Friday, September 30, 2005

Katrina Hero

James Peters, 58, Pearlington, Mississippi.

The storm raged, and while federal officials vacationed, or shopped, James Peters drove his boat through the floodwaters and rain. While FEMA officials and local officials faxed each other permission slips, James Peters used that boat to pick up neighbors and family members trapped on roofs and in trees. While the media flogged video of reporters standing in sideways rain, James Peters saved thirteen American lives in Pearlington, Mississippi.

And while politicians gave endless press conferences, and FEMA gazed at its navel, and the media looped helicopter shots of looters, and bloggers debated about parked school buses in satellite photos, James Peters quietly stood next to his boat, in his front yard, and said "I don't know, Sir, I just felt something working through me."

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Forgotten People

My mom and little brother in front of what's left of a neighbor's house. In Pearlington, either a tree is in your house, or your house is in a tree. The water line of the flood was somewhere near the top of that roof draped over the branch.

I know what it looks like now to watch people fight for their lives, sinking in quicksand. And I'm shouting, help, look, and yet there's no cavalry to save the day, and the sheriff's fat and content and sleeping off his binge while people sink and die.

This disaster is huge, and getting bigger by the day. Like the mold that's slowly eating all their lowly possessions, neglect and incompetence and cronyism are slowly eating these poor people alive.

My mom's little trailer was in Pearlington. After the storm, Pearlington started off ignored and has slowly devolved into forgotten. When I talked to the one FEMA inspector handling the whole town, he could barely look me in the eye. Not because he was a shady man, but I sensed, because he had been abandoned, too, and he knew the futility and impotence of his mission. Polishing brass on the Titanic would be too charitable a way to describe his task. More like, standing next to the brass, telling you he's going to be polishing it very soon, as soon as some cloth arrives.

Between you and me, the only help is going to come from you and me. Forget about FEMA. Forget about the Red Cross. We were hopeful when, after three weeks, a Red Cross truck showed up and started serving hot lunches. About the same time they began prepping the local school (where I shot the portraits of survivors) as a shelter for the people who were living in tents in their front yards next to the rubble of their homes.

The locals were shocked and frustrated with all the demands Red Cross had for the space before they'd use it.

"We need dehumidifiers." Says Red Cross.
"We need air conditioning." Says Red Cross.
"We need a 100k generator." Says Red Cross.
"We need to power wash the walls, maybe even repaint." Says Red Cross.
"We're afraid of being sued." Says Red Cross.

After waiting eight days (three weeks after the disaster) Red Cross left, and even took their hot lunch van with them.

I asked who's been helping, on the ground, really helping. The National Guard, the Salvation Army, the Southern Baptists. That's it.

Many people have asked how they can help directly, so I talked to some locals last night, the ones that I took portraits of in that sad broken school, and I asked them what the Outside World could send them. The list came back, pitifully long and basic. This is one month later, and still they need such basic things:

--Packaged socks, and underwear, all sizes (and I was told by a big girl not to forget the big girls in this size request)
--Daily toiletries, like deodorant, shaving cream and razors, and soap (including laundry soap)
--Bug spray and sunblock
--Daily staples like coffee, sugar, salt, pepper
--Towels, all sizes
--Ice chests
--Clothes hangers and clothes pins
--Rubber boots, all sizes
--Gas cans
--Trash bags
--Lights and bulbs, in case generators ever show up

And the larger, lifesaving items, but harder to ship:
--Generators (still no power down there)
--Chain saws (there are thousands of trees down everywhere)
--Tents (not for camping, for living)
--Air mattresses (because sleeping on the ground for a month really sucks)

On the medical front, they're trying to set up a medical clinic to serve people who may be injured by the debris while cleaning up, and the large poverty-stricken elderly population, and I spoke with the volunteer doctor who was working on that. She's asked for home blood pressure monitors, nebulizers for asthma patients, and thermometers. She also pleaded for any doctors, nurses, or assistants to come down and volunteer at the clinic, even if just briefly. There are many poor patients down there who haven't gotten social security or Medicare checks since the storm hit, and many of their medical referrals were to New Orleans, now also gone as an option. And the state of Mississippi is notorious for not caring for it's citizens medical needs.

So, if you have any of these things, or skills, and want to step in to fill the huge gap our government has left, please send them to:

Charles Murphy Elementary School
c/o Operation Eden
6096 1st Street
Pearlington MS 39572

Because, it's just you and me here. This isn't a two-week issue. It's not a two-month issue. This is long term. Do you want to live in a world where it's every man for himself?

Update: USPS (government) mail might not make it to the school, as it's being forwarded to Waveland Bay St. Louis, and I don't know if anybody's picking it up. Locals confirm, though, that UPS and FedEx have been making deliveries to the school, so packages sent via those companies should work. See a trend? Government not working (FEMA, USPS), private groups working (UPS, FedEx, Salvation Army). It almost looks intentional.

Also, I can't verify delivery or receipt of any packages sent down to the school. I'm in touch with them, and will try my best to find out what they need, and that they're getting things, but I'm not able to monitor or control anything, as I'm just one guy with a camera, trying to put the word out and help his family.

Soldier and Boat

National Guardsman Hager stands in front of a flood-tossed boat at the entrance to the vast Kmart parking lot in Waveland, Mississippi, called Camp Katrina (at least that's what the homemade banner on one side read). This parking lot doubled as an aid distribution point for a church group to give out supplies and hot meals, and the useless waiting line for FEMA that I previously ranted about here.

The boat was at the exit to the parking lot, and Hager and a partner were stationed there to make sure nobody came in the wrong way. They seemed to be enjoying the sunset, and drop in temperature, because they work in those long-sleeve fatigues all day, and the heat is brutal. After I took his picture he said to me, "Want to see the real story?" and showed me what was written near the steering wheel:

"Sorry about your boat it saved 5 peoples lives."

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Katrina Survivors

Connie Crapeau, 41, owner of Pearlington's only restaurant/bar/marina, Turtle Landing. She's a smart-ass and a firecracker, and she takes shit from no one. She vowed to rebuild so my mom could again have a proper po-boy, and she extolled the virtues of being with younger men (her husband is 29, and she joked about having an 18 year-old on the side, for "backup")

We love Connie.

The Creeping Mold

CNN - 'That mold ... It smells like death'

You get used to something living in the Deep South, especially in the swampy lands around New Orleans, and the bayous near the Mississippi Gulf. You get used to the knowledge that the land around you, that nature, is slowly and constantly creeping in on you. Sneakily seeking to devour your home, it's possessions, and maybe even your slow moving pets. Vines. Kudzu. Weeds. Mold.

But what I saw inside my mom's trailer was like a bad sci-fi movie. The whole thing was being devoured, coated on all surfaces by what looked to be many different species of creeping mold. Dark black mold, green mossy mold, light cotton-candy mold, slimy algae mold. Above, my mom's living room ceiling, which was formerly white.

My girl and my little brother both have asthma, so we kept them outside. My mom had fresh wounds from some hurricane debris that had attacked her, so I kept her outside, too. It was just me, my camera, a face mask, a steady stream of sweat in my eyes, and a wild kingdom of mold and mud. Above, the space between the kitchen cabinet and the vent over the stove, which is slowly peeling away. It looks like the mold is all that's holding it together.

Seriously. Any biologists out there? What the fuck is this stuff?

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Process and Intent

Many people have written asking me how I shot the studio portraits of the Katrina survivors.

First, my intent. I normally shoot fashion and portraiture for magazine and advertising clients. I'm often called upon to make celebrities look heroic. Celebrities aren't heroic. These survivors are. I wanted to make portraits of them that showed their pride, and dignity, and strength, even in such low circumstances. I wanted to show my respect, and love.

Second, my process. The portraits were shot at Charles B. Murphy Elementary School in Pearlington, Ms. The little town was totally wiped out by the storm, and it's people left without anything. The school was one of the only surviving structures in the town, and it's sweltering gymnasium was being used as a distribution point for clothing, food, water, and ice. Hot meals were given out, and medical attention for those that were injured (including my mom) could be gotten at a motor home parked outside.

We talked to survivors who walked in for help. We heard their stories, which took some of the weight off their shoulders. We asked if we could take their portraits. These are people, my people, who aren't used to having people care enough to take their picture. A few were too shy, or felt ashamed at the way they looked, with no sleep, no showers, no home. Most were happy to pose, and brought others.

I had brought a white backdrop to place behind the subjects, as I normally would with celebrities. But because of the hectic nature of the environment, with new supplies being brought in and moved, and people needing help, I decided to just use the gray cinderblock wall, to minimize my footprint and to be as mobile as possible. But I never intended to leave the cinderblocks in. It was important to me that these portraits looked crafted, cared for, and the institutional backdrop looked too much like mugshots. So, the extent of the retouching was removing the backdrop and replacing it with what I would have accomplished in-camera anyway, had the environment been more normal.

The faces were left unretouched, and beautiful.

Clothing Donations

Donated Clothing, Midnight, the Parking Lot of Grace Church, Slidell, La.

After the storm hit many people were left with just the clothes on their backs, and what they could carry. You try living in the same clothes for a week, in a shelter, in 100 degree heat, 95% humidity, no air conditioning, and no running water. About a week later the first clothing donations started rolling in. And they kept rolling. Truckloads. Hallelujah.

There are, however, some strange things I noticed about the clothing donations. Of course all these observations are wrapped in the knowledge that donations are donations, and all clothing was appreciated. But I couldn't help wondering, as I watched the desperate people pick through the clothes, in some cases, what were the people who donated them thinking?

I saw boxes of corporate logo t-shirts, maybe originally intended for company picnics, I guess. It stuck me as odd, imagining all these smelly, desperate, sweaty homeless victims now wandering around, advertising for some office product wholesaler in Akron. "This disaster relief brought to you by OfficeCo!" I survived Katrina and all I got was this lousy XXL shirt, indeed.

I saw old lingerie. Single shoes. Torn clothing. Pit stains. Old sweat pants with skid marks. I thought, did these people just donate clothes they were going to throw out anyway? Beneficent recycling? Trash for the poor?

Victims were so desperate for underwear. And socks. And towels. There was none of that.

No one complained about anything. It was just me, cynical, crusty me. They were overjoyed by any help arriving, after being left alone at first. Beggars, after all, really can't be choosers, can they?

Mourning Mississippi

"The mourning in Mississippi has begun in earnest. At the funeral homes that Hurricane Katrina did not destroy, there are waits up to four weeks to schedule services. Some families have chosen to skip the church eulogies and hold a simple graveside service. Cremation has become more popular.

As the detritus from the storm is cleared, the death toll could grow. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the hurricane left 18 million to 20 million cubic yards of debris in Mississippi alone, the equivalent of 200 football fields piled 50 feet high, and that it will take eight months to clear the roadways.

Coroners are hiring so-called spotters to check the landfills for signs of remains.

In Pass Christian, a stone plaque has been placed on the porch of what used to be the Harbour Oaks Inn. This inscription was on it:

Our hearts still ache in sadness,
and secret tears still flow.
What it meant to lose you,
no one will ever know."

From NYTimes: Portrait of Mississippi Victims

Ragged Hymnal

Photographed as it rested, in the rubble of the Catholic church, Pearlington, MS.

Page 196: The Lord Is My True Shepherd
"The Lord is my true Shepherd, My needs and wants he knows;
Though I should walk in darkness No evil shall I fear;
His goodness and his kindness Shall ever follow me"

My sweet aunt and uncle still struggle in Slidell. There's eleven of them forced into one house now, with all the kids and in-laws. FEMA still has no timeline for temporary housing. A mythical program exists in the dreams and hushed whispers of victims waiting in the FEMA lines. Legend has it that FEMA has secured thousands of shiny white trailers for people to live in while the world is rebuilt. Trailer cities are coming for the homeless. An Eldorado with dwellings where only two people live in a room together. My aunt and uncle are on the List. Right now, lists are Life.

But she wonders how they're going to do it? The place across the street used to rent for $700, and now it's a steal at $1750. Somebody's making a killing. All the housing's blown away. Supply and demand. Carpetbagging a new Reconstruction.

"Can I do anything for you? Anything? What do you need?" I say.
"Pray for us, baby." She says.

But I never was much of a prayer.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Highway 90 Debris Field

Debris stretches from the highway to the horizon along old Route 90 from New Orleans to Slidell, LA. Normally this marsh would be green reeds to the horizon. That brownish sludge in the lower right corner of the photograph is what's left of the reeds.

For scale: The little round circle in the lower left foreground? That's a tabletop, like you'd have on a backyard deck. That little white dot in the middle of the horizon? An overturned shrimp boat.

JR on Route 90

JR had a small houseboat just off of Highway 90, or as locals call it "Old 90", the two-lane highway that hugs the marshes and inlets from New Orleans heading east, to the white beaches of Biloxi. His houseboat and shell-gravel yard was overrun with oddities and knick-knacks, a perpetual yard sale. He had a little fenced pit with a pig in it, and whenever you'd buy something from him and offer payment (whatever you wanted) he'd nod towards the pit and say "Give it to the pig."

JR's houseboat is long gone, and his knick-knacks washed away. No telling where the pig is. The block in the foreground says:

"JR if you come here please call me - Dorothy Gardner", and then, under that, a hurried postscript, "Hope you are alive, you was my best friend. 'Smile'"

My Mom's Bedroom

Sunday, September 25, 2005

King, Of The Rubble

The Catholic church that once stood along the little highway that winds through Pearlington now exists as a small pile of rubble on either side of it. Broken pews and torn hymnals. Smashed statues of Jesus and bent altar rails. Like the rest of Pearlington, it smells like dust and mold and death.

A small pack of dogs now roam the former grounds of the church. They're hungry and dirty, and have largely reverted back to nature. The leader of the pack is this large golden dog, scruffy and proud, his snout swollen and bruised. I took to calling him King, because that's the way he acted, and was treated by his pack.

That's King, above, standing atop the rubble of the church, the Virgin Mary in the background and the swamps behind her. King's barking at some well-meaning animal rescue volunteers from Virginia who were trying to catch him and his pack. It was a fifteen minute stand-off, but in the end they ran off with their tails between their legs.

The animal rescue people, did, that is.

Pearlington Catholic Church

All that's left of Pearlington's Catholic church is this chipped statue of the Virgin Mary, standing atop the steps that once led to its front door, a tattered songbook resting against her feet. Behind her you can see the foundation where it once stood. After the storm surge subsided the entire church, torn apart, came to rest in the two-lane county highway that serves as Pearlington's main street.

A few days later, parishioners moved Mary under a tree nearby, and arrayed a dozen or so folding chairs around her for Sunday services.

My mom's always been spiritual, when I was young it was in a vaguely Earth Mother hippy way, as she gets older it's getting more specifically Christian. She's still not a big formal churchgoer, but she refuses to accept my atheistic ways. She's always telling me that I'm a real Promise-Keeper, and that God's working through me with my art, and that it's just a question of time before I understand.

When I was kneeling down to take this picture my mom said to my girl, "See that? It's like he's praying."

And she wasn't wrong.

Broken Jesus

Found by the side of the road, not far from the demolished Catholic church in Pearlington, MS.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Human Services

My mom works for the State of Mississippi, helping distribute food stamps to the poor, and helping to make sure that dads pay child support. She makes $6.91 an hour before taxes, and she feels it's the best job she's ever had.

That's a picture of her in front of what was left of her office. After being torn apart by Category 4 winds, it was submerged under the water of a Category 4 storm surge (18-22 feet according to national officials, 24-28 feet according to locals). The front wall collapsed, and desks floated and came to rest on their sides. Her boss had a wooden swivel-chair in his office that had been handed down from his great-grandmother. It could be seen on it's side through the broken windows, covered in the swamp mud, molding and decrepit, office knick-knacks strewn around it. A bizarro office. An alternate reality.

The parking lot and sidewalk outside were caked in drying mud, cracking under the oppressive sun that had been baking us since the storm left. Strewn about were official documents that had been blown out of her office, torn and fading, some baked under the inch-thick dry mud, others resting on top.

A small contingent of National Guard troops, maybe six teens and their 24 year-old sergeant, were stationed at the other corner of the parking lot, with their humvee. We told them about the documents, and how my mom worked there, and how she was worried that the personal information might be used by identity thieves. One of the teens relayed this to his sergeant, who came back with a decisive Southern "Thank you ma'am we'll take care of it."

A few days later there was a state trooper from Orange County, California stationed in front of the office. A few days after that the office was bulldozed. My mom doesn't know where her $6.91 an hour dream job will go, now.

A torn marriage certificate bakes in the hot sun. It reads:
On this day celebrated the Rites of Matrimony between (torn)
Mr. Timothy Reed Cooke (torn)
Ms. Eileen Rene Tucker (torn)
Given under my hand, this the 25th day of June (torn)

I wonder where the happy newlyweds are now?

Katrina Survivors

Billy Gray, 57, Pearlington, MS.

He was like long-lost family, baked skin, wearing only faded cut-off jean shorts, bare feet. He and my mom commiserated about how useless FEMA and the Red Cross are. He told my mom she would be better off leaving, "Get the hell out, keep going, don't look back, there's no help coming for us."

We last saw him sitting on the bleachers outside of Charles B. Murphy school in Pearlington, the aid distribution point manned by the National Guard. He was having a cigarette in the hot noon sun, and he winked at us as we said good luck.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Katrina, Is That All You Got?

"Katrina, is that all you got? Come on back, you bitch!!!"

I guess this gets filed under "Be careful what you ask for," as Rita heads towards the Gulf Coast to take care of the few homes Katrina missed. Although I can't blame him, with his shattered home resting in a neighbors yard three houses down.

Once you've lost it all, what's left?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Contents Of My Mom's Life

My mom now owns:
1. The majority of her family photos and snapshots.
2. A minority of her cherished framed pictures (well, at least the small ones.)
3. My baby book and the baby shoes that all three of her sons have worn.
4. Inspirational notes she's written to herself.
5. Notes from me as a child telling her to not be depressed, because it's sunny outside.
6. My fingerpaintings.
7. A Taurus 38 Special revolver, loaded (blue-steel finish.)
8. Her purse.
9. The clothes on her back.

My little brother now owns:
1. An old wooden chess set.
2. A skateboard.
3. His CD collection (what's left of it), in an old zippered case.
4. A hand-me-down CD walkman.
5. His backpack.
6. The clothes on his back.

