Chris Jordan’s powerful photographs of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are featured in the on-line environmental magazine Grist (and also in the February Harper’s). I was especially struck by the story that accompanies the slideshow. Jordan describes meeting an elderly black man who had returned to his deserted, devastated neighborhood in New Orleans by November 2005, because he couldn’t bear to be away from his beloved front stoop. There was little left of the house his great-grandfather had built except the stoop.
“They’re paying for me to stay in a motel room in Kansas City,” he told me. “It stinks of smoke and I don’t know anyone. I lost my wife a couple of years ago.” He pointed down the block to a small white building that was pushed off its foundation into the middle of the street. It was still standing, but twisted sideways with its back torn open. “That’s my church. The people are all gone. There used to be people…” His voice stopped as he gestured at the ruined landscape.
After a pause I asked him what he was going to do. “Same thing I’ve always done,” he said. “Sit on my front steps. I don’t belong anywhere else. I’m not going to rot away in some motel. This is where I am from, and this is what I do – I sit on my front steps – so here I am sitting on my front steps.”
As an inveterate front porch sitter, I empathize completely. One reason I think Jordan’s images are so moving is because he has the eye of someone deeply rooted in place and in a particular vantagepoint, and is unafraid to sacrifice aesthetic comfort and commit himself to chronicling what he calls “intolerable beauty.” In an interview elsewhere, he says this:
Journalistic disaster photos portray what is happening in that instant, but those instants have already passed by, and we can’t know what became of the people, or what else happened in their lives, or who they really were, or whether it got better or worse for them, and so on. There are exceptions of course; some photos of people suffering are shatteringly powerful, but not very many that I can think of.
For me, my work is about something different. It is not about portraying other peoples’ suffering, or trying to evoke sympathy for the victims. It is about connecting with a sense of loss that I feel myself, a deep experience of my own grief for what is happening in our country right now. In the destruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, we have all lost something sacred. That is a personal loss, not someone else’s.
A big part of this for me is the fact that Katrina was not an entirely natural disaster. If this were a purely natural event like an earthquake, I would feel differently about it, and may not have photographed it at all. The sense of loss for me has something to do with our collective failure as a society, maybe like the loss a parent might feel if their teenaged child died from a drug overdose. If we had been more aware, we could have done something sooner, but we weren’t, and now it is too late. This would be different than losing a child to an untreatable illness, for example. There is an element of accountability, or shame, or maybe regret, and perhaps an inspiration to be different in the future.
Be sure to read the whole interview; it’s excellent. Many more of Chris Jordan’s In Katrina’s Wake photos are posted at his website, alongside his earlier series Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption.