Here I sit in the hotel lobby waiting for it to be 3:00. After check-out I walked down to a NOFD station that is four blocks from our hotel. I walked by this station at least a dozen times this week and it took me until the last day to check it out. Turns out it is a headquarters and houses Engine 29 and "a bunch of pencil pushers." The firefighter I met there was from Green Bay but I decided to photograph him anyway. I bought a t-shirt and that is all for me in New Orleans.
This is the end of the trip but this is not the end of the project. Next for me is the remaining week and a half of our break during which I will probably not look at these photos at all. Once school gets rolling again we will edit and process all of our photos (what you have seen on these blogs is a very small sample of what we have done). The final product of this endeavor will be a book of photos for each project and a gallery showing at the Minneapolis Central Library's Dunn Brothers where we will each have few photos on display. Please check back for more details and dates. Thank you for taking the time to follow this blog, I hope you have enjoyed it and stick around for the end.
Today I went to nine different locations to photograph fire stations. I saw stations I had previously visited, stations that were under construction, stations that were no longer there and stations that had long since been abandoned. I think I got some shots that will really help round out my project and some shots that were just for fun (i.e. alligator).
I would like to thank Colleen and Becky for shuttling us around and organizing our demanding schedules all while dealing with the stress, heat and whining. I would also like to thank the personnel of the New Orleans area fire departments that were so generous and helpful. And thank you to New Orleans and its surrounding communities for the hospitality.
Today I enjoyed a revitalizing soak in the salt water. It has been far too long since I've been in the ocean. I did not enjoy the worst sunburn of my life. It has been far too long since I've been in the sun. There was no photography for me today, purely unwinding and whining.
Yesterday, on the other hand, was once again an amazing experience with the firefighters of St. Bernard Parish, specifically Engine 8 and District Chief Silva. After meeting them on Tuesday they invited me to come back to take more photos and partake in a shrimp boil. This consisted of 30 pounds of shrimp that had been caught that morning, sausage, potatoes, onions, mushrooms, corn, garlic, spices and seasoning. This was by far the best meal I have had down here and I don't expect to find a better one. Dinner was accompanied by a frenzied conversation that can only be experienced in a Louisiana fire station. I found it difficult to focus on my purpose of making photographs and not just relish in the company I was in.
Here are a few examples of what went on that night. Big props go out to Micah who was my lighting assistant and motivator. He made me try some techniques I don't normally do. I made him try some food he won't normally do.
Today I made it to a groundbreaking ceremony for the future site of the St. Bernard Parish Fire Department's Station 8 just in time to hear "Hey Nick, you just missed it." This was after I had the wrong address of the ceremony for Station 6 at 8:30 and our Super-Soccer Mom had driven all over southern Louisiana to drop off three other students and bring me back for the 9:30 groundbreaking of Station 8 (which, it turned out, was really at 9:00). I must have been visibly bummed because Chief Stone said "...we'll stage one for ya." After getting that shot a news camera showed up and they did another "real" one, and I got that shot too.
After the groundbreaking(s) we drove back to pick up everyone else and back, again, to St. Bernard so I could make some portraits of the Chief (who has been so helpful and generous) and the dispatchers who work behind the scenes and are often forgotten in projects like these. This, of course, took much longer than I expected because these people are so nice and wanted to talk and share stories and pictures with me. I was more than willing to listen and learn but there were four exhausted and sweaty people waiting in a sweet minivan for me to finish so they could go rest before our afternoon plans. I ended up making these poor souls sit for an hour while I was in the air conditioning laughing it up and trying to get the Chief to look at the camera. I would like to thank Becky, Lisa, Kristyna and Peter for being so patient. I hope these results are worth the pain and suffering they endured.
Today brought a unique experience with The Times-Picayune, the New Orleans-area local paper. We were invited to visit the offices and go on ride-a-longs with the Pulitzer Prize winning staff photographers. My group went with Ted Jackson to the LSU Medical Center, a complex that had it's basement completely flooded and 3 feet of water on the main floor during the storm. The building is still under renovation and Ted was there on assignment as the Times will be running a story regarding the progress.
Our tour was led by a PR person from LSU. We began in the basement where the majority of the damage was done to all the mechanical and electrical systems that are housed down there. As we went up the building's floors we saw progress and eventually the finished product on the top few levels which were already occupied.
It was great to watch a photojournalist work and see his process from getting to the location, meeting and talking with the people, getting the shots he is looking for and editing his photos back at the paper. I would like to thank The Times-Picayune, its editor and photographers for taking the time to do this for us.
The following and above are a few examples of my photos from today.
I spent my day in Saint Bernard Parish with District Chief Ronald Silva. The Chief was amazing about helping me get my project rolling. He drove me around the entire parish (that's county for everyone else) and showed me all the stations including the temporary ones working out of trailers, the sites of future ones and the sites of those that were destroyed. I met a number of firefighters including some that were very enthusiastic about being in my photos and I saw everything from a firefighter using a fire truck to water a baseball field to a car that had driven through a brick wall and into a convenience store. I also was fed boiled crab and crawfish for lunch by the guys at Engine 8, a delicious surprise.
I took some photos today but but I mostly used the day to familiarize myself with the area and the people. The firefighters work 24 on and 48 off which means those I met today will be on again Friday so I made plans to come back with my lighting equipment and make some real portraits. I also met the dispatcher and will return to photograph her - possibly Thursday.
I am entirely too tired to edit photos so look for them tomorrow.
I awoke this morning to find myself in Memphis next to an unfamiliar woman. Then I got off the plane and boarded another that was destined for New Orleans. Today begins my nine day project to create a photo essay about the Big Easy's firefighters. After taking a three hour tour around the city to take in the destruction and reconstruction that has happened over the last four-plus years I have a lot of ideas and images bouncing around in my head. I just need to organize and produce.
Tomorrow I am going to the HQ to take a tour of one department's jurisdiction. Hopefully I'll get to see the different stations and meet some of the firefighters. I plan to create portraits of the people and the buildings. I hope to get some ideas from those in the know and find some interesting stories. Today I passed by a couple of intriguing stations as well as an abandoned one. More to come.
A reaction to When the Levees Broke This was the second time I watched Spike Lee's documentary about New Orleans' struggle with Hurricane Katrina. The first time I watched this film I was overwhelmed by the despair of the people. The storm's victims ranged from people displaced in an unfamiliar state to those that drowned in their own attics. The first time I watched this film I was outraged by the failure of the United States' government. FEMA was a disaster throughout the aftermath. How could it take five days to supply basic aid to the hundreds of thousands of people in need? How could the Canadian Mounted Police be New Orleans to before the our own government agencies? The first time I watched this film I was left feeling sorry for all the people that were affected. So many lost so much and were left feeling helpless. Nearly five years later Katrina is still claiming victims through poverty, depression and suicide. Few people could be able to watch this film without being overwhelmed with feelings of sorrow and outrage.
The second time I watched this film I was able to look past the shocking footage and undeniable facts proving incompetance and failure. This time I saw the story each person was telling. This time I saw the stories that weren't being told. Spike Lee took on a massive project and told the story that needed to be told, the story of the victims. These people were left behind, they were left to fend for themselves and they were left feeling like nobody cares. The story Spike Lee told is about those that lost their homes, those that lost their families and those that lost their lives. Everyone needs to hear these stories and they need to remember them.
The second time I watched this film I began to wonder about some of the other stories. What about those that got out? Were they able to go back and rebuild? Were they able to leave and return simply because of money? What about those that stayed and didn't lose anything? The French Quarter and other wealthier parts of New Orleans were largely unaffected. How are these people coping with the change their city has gone through. What about those that stayed and tried to save lives? The Police and Fire Departments were there. They were in boats trying to rescue as many souls as they could. They were fighting fires while the waters rose. How were they able to do that while they were unsure if their own families were safe. Some of these public servants were ordered to protect property from potential looters in what must have seemed like a futile task. How do they feel about doing their job even though they knew they could be doing more to help? What about the people who came to help in the aftermath? What about everyone else?
Both times I watched this film it took Spike Lee over four hours to tell the story of just one group of people. How long will it take to tell everyone ele's story? Will they ever be told? They can't all be told. I hope more are. This month at least nine more stories will be told. Our stories may not revolve around Katrina but they will all be affected by it, some more than others. I have no intention of looking for Katrina in the firefighters and others I talk to and photograph but I know she'll stick her ugly face in there. I just hope I can make her a little better looking.
A reaction to The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia This film is about one artist's attempt to portray a group of people in their environment according to his own vision. Shelby Lee Adams considers himself a documentarian. Almost everyone else considers him to be a fine artist. He has spent half a lifetime creating a collection of photographs that may be the most emotional images I have ever seen. There are endless adjectives that can be associated with his work; beautiful, ugly, intense, offensive, real, staged, stereotypical and authentic all apply and depend on the viewer's interpretation.
This variance in interpretation is common with all forms of art. I believe the meaning of a true piece of art should be left for the viewer to decide. This is not the case with a good documentary. I think a documentary should show its subject(s) in a unbiased manner. Shelby Lee Adams attempts to do both. His subjects are being themselves as Adams arranges them within the frame of his camera and lights them in his personal style. By doing this he has successfully merged documentary with fine art.
An interesting moral dilemma is raised in this film. Many people interviewed believe Adams is only perpetuating a streotype of poor white people that are inbred and ignorant. The subjects themselves do not feel this way and say they like the pictures. One woman doesn't like the photographs because they are not pretty. She wants her sister to be groomed, made-up and posed in a flattering manner. Adams rebuttals with the fact that the girl is not really like that and he wants to show her how she actually is. He is not creating these photos to please everyone, nor is he trying to offend anyone. He is simply attempting to show the world how he sees it.
My goal with my photo essay project in New Orleans will be to portray the people and the city as they are. I will arrange subjects or position myself to create the composition I see in my mind but I do not want to "pose" people or "create" a scene. I don't want to tell someone to smile or look at a certain spot. I want them to be themselves and to feel comfortable. Some people like to smile while others do not. Some people will look into the lens while others would rather look away or past the camera. I think this is where a lot of the documentation comes from while the art is created by the arrangement and lighting.
A reaction to PBS's American Experience: New Orleans
This program discusses the history and culture of New Orleans. While it touches on many subjects, its main focus is race issues throughout the city's history.I did not expect this when I began watching the program, I expected a history lesson followed by Katrina footage. This surprise made me think about how I might find unexpected race issues in my own photo essay project when I visit New Orleans in three weeks.
The most surprising and pleasing thing I learned from this film was the progressiveness of New Orleans' races when it was still a territory before becoming part of the Union. There were powerful people of color coexisting with powerful white people. This harmony ran through all the city's classes while race and the color of a person's skin was not an issue. That was until Louisiana became an American state and was adopted into our government. That inclusion began a cycle of exclusion that peaked mid-20th century. This centuries old cycle has just began its downward journey and it seems New Orleans is a little behind the rest of the country.
The most impressive fact I learned from this film was the pride of New Orleaneans. These people love their city and are so proud to have their roots there. This is apparent in the those that refused to leave after 2005's disaster left them with nothing. It is also apparent in those that have returned even though the city has nothing to give them, no jobs and no security. These people are willing to give to their city and expect nothing in return. This is a pride and love I want to capture in my photos.