It all fits on a small coffee table.

Katrina Survivors

Orealia Marshall, 45, Pearlington, MS. My mom started talking to her and her two children at the food aid center one hot afternoon. She, like many of the survivors, had a dazed and unfocused look in her eyes. Actually, it's more like a searching look, constantly casting about for something to hold onto. Unsure, and scanning for options. With just a hello, their stories flood out in a fast and desperate jumble of facts and details.

Orealia and her two children and a cousin survived by clinging to the branches of a tree. The cousin died the day after the disaster struck, and Orealia and her two children waited three days for officials to take the body.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Katrina Survivors

Mr. Marshall Collins, 64. He and a few other elderly parishioners survived the rising floodwaters by hacking into the attic of their church, the Greater Mt. Zion AME Church, in Pearlington, MS. They sat and waited, watching snakes and alligators and church pews floating in the murky waters below.

Pearlington, Mississippi

Above, what's left of the Pearlington Post Office

My mom's Eden, the little trailer I used my life's savings to buy her, is in Pearlington. This AP article gets it right:
"Pearlington's homes are heaps of debris, shoved far from their foundations. Trees, nail-studded boards and utility lines litter the roads. The mud has long since turned to dust, but it's deep and ready to revert to its former state with the first good rain.

And people - maybe 600 of the town's 1,700 souls - are still living in tents and under tarps.

Folks here say Pearlington is an old and generally overlooked town, a place where blacks live in one section and whites in another. It's a place without a mayor or a town government - in other words, without an advocate. Read more...

Katrina Survivors

Randall Mitchell, 58, Pearlington, MS. Lost it all.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Katrina Survivors

Mike Walters, 40, Fireman. His birthday was on September 4th, just a couple of days after the hurricane hit. Shot at the Charles B Murphy Elementary School in Pearlington MS, which is being used as a distribution point for survivors and aid workers to gather, get and give supplies. The school is the only structure in the whole town of Pearlington that I saw intact. That look on his eyes I saw on a lot of people stumbling around in the dust and heat. It's shock and fatigue and gathering hopelessness. It's the realization that Pearlington has been forgotten, and they are on their own.

New Slang for Brother Pierre

Say hello, his name is Brother Pierre. Maybe he's 78 years old. I say maybe because his words are not easy to understand, but still, his eyes speak to me clearly. I found him in Slidell, Louisiana, on the grounds of the high school I attended my freshman year, but he doesn't work for the school. His jumpsuit is from the Universal Life Church, it says he's an Archbishop.
"And if you'd 'a took to me like a gull takes to the wind. Well, I'd 'a jumped from my tree and I'd a danced like the king of the eyesores and the rest of our lives would 'a fared well."
I was sitting on the subway back in NYC, blocking the world out with music, with the faces of The Gulf floating in my memory, and the problems of my family heavy on my shoulders. She stood in front of me, her tough subway face on, dark hair and low cut jeans, and behind my sunglasses I was distracted and decided to photograph her with my eyes. She wasn't young anymore, but not old, either. Her body wasn't perky anymore, but not saggy, either. Her arms had veins near the wrist. Not little blue veins, but bigger fleshy veins, like men get, but a more feminine version. Just a few, as if she was a sculptor, and worked with her hands a lot. But none of this matters, because the picture I took with my eyes, behind my sunglasses, was of her breasts, which were in my face.
"New slang when you notice the stripes, the dirt in your fries. Hope it's right when you die, old and bony. Dawn breaks like a bull through the hall, never should have called but my head's to the wall and I'm lonely.

When I walked up to Brother Pierre he dropped the trash he was picking up and stood at attention, as if he was a Private and I a visiting General. When I said Hello he went slack, at ease. He was a reed, a wisp of a man. When I shook his hand it weighed nothing. I could have broken him with my fist, and this made me want to protect him. There were drops of water on his beard near where his mouth was. All these things about Brother Pierre I already knew, because I remembered him from my childhood.
"Godspeed all the bakers at dawn, may they all cut their thumbs, and bleed into their buns 'till they melt away."
Her t-shirt was black, with a square patch of rough white texture in the middle of her chest. A faded decal. Like I said, she wasn't young, and her body had the comfortable shape of something that's been used as it's intended, but still has so much life left yet. A worn glove, a fading t-shirt, ragged jeans, all these things are similar, but all sound too bad for my intent. Imagine all those things as yours, and you made them that way, and they make you feel happy just seeing them, and that's what her body was like. That's what her breasts were like. They were bigger than medium, but not large, and shaped like soft teardrops. I watched them sway with her body, which swayed with the train. I saw her flex her upper arm rhythmically as she hung to the support bar, and this tugged her breast up and down, almost imperceptibly, and I wondered how long she had had this subway breast exercise routine. Such an efficient and beautiful aging and comfortable distraction, making me happy. And I've got almost a thousand more words in this snapshot of her, but that's enough for here.
"I'm looking in on the good life I might be doomed never to find. Without a trust or flaming fields am I too dumb to refine?"
When I was a child Brother Pierre looked just like he did in these pictures. Different jumpsuits, different hats, same Brother Pierre. He rode a bike around town, heaping trash bags hanging from everywhere. We would honk and wave and smile, and he would smile and wave right back, if he wasn't busy pedaling. Some say he once had a successful business here, with his Brother Wayne. I don't know what happened to the Brothers and their business to leave Pierre alone and in this state, but it must have happened a long long time ago, and he's been a fading life ever since. Dwindling.
"Gold teeth and a curse for this town were all in my mouth. Only, I don't know how they got out, dear. Turn me back into the pet that I was when we met. I was happier then with no mind-set."

