Ma Mère (Old Ma. Grandma. MawMaw) Holding Baby Siege In Prediluvian New Orleans East
Two years today. No new words of wisdom. I'm much shallower than I was then, but swimming in the deep end. I've rededicated myself to making as much money as I can while still trying to retain some residual soul. I want to make as much money as I can because in modern America each dollar you have makes you worth more as a human, and I want my whole family to have worth as humans. I want to try to retain some residual soul while I pursue dollars, because I don't want to resemble most modern Americans. I don't know if this is possible, but I'm trying, and some days it hurts to hold both goals at once, so I have to occasionally drop one.
Eyemazing, the international journal of contemporary photography, has an interview with me in the current issue about my Katrina body of work. The piece on me shows up somewhat after the piece on David Lachapelle and the piece on Andres Serrano. By it for them and get me as lagniappe. It was written by another Clayton, Clayton Maxwell, who's the only female Clayton I've ever met. It goes like this:
"Clayton James Cubitt can't be pinned down. A charming amalgam of art porn photographer and political activist, he's in Brooklyn documenting his sex life one day, then in New Orleans photographing mayor Ray Nagin and Bounce Musicians the next. His photo-blog on Nerve.com, The Daily Siege, is one of the best sources of intelligent, open sexuality on the web, while his other blog, Operation Eden, is devoted to the aid of Hurricane Katrina victims. We caught up with Cubitt at an East Village bar in New York, where he filled us in on his series of Katrina portraits, the role of photography amidst tragedy, and America's canary in the coalmine.
Clayton Maxwell: On your website, http://www.claytoncubitt.com, the only description of this series of Katrina photos is: "Portraits of the survivors and volunteers of Hurricane Katrina, taken in the days immediately after the storm hit." I know you had to fly down to New Orleans from Brooklyn to find your mom, who was living there at the time, and help out. When, amidst all of that, were these portraits taken?
Clayton James Cubitt: Most of the portraits presented here were taken in the week immediately following the disaster. There was no electricity, running water, phone lines, and the national guard was only just beginning to clear roads and distribute ice and MREs to survivors.
CM: Could you tell me about your ties with New Orleans - when did you live there? Who in your family was there when Katrina hit?
CJC: My family's from New Orleans going back a few generations, and I spent most of my formative years there and on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. All of my family lore comes out of New Orleans, and I credit it with forming who I am as an artist, besides making me who I am as a man.
My mother and little brother were missing for a week after the storm, and lost nearly everything, including the home I had just bought for them earlier that year. My aunt and uncle were left homeless, as were several cousins, some of who were forced to relocate in Texas.
CM: Why did you want to do these portraits? Was there a specific message you wanted to convey?
CJC: The people I most photographed were the poor and dispossessed. Those who had very little before the storm, and lost even that when the storm hit. This is the socio-economic class I grew up in - poor whites mingling with poor blacks, all being shut out of the American Dream. I intended to show their inherent pride, their dignity, and the hard work of their lives etched on their faces.
CM: Where were they taken? All of them except for three seem to be taken in a studio-like setting. Why did you choose that rather than shooting the subjects in the context of their surroundings at the time?
CJC: The studio portraits were taken in a former school gymnasium that had been cleared out and cleaned, and was serving as a distribution point for aid in the small Gulf Coast town of Pearlington, Mississippi, which was ground zero for Hurricane Katrina. The whole town was under 30 feet of storm surge, and had to fend for itself with no outside help for almost ten
I wanted to shoot many portraits in a studio context in order to separate these images from the flood of photojournalistic images that came out of New Orleans. I think people have become so jaded as visual consumers that when they see a photograph that's obviously reportage, they immediately shove it into a safe little compartment called "other." This happens in Haiti, or Africa, or Pakistan, not America, and all the images look the same, with the victims of the tragedy filling the same role, that of making Americans feel relieved that they live in America. Well, this is America.
I wanted to short-circuit that automatic filing. I wanted to present these people with the same care and respect I would use when on assignment shooting a portrait of a celebrity or a politician. I think it allows for a lingering appreciation of what they've been through, in small doses, rather than in an overwhelming image of total disaster, which is very hard to really absorb in the two seconds most viewers allot a photograph.
But mostly, I wanted to treat them with the respect they deserve, but never get.
CM: How or why does photography matter in times like the aftermath days of Katrina? Do you think that recording elements of the catastrophe on film can make a difference?
