Monday, October 31, 2005

Last Chance For Prints

Some of the new images for sale.

In a week I'll be closing the second edition of prints I issued to raise money for my family. If you enjoy my work, here's a rare chance to invest in it inexpensively, and help me help my people at the same time.

If you'd like to buy a print, or donate via Paypal, click here. Thanks!

Friday, October 28, 2005

Dead Smelly Fridges

French Quarter Fridge

The only plague to strike the Quarter in Katrina's wake, besides lack of power and telephone, was the horde of stinking fridges. Every street was littered with dozens of them. Alone, askew, or lined up like fat little people waiting for the bus. It might seem wasteful to throw out these fridges just because some food rotted in them, but if you've ever had this happen to you you know it's impossible to salvage them. No amount of bleach can clean that stink away.

I wonder if the same is true of government?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Survival Happy Hour

MRE #18, Cajun Rice, Beans, and Sausage

My little brother's school in Kiln, Mississippi (often pronounced "The Kill") had 3000 kids in it, for three grades. The school he's in now in North Carolina has a little over 500, for the same three grades.

In The Kill the school bus was so crowded that kids often had to sit on the floor. In North Carolina my brother has the choice of a bus, or three helpful grown-ups to drive him...

In The Kill he couldn't bring his books home, since he had to share them with other students, as many as three per book. In North Carolina he has his own books, they even gave him a book bag to carry them around in, and a tutor to help him catch up on all the work he missed after Katrina.

In The Kill he never had a locker, because the school charged $50 a month for the use of one. In North Carolina he has his own locker, and they even gave him a new combination lock for it.

Mississippi public schools are ranked 47th in the nation. North Carolina's, 25th.

My little brother doesn't want anybody in their new town to know he's a Katrina survivor. He wants to be normal, like any teen. In school yesterday the teacher decided to have a show and tell with my brother's class, and show them what it was like to eat MREs, like the Katrina people have been, many still are. My brother sank in his chair. I don't know if the teacher was doing this for his benefit, to try to make him feel "understood." At least he wasn't singled out to actually prepare the MREs from long experience.

He said the kids had great fun playing with the food. It was very entertaining for them, and many expressed a desire to eat them all the time. I thought, let's not have a half-ass lesson, right? To get the full effect of your MRE it should be eaten in the dark. Please turn the heat up to 97 degrees, and the humidity up to swampy. Make sure there are at least ten hungry mosquitoes per student, and ensure that the students slept on an army cot in a tent for the past two weeks, unsure of if their friends are alive or dead. Potty breaks should be in the woods out back. And before they eat, let them take a field trip to where they lived and find everything they ever owned scattered for miles, wet, and eaten with mold.

Katrina 101.

My brother's in good hands in North Carolina. He'll get a better education. He'll make good friends, who don't have any traumatic stress disorders. But, I can't get a couple things out of my mind. One, at least the kids in The Kill know where he's coming from. Two, the kids in The Kill deserve to have what he's got right now. And they deserved to have it before Katrina.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Ackers: Katrina Survivors

Angel Acker, 40, Pearlington. Flooded out of her home.

We must have met half a dozen Ackers in Pearlington in the days after the storm hit. I would photograph people and then get their names, and it seemed like every fifth name was Acker. A few weeks later I stumbled upon an article online, and realized that the Ackers even had a version of me in their family, Leo Acker...

Like me, he had moved to the North to pursue opportunity. Like me, he had gone down to help his people, and bring them out of the disaster. Unlike me, he brought a friggin' truckload of supplies with him, and then got seventeen of his fellow Ackers out. I, on the other hand, brought a measly trunk load of supplies, and took some snapshots around town. I'm basically a pale (literally) imitation of Leo Acker.
"Unloading the supplies took an hour and a half with help from thirty volunteers. Convincing his family to come with him to Massachusetts and making arrangements to fly them all there, took much longer, but now, seventeen members of the Acker family have flown into the area, their airfare paid by Leo Acker, his wife, and his uncle's business. The truck he used was donated by Penske, after the company heard how he intended to use it. His family is currently staying at Anchorage Housing in Middletown, Rhode Island.

Mr. Acker moved to the area from the family's home in Pearlington, Mississippi to pursue at degree in engineering at U-Mass Dartmouth. He currently resides in Swansea, and is employed at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Middletown, Rhode Island. Hearing of the damage done by Hurricane Katrina convinced him that he had to head back to his former home and help his family escape the devastated area." Continue...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Surreal Life: East of Eden

Life has become too big, too complex for me to relate. I'm insufficient to the task. My words and photos useless. I sit here, staring blankly at the glow of a computer screen, unable to organize the flood at the gates. I feel the massive hum and throb of humanity, the hive, coming at me through the wires and wireless. If I touch it directly it could kill me, it's that huge, a power line down across my desk. I'm talking about you, here. All the help that's been sent, the words, the relief, the supplies, the thoughts, and yes, the prayers. You've kept a family alive, you know.

Hurricane Katrina blew my family into the ether, and it's the ether that's saved their hope. We've come to a strange and wonderful fork in the road, and it's all because of the internet. I have to tell you this amazing story, a single one in this huge hum, about a small family in North Carolina that was touched by the plight of a little Cajun woman light years away, and yet right next door. It's a story of hope in dark times, of absolute strangers caring like family, of renewal and love and the power of art in the internet age. My mom says it's the strangest thing that's ever happened to her, and that's really saying something.

And no matter how hard I try, I will be unable to convey to you all that I experienced, all that transpired. This can only be a sketch, as this whole site is only a sketch, because I'm insufficient to the task.