Woman gave me life. When I was five music saved my life. When I was ten art saved my life. When I was fifteen skatepunk saved my life. When I was twenty-five photography saved my life.

I wonder what could have saved Brother Pierre's life?

On Location in The Gulf

Here's how I worked on images I was shooting down in The Gulf. Conditions are basically 19th century, the only light cast by candles and hurricane lamps, so my rental car became my time machine back to the future. It was a glowing and humming and cooling cocoon. It was my rolling generator, converting gas to electricity. That red box on the floor is a DC inverter that plugged in to the lighter and provided me with two normal AC outlets. I was able to run my laptop off of it, and charge camera batteries and cell phones with it. It was the single most useful tool I had there.

That's a trackball I'm working with, and a CF-card reader rests on the seat next to my leg. I shot about 3GB of data each day. That glowing knob on the door handle is a Powermate, and I can't use Photoshop without one. On the dash is my cell phone, which worked decently when I first arrived and got progressively worse, strangely. It was my only lifeline out. Next to that are more CF cards waiting to be copied, and a notepad with all my shooting notes, the names and ages of people I shot, and phone numbers (including the infamous FEMA 800 Line Of Oblivion)

I was only able to get net access twice, in order to post what I posted. Once, when I drove three hours to a Jackson motel, and once when a nice National Guardsman let me borrow their connection. I already had images and words ready, and would set them all up to drop over a few days ahead.

On the stereo was usually Goodbye Babylon, a few tracks from which I posted here, so you could hear what we were hearing.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Pistol Grip Pump

Mom and the Mossberg, 2005

"Pistol grip pump on my lap at all times
Pistol grip pump on my lap at all times
Pistol grip pump on my lap at all times
They can be fucking with other nigga's cracka's shit, but they can't be fucking with mine."
-Volume 10, remixed for my mom

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Sour Times

I want so desperately to have good news for you. Trust me, this is not for your benefit, but for mine, for my family, for my mom, for the hundreds of pitiful and proud people I've talked to here. Some good news, some hope, even just a little thimble full, would save some lives.

But there is none. Not even a thimble full. No, I take that back, occasionally good news travels in from outside, like a birdsong though an open window. It's as if Katrina left in her wake a huge zone of Bad, where no new Good can gain a foothold. All the Good we get has to be imported from exotic far away lands, like Missouri, or New York. Places where people have homes, and electricity, and phones, and running water, and a future. Those of you who've given, who've bought prints from me, or donated money, you've sent us some good news. That's what we're surviving on. Thank you.

But down here, the Bad just keeps lingering. While I was in what's left of my mom's Eden, photographing what happened to her few belongings, like the picture above, she tripped over a fallen tree in the backyard and fell on her face. Katrina did this to her.

We rushed her to the motor home medical clinic at the local distribution center, and a nice volunteer doctor from Florida checked her out, after he was done checking out the little fat kid who had accidentally split his foot wide open with an ax while trying to clear his dad's yard.

In 100 degree heat she sat there, and I watched as what was left of her dignity and pride slowly drained out of her. I could see it happen, right as she apologized to the doctor for having unshaven legs, but we haven't had running water this whole time, so I feel bad you have to touch them. The doctor was charming and said nonsense don't apologize, but it was too late, and Katrina and the 100 degree heat evaporated my mom's reserve of dignity and all I could do was watch, because dignity drains much faster than you can fill it back up.

We listened to Johnny Cash's Hurt on the way back to our shelter, and my mom silently cried a little, and I put my hand on her shoulder and couldn't say anything, because Johnny already said all that needed saying.