CJC: No amount of writing could ever convey the scale of the disaster. Even single photographs were insufficient to the task; it was so massive. The storm impacted an area the size of Great Britain. I found I had to combine my writing and images in order to give people even a small glimpse into the scale of this tragedy, and I feel like I've failed miserably to even do that.
You really have to visit to know how huge it is.
CM: Looking at this series, I try to guess who are the volunteers and who are the victims, obviously making somewhat unreliable assumptions - that the most weathered and dazed faces must be the victims, for example. Did you have an intention in leaving that distinction ambiguous?
CJC: Yes, and my intent was to blur the line between "them" and "us". The past few years have been very polarized ones in America, with partisan camps readily separating themselves from each other, always quick to demonize and attack the other side. The culture hasn't been this divided since the Civil War. Even in the days immediately after the storm hit, partisans were using it for fodder to gain an upper hand in the culture wars, while innocent victims still struggled for life.
I found this disgusting. Repugnant. I wanted to show all these people simply as Americans. Americans who needed help from other Americans, and from their government.
CM: Did these subjects tell you their stories? How did you know them?
CJC: I talked with everybody I photographed, and they all had stories of tragedy and loss and survival, and resignation. At the end of each day I was exhausted from just seeing and listening. Many of their stories I published on my blog, Operation Eden (http://www.operationeden.com), which for a time became a central clearing house for volunteers and people seeking
to send relief, and citizens who were curious about what the mainstream media wasn't presenting.
CM: Could you tell me about the guy in the Avon hat? What did he experience?
CJC: His name is Brother Pierre, and he was a tragic case even before the storm hit. He's been homeless for many years in the small town of Slidell, Louisiana, one of the local towns I grew up in, just a few minutes from New Orleans. Like many homeless in America, he picks up cans and trash from the sides of roads to sell for recycling. I found him on the destroyed grounds of a local high school, picking up cans from the wreckage, as if it were just another day. I suppose to him it was.
And that was one of the saddest realizations for me about this whole experience. That in a country as powerful and wealthy as America, there are people so abandoned, so poor, so hopeless, that the wreckage of the largest natural disaster in our history doesn't do much to worsen their prospects. There is nothing beneath the bottom. It's really just insult to injury.
CM: Is your family still there? How are they recovering?
CJC: Most are still there, struggling along as best they can, and I'm helping them as best I can. Some have given up on New Orleans and started in other parts of the country. My mother and little brother benefited much from the publicity I drummed up with my blog Operation Eden, and I'm happy to report that a wonderful volunteer group called One House At A Time (http://www.onehouseatatime.com) came into my mom's little community of Pearlington and rebuilt her home, as well as the homes of many of her neighbors.
The big struggle now, after all this time, is to find volunteers who are willing to travel down and donate labor to help rebuild. Even two years later, this is still largely a volunteer effort, as the national and local governments have either abandoned their duties or been totally ineffective, or both.
CM: What do you remember most about those days when you were down there shooting?
CJC: The heat, the humidity, the utter devastation. It was all I could do to focus on making the images. I could remain sane if I could take it in through my viewfinder, one photo at a time. But I also remember the human compassion, the care, and regular people helping each other. Ordinary citizens from across the country coming down on their own to help in whatever way they could, while their politicians and "leaders" could only argue, and stage photo-ops.
CM: Do you know what happened with any of the people in your photos? If the victims pulled through OK?
CJC: Most still struggle. Most are still in temporary housing, or are trying to rebuild lives far from home and family. Some have gotten worse, turned to drugs, despair. This is far from over, and the people there still need so much help, as much as I'd love to be able to tell you that all has been fixed.
CM: How do you feel about New Orleans now?
CJC: I think New Orleans is the canary in the coalmine for a huge range of issues facing modern America, and the world at large. The Katrina disaster frames so many debates: global warming and climate change, wealth disparity, the proper role of government versus private corporations, the failure of media to keep its citizenry well informed.
When people look at New Orleans, as it struggles to live, or as it withers and dies, I want them to think of their own city in its place. I want them to know that this could be them. These faces could be theirs. It might be a natural disaster, it might be war, it might be terrorism, and it doesn't matter how safe they think they are, they're not. I want them to put themselves in the place of these Americans.
And I want them to remember this feeling the next time they're in the voting booth. Because who you have running your government makes the difference between your hometown living or dying. Don't forget that. Your vote matters."