Experiencing Katrina Images in March
As I had never done before, last week I spent time in a place without writing about feelings and encounters or taking photos of people and places. Without these external tools, I experienced New Orleans inside myself. I used my thoughts and eyes to create images instead of exterior mediums.
This time was different from my past visits to unfamiliar places because it felt as if I were invading the established community, even if most of its members were not living there anymore. I had entered a sacred place where people had lived and loved and some had died. Taking photos, though necessary to bring awareness of the truth, seemed intrusive and desecrating.
I stood frozen staring at things that I saw, unable to move my eyes or body away. Images manifested even when I closed my eyes: a baby doll’s arm lying in the street, a toothbrush sitting in its holder as if its owner would soon return to use it or a destroyed CD collection that would never again offer its music. Although I cannot physically share them with others, these images of abandoned streets and homes, shattered windows, uprooted trees and demolished pathways were not mine to offer. The images that exist in my mind, though, I hope will enable me to communicate without intrusion.
Despite relief workers’ intent to stand with New Orleans in solidarity, there is a very real presence of intrusion that comes with their presence. Capturing an image can further remove the photographer from the situation, reinforcing her status as an outsider. Images could not convey the truths of the New Orleans devastation, especially without furthering that intrusion.
However, instances of walking through apparently deserted neighborhoods while surprisingly receiving cheerful greetings and thanks from homeowners portrayed the intrusion from a more positive perspective. Although it was obvious to residents that the overwhelmingly white, college-aged people exploring the area were not actually from New Orleans, most communicated an appreciation for both the volunteers’ efforts and concerns. When residents would call out, “We thank you for what you’re doing here,” I felt pleasure in bringing them some joy, but sadness in the ease with which they could recognize me as an outsider.
Despite the short amount of time that about 100 Oberlin students and I spent
in New Orleans, our and others’ collective images, whether physical or
mental, and the hope to which we tried to contribute can serve to heighten the
sense of reality and urgency for understanding that seems to have disintegrated