Saturday, September 17, 2005


This is Ricki. She's homeless. And poor. She's been waiting in line in a Kmart parking lot for three hours, no shade, scorching summer. She's been waiting to get her FEMA claim number. She's heard they've been giving two thousand dollars in aid, but she's worried because they will only direct deposit it in bank accounts, or mail her a check. She's worried because she's poor, and doesn't have a bank account to direct deposit into. And she's worried because she's homeless, so she can't get the mail the check might be in.

Ricki is only 32. When I asked if I could take her picture she was worried she'd look bad because she hadn't done her hair. I told her she was beautiful. And I meant it.

Goin' On To Heaven In The Sanctified Way

Yachts and sailboats, strewn about like minnows baking in the sun on the freeway. This is a marina on Lake Pontchartrain, next door to the small airport used by rich people with private jets.

Listen with me:
Goin' On To Heaven In The Sanctified Way - Sister Cally Fancy

Friday, September 16, 2005

You Are On Your Own

You are on your own. Your government doesn't care about you. Now, if you have an income, your government cares about taxing it. Yes, if you are a politically active member of a politically valuable demographic, your government cares about periodically getting your vote. But don't be a fool, your government doesn't care about you. Or your family. Or friends. Or property.
"Hello, I'm trying to find out the status of my mother's claim."
"I'm sorry, you've reached the line that's for taking new claims only. You have to call the Help Desk at this other number, they handle existing claims."
"That's the number I called, and got you."
"Oh. Well, maybe because of the volume of calls you got bumped over here, you'll have to hang up and call that number again, or log on to the website."
"You realize we have no home, no phone lines, and thus no access to the web, yes? And that the only reason I'm able to call on behalf of my mother is that I'm fortunate enough to have a cell phone, yes?
"I'm sorry, sir. I really wish I could help you, I'm just at the call center."
And that's how it works. Your government is a mandarin class of tan Docker-clad elites, shuttling in SUVs from anonymous office parks to anonymous exurbs, windows rolled up, AC on full blast, Amy Grant on the CD changer. They insulate themselves from contact with the public, who they theoretically work for, with a phalanx of minimum-wage call center operators, and mega-tiered automated voicemail prompts and Byzantine organizational structures. You will never ever be able to talk with a person who can make any decision to help you. You will only hear "No", or maybe, if the drone you're in contact with still has some residual soul, you'll hear "I'm so sorry, I wish I could help, but I'm not authorized."

FEMA is doing nothing for the victims of Katrina. FEMA is nowhere near here. Official-looking FEMA shirts and hats are everywhere, worn on the backs and heads of earnest-looking sunburnt middle-aged men, often with moustaches and Oakleys. Imagine a fly-fisher, now put a navy blue FEMA shirt on him. But you soon realize that it's only a shirt. These are just drones. Dispatched by the mandarins to appear caring. These are usually local volunteers given two hours training and that official FEMA gear, and sent out to give people the 800 number by which you can file a new claim.

That's it. An 800 number. A mega-tiered, bilingual, automated, never-answered-by-anyone-who-can-think 800 number. That's how much your government cares about you. That's what the earnest volunteer blue shirts can help you with. When they realize you need more than an 800 number, their moustaches droop a little, crestfallen, impotent, and they give you some inside information. "Look for the red shirts, those are the actual FEMA guys."

I haven't seen any red shirts. Maybe they're the ones that have occupied all the motel rooms within 400 miles. The motel rooms with AC and cable and phones and internet and Amy Grant on the CD changer.

That picture above was taken on the morning of 9/11. Last Sunday. On the right is the little tent where the earnest blue shirts have set up their six laptops to take new FEMA claims. On the left is the beginning of the line of victims waiting for help. The first twenty feet of the line had shade from the 100 degree baking sun. By ten o'clock the line stretched all the way across the Kmart parking lot. The old guy on the middle-right, seated, with the oxygen tank, he had been there since 5:45. Behind him to the right? You see that guy with his hands up near his head, in a cartoon pose of exasperation and impotence? That's one of the earnest blue shirts.

You are on your own. My advice to you: have lots of private insurance for everything. Have fresh water on hand. Batteries and gas lamps. A generator. MREs and Powerbars. Plenty of cash. A gun, preferably a 12-gauge shotgun. Know how to use it, it will be worth it's weight in gold. It doesn't matter how the destruction will come. Hurricane. War. Terrorism. But when it comes, know that you are on your own.

You are always on your own. The government takes care of itself, not its citizens.

Woke Up This Morning

That's the road that goes through New Orleans East to Slidell. One of those buildings is a Toys'R'Us. My mom was forced to hear us beg her to stop there every day, as we passed, so we could see the GI Joes. We didn't realize it at the time, but back then my mom had to work more than an hour to buy one GI Joe, yet we almost always had them for Christmas. We would stage assaults on the Christmas tree, my mom watching on and smiling from the couch, her gold tooth shining with the ornaments. Proud.

