Artist’s have long realized that they could use their creative efforts in an attempt to influence public opinions and policies that are aligned with their environmental and social concerns. Jacob Riis photographically documented the New York slums in the 1880’s dates, Thomas Moran applied his paint in the late 19th century to inspire the United States National Park System, Picasso’s painting of Guerncia was created as a public outcry about the Spanish Civil War, the photographers of the FSA during the 1930’s documenting the effects of the depression and recently David Maisel’s landscape photographs of the environmental impact by industrial development.
The methods used by the artists to communicate their concerns have been diverse, such as to frame the situation in a beautiful and appealing manner to engage the public support, which was the approach of Moran and Adams. The alternative was to expose the horrors as a call to action, such as Riis, Hines and Maisel. Each artist is attempting to engage a public dialog in the hopes of changing opinions. The call to action still may not create the needed change, but realizing that if no action is taken, the circumstances will not change. The other take away is that when a person has an agenda, that agenda will influence them as to how they will frame their resulting images, what they include and what they will exclude, not unlike advertising or political propaganda.
As a result, we are forwarded by Chris Jordan in his book In Katrina’s Wake, Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster, that something “unnatural” occurred in August 2005 with the arrival of the hurricane Katrina to the city and surrounding region of New Orleans. Jordan’s photographs capture the aftermath of this storm. The photographs concentrate on the artifacts of the damage, deftly framing the forlorn objects and creating poignant photographs that border on the beautiful. We do not see the people who are impacted, but indirectly we can sense their sorrowful presence. Many lives have been permanently altered as a result of this storm.
Homes, stores and entire communities were literally wiped away by this tremendous storm. The damaging effects of the wind and rain of the hurricane were compounded by the subsequent failure of the levees that had retained the surrounding water. The resulting floods contaminated entire sections of the city, making the houses that remain standing, uninhabitable.
One photograhy seems to capature a ghost ship sitting eerily in the mist amongst a housing tract and sailing on a sea of broken debris. Everything seems out of sorts, and we sadly note that the debris contains twisted bed frames, shredded clothing and a child’s lonely toy. A bath tube and toilet are now plainly in the open and a brick wall is tilting on its side.
In another photograph there is a missing house, all that remains is a concrete pad in the mid-ground and a lone gate standing in the foreground. The remaining fencing is gone as is any trace of the house or most of its contents. It is a hauntingly still photograph, made even more so by the sounding mist and the wrecked and damage trees barely discernable in the background horizon. It testifies to the brute force that hit this region and to the total devastation that has occurred to the family that once lived here.
A red door that stands in its frame, which now leads to nowhere, and the adjacent windows are gone as the retail store’s inventory is now a pile of trash. In another photography, there a store front that has been dashed, allowing the hanging clothes to take the full brunt of the wind and rain. The soiled and colorful clothes a mocking reminder of the previous vitality of this store.
There are the photographs of abandoned and soiled toys, clothes, furniture, books, and other items we take for granted in the sanctity of our homes. These broken and lonely objects are metaphors for the dreams and memories that have been changed by this hurricane. These are images of abandoned items that were once owned and treasured but left to decay and eventually parish from sight.
Jordan’s photographs are unable to provide the smell of the rotting waste that appears like a sea of mud. Unable to provide the spooky quietness of a housing tract deserted and devoid of the sounds of normal life.
I recall similar scene on the island of Culabra after hurricane Hugo in 1990, with vacant concrete pads where homes once stood and sailboats now marooned high on the hillside overlooking the bay. Later in Southern California, the massive fires that destroyed over 2,000 homes, which were reduced to piles of smoldering ashes. Thus these photographs are symbolic of the impact that natural disasters, such as tornados, mud slides, forest fires, cyclones, earthquakes, tidal waves, and floods can havoc on peoples lives.
Jordan’s compositions are coolly balanced and beautiful, with the subject at hand usually centered within the frame with just a little open space of breathing room around it. Many of the objects are individual studies, floating in a sea of dried mud or within a devastated room. I am struck by the similarities in composition to a natural landscape study or an advertising still life. We are provided with images for contemplation, composed such that there are but few distractions, the static object almost entirely isolated.
The bright colors and compositions do not seem to correlate with the devastation and the effect that this storm is having on some many lives, which have probably been changed forever. Many of the personal and family heirlooms, and family photographs and furniture, are gone forever, left blowing in the wind.
One of the minor disappointing aspects of this photobook was the inability of the photographic content to provide direct evidence that this disaster was unnatural. The beautiful constructed images of the damage and sorrowful conditions are almost surreal, they don’t seem to fully resonate with the incredible destruction.
Perhaps we have seen too many gory images that deaden our senses and souls, while these photographs seem to allow us to become engaged. The compositions are so well balanced and the lighting so wonderful, we are so repulsed that we turn away. That may be the point of this beautifully illustrated and printed book, to provide less obtrusive content that could allow a more meaningful interaction. He weaves in a message without beating you over the head, such that you are enticed to read on and perhaps think deep about the events that occurred and what might be the cause. And hopeful wonder what is happening to the global environment.
Susan Sontag wrote in her book On Photography, that
“..almost opposite rules hold true for the use of the photograph to awaken desire and to awaken conscience. The images that mobilize conscience are always linked to a given historical situation. The more general they are, the less likely they are to be effective. A photograph that brings news of some unsuspected zone of misery cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude.”
The essay by Bill McKibben does provide a rationale for why this hurricane, and probably the more to come, was unnatural. That what we have done as industrialized humans has changed the environment and subsequently the delicate ecologic balance. That a little environmental warming could have huge ramifications to the global weather systems of which we depend so much on.
An interesting and easy to read essay by Susan Zakin discusses the flip side of why this hurricane might be unnatural, subsequently creating much chaos when the damaged levees allowed the flooding. Her essay is not about the fact that city of New Orleans is located below sea level. It is about how changes to the landscape, such as how the engineers attempt to control the Mississippi River or removing the underground oil and gas deposits, can have a dramatic impact on the ecological systems, such as the natural order of the marsh land between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.
by Douglas Stockdale