photographs that reminded me not so much of the New York photographs I took in the early 1970s but of the fundamental reasons why I even became a photographer. In those early years I’d walk around the city for days (as I imagined Cartier-Bresson had walked around Paris) searching for something to photograph—a person, a dog, a store window, a movie marquee, anything that might open up and reveal an idea about life in New York City. One afternoon, however, as I watched a wrecking ball punch holes in a building I had admired only the week before, the thought crossed my mind that whole sections of the city—particularly the parts with a distinct cultural identity—were beginning to disappear. This image of the disappearing city stayed with me, and, almost immediately, I began to photograph everything I considered imperiled—seltzer bottles stacked high in old wooden crates, Ukrainian men playing backgammon in Tompkins Square, a three-masted model of a ship in the dusty window of an Italian seamen’s club in Little Italy. I’m glad I took those photographs. The parts of the city I intended to fix in memory have largely disappeared. And since that time, for more than 30 years, using photography as a means to memorialize loss has served as the wellspring of my work.
By the time I arrived in the Ninth Ward in the winter of 2007, a large part of the neighborhood had already disappeared, and the rest was in danger of being hauled away. I began to photograph those things that still remained: beautiful wrought-iron railings, a church organ covered in cracked silt, and, oddly enough, a Sunday School bulletin board full of thumbtacks. I wanted the photographs to say “See, this was here, and that was there.” For a photographer, that seemed a simple enough and legitimate task. After all, the moment we allow ourselves to forget the intimate details of a Somewhere, Donald Trump and his friends, waiting in the wings, will happily make an entrance and build us a new and improved Nowhere—monolithic, impersonal, luxurious, and white. The Ninth Ward was disappearing, it seemed to me, not only because of Katrina, but because of a long-standing indifference to the poor, an indifference now transforming itself into a mercilessly strategic land-grab.
Photographs, though, not only remember, they register surprise. And what surprised me most about the Ninth Ward were the left-over particulars of a multi-layered human geography. What did I expect to find there? The media invariably headline poverty and crime, but those words, chanted like a mantra, don’t reveal or illuminate anything; they merely divert us from the deeper problem of American racism. In fact what I found and what I photographed wasn’t simply the remnants of a dilapidated and dangerous neighborhood now demolished by a hurricane, but the vestiges of a working-class community in which aspiration contended with scarcity, and where religious faith found expression on every block. From my perspective, the floodwaters had washed away not only bricks and mortar, but also the toxic stereotypes that separate us from each other. What was left, in other words, was the vanishing common ground, and it is this familiar terrain that I have photographed.
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