Listen with me:
Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus) - Roosevelt Graves & Brother

Thursday, September 15, 2005

An Afternoon Of Forgotten Stories

Susan Ray, Clayton James, Linda Ann
We sat on the carport in the setting sun and talked about family history. In the background the cicadas sang and stopped in fading waves, and the rooster Big Red would occasionally speak up too.

We talked about being lost and desperate for a week after the Storm, and how good it was for us to be here now, even if homeless.

We talked about the old history. About how Old Pa (they call him Jimmy, my grandfather) got beat by three men in a riverfront bar, beat him down, then kicked him down, kicked him over and over in the head. About how he was in Charity Hospital, still trying to fight for his life, now restrained to a gurney in the hallway, alone. About how my mom, twelve, held his hand as he fought the air, and how her little hand disappeared into his huge, calloused, working hands, fingertips yellowed from smoking, now clenched in fists like bricks, still fighting for his life. About how he asked her to take the cotton ball out of his ear, please take it out of his ear, and how she looked for it, but it was just blood dripping out. And after that he was brain damaged and could never work again, and things got even rougher for the family, and my mom almost cried talking about it, even though it was back in 1959 or so.

We talked about how my Aunt Susan is really my blood cousin. How one of my aunts had gotten pregnant under really hard circumstances, and had to give Susan to my grandmother (Old Ma), and how she was raised as my mom's little sister. So I've always known her as my aunt, but she's really my cousin, which makes my cousins my second cousins. But no, she'll always be Aunt Susan to me.

We talked about so much, so much. My family doesn't have money, but fuck, the stories, the history, the passion, the suffering, the joy, the love. My mom shakes her head and says, softly, "I oughta write a book about our family, before we get forgotten."

And we all nod and frown in agreement while the cicadas start up again.

Dry Bones

This is the long road between the Twin Span bridge and New Orleans East. That little white speck is a boat. The lake is miles away. It's mostly marshes and swamps, even now. After a big rain, sometimes crawfish will swarm out of the swamps onto the shoulder of the road, making a little traffic jam as drivers pull over and gather up as many as they can in buckets, or coolers, to bring home for dinner. One time, in a drunken stupor, my stepdad confessed to my mom that, as a teenager, he and a few other boys had raped and killed a girl, and dumped her body under one of the off-ramps on this road. My mom said that was the most scared she's ever been. And she's had a lot of scary times.

Listen with me:
Dry Bones - Bascom Lamar Lunsford

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Portrait

Me, my mom, my little brother, in happier times.

It was under over 25 feet of swamp water.

The Well

My mom washing mud off her boots in the mayor's driveway. That hose is the only running water in the city of Pearlington. There used to be a forest behind her. There used to be 1600 people in Pearlington. Now there are less than 50. My mom is one of them.

Your Enemy Cannot Harm You

This is the bridge that connects New Orleans with Slidell. It's called the Twin Span, or the 7-Mile Bridge. It was like an old friend. In Slidell, we'd look forward to the bridge taking us to Mardi Gras, or Old Ma's shack. In New Orleans, we'd look forward to the bridge taking us to the warm waters of the Gulf. The little yellow dot on the broken side is a car. I don't know how it survived the bridge's destruction.

Listen with me:
Your Enemy Cannot Harm You (But Watch Your Close Friend) - Edward W. Clayborn

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Looters Will Be Killed

My little brother Dalton used mud to paint a warning sign over the garage. Other messages he wrote on what's left of the trailer are:

"We are alive."
"Katie and Clayton, we're OK"
"Love, peace, hippie grease."
"Dalton is not dead."
"Dalton is cool."

My mom included:
"Awesome God."

That's a fifty-foot pine that came down in the front yard. My mom's converted it into the world's largest clothes line. Those are the few work dresses she's managed to find in trees and wash the mud out of. She found one on the other side of town.

No More, My Lord

Slidell, Louisiana. A trailer park tossed around like toys. Slidell is a suburb of New Orleans, seperated by a thin strip of Lake Pontchartrain. My aunt and mom are there right now. It was country when I lived there, with new middle class subdivisions carved out of the pine forests and swamps, right next to the trailer parks we lived in. In some neighborhoods, an old mossy trailer would sit across the street from a new brick home. Nobody seemed to mind. I didn't mind, those kids from the new subdivisions would buy the nudie drawings I made with their allowance.

Listen with me:
No More, My Lord - Jimpson

Monday, September 12, 2005

My Mom's Kitchen

Officials are advising not entering, due to fears that the swamp mud may contain biological contaminants, and that the inch of mold that's eating all of her belongings may be unhealthy to breathe.

Her entire trailer is this bad or worse. Her Eden didn't last too long.