I had just evacuated my family to Las Vegas, and was returning to New Orleans, to see if I could reach McKain Street, and my family roots, when I received the email from a guy named Kenny, in Carteret County North Carolina. It's tone was a strangely comforting mix of military succinctness and polite Southern comfort, and was simply titled "An Offer Of Assistance."

In it, he told me how his "sweetie", Elizabeth, had stumbled upon Operation Eden, and how she related to my mom's life, and to her plight, and had been moved to tears by this post. He told me about how they had been aching to reach out and help someone that had been displaced by Katrina since the storm first hit, and had, like many others, been rebuffed by bureaucrats. He told me Elizabeth's daughter, Toni Marie, had just purchased a rental property, and wanted to offer it to my mom and little brother for a year, rent free, until we could rebuild my mom's Eden.

What? I'm sorry. Life up to this point has done nothing but make me a jaded and cynical bastard, and FEMA hasn't done anything to dispel that, so my first instinct was to call bullshit. This guy's yanking my chain. Maybe they want to lure my family in to harvest their organs. White slavery, perhaps? When I read my mom the email, her only reaction, weary from negotiating FEMA lines and the strip malls of Vegas, was "Whaaaat?"

Starve a man for long enough, and food might kill him. A shock to the system. Survival suspicion. Ever try to feed a stray dog?

So while I was in New Orleans I exchanged emails with Kenny, and then Elizabeth, and as I got more comfortable with them we made plans for me to visit them in North Carolina and check it all out. I was weary from things that had happened to me in New Orleans, and things I had seen, including McKain Street finally, which I'll talk about later. I had the weight of my family on my shoulders, and the knowledge that Las Vegas was going to eat them alive in short time, despite meeting some wonderful people there. So I was a glass-eyed zombie, apprehensive, at the end of my rope, when I made the ten hour drive to see Carteret County for myself, hoping that it was what they said it was, but fearing it wouldn't be.

It was. And more. It was as if Katrina had ripped open a hole in time and space, and shifted the Gulf coast to the east coast. Like the Gulf, before it was destroyed. Delicate marshes, huge forests, small country roads, churches everywhere, white cotton in the vast fields, the beaches. Beautiful, but with the far off threat that coastal living carries with it. I started to understand. These people knew, really knew what my people had gone through. Where they came from. It could have been them, after all. And that's when the offer made sense to me.

Kenny and Elizabeth couldn't have been sweeter, or more down to earth and genuine. I was given a whirlwind tour of their small community, Kenny called it the nickel tour, and I soon realized it wasn't just their family that was reaching out to mine, it was the whole little town. It was the mayor, who's office was a golf cart under an oak tree at his nursery business. It was the local water company executive, it was the real estate agent, the insurance agent, and long-time family friends. They'd all pitched in for the effort. The local banker had even set up an account under the name "Katrina Survivor."

I told my mom to roll. No more motel-living in Vegas. No more quasi-homelessness. She rolled.

In the meantime, Kenny had taken to calling the beautiful little trailer they had for my mom East of Eden, and that's an indication of how sensitive they were to my mom's perceptions and needs. This was not charity, this was giving and relief in it's purest form. Selfless, empathic. They had furnished the place sparingly but tastefully, knowing my mom would want to pad her own nest. The attention to detail was astounding. Pots, pans, dishes, bedding, silverware, glasses, appliances, bathroom items, household items, all left in its packaging, so my mom could put it where she wanted it. A local business had donated a computer. There was a ginormous TV, cable, high-speed internet.

They even bought some damn Pepto-Bismol for the medicine cabinet.

Desperate, my mom cleared over 700 miles a day, and each night I'd give her updates on what I was seeing of the place, and the people, and the community. The next day, spurred by hope, she'd drive a little harder. The last day she cleared over 900 miles, and arrived exhausted, in the dead of night. Before she got there the rest of us, Kenny, Elizabeth, and my girl Katie, had spent the night putting the finishing touches on the place. Assembling a TV stand, framing some photos that had been salvaged from her Eden but that she hadn't seen yet, lighting candles. Elizabeth made beautiful arrangements of tulips throughout the house. It was like Christmas Eve, we were so excited for them to arrive.

My mom and little brother were shells when they finally got in. Beyond exhausted. Zombies. They had been going non-stop since the day before Katrina hit. Being a survivor is more than a full-time job. When your future is only as far as tomorrow it's tough to sleep, even when you're a lucky one with a bed. They stumbled through the house, barely able to absorb it all. Only able to point out this or that, like they were tourists at the museum of their future. I could tell they were having a tough time processing it all, waiting for the rug to be pulled out, the other shoe to drop, the catch.

We hovered in the kitchen, speechless, resting, and my mom just slumped towards me, hugging me. That's when I could tell she was slowly crying. Tears of joy for this refuge from the storm. I just held her up, stood there with her, cried with her. She let it all out. It wasn't home, but she felt like she belonged.

Elizabeth and Kenny sat by us as we hugged, quiet and respectful, as always. This is the picture that shows the moment when two American families came together. It shows the hum of the internet made tangible. The ether made solid. Touchable.

And there it is, for now. The internet saved my family. My camera saved my family. I'm a high school dropout, but my writing saved my family. If this had happened ten years ago, my photos, my writing, wouldn't have saved anybody, because nobody would have seen it. It wasn't on CNN. It wasn't on the broadcast networks. It wasn't even on PBS. It was on a plain, small, free website, and that's the only reason Elizabeth saw it, and brought her family into the effort.

Katrina has shown me some things. She's shown me that the American government is unable to protect anything we hold dear. She's shown me that the American people are an amazing, giving, tough, resourceful, huge people, and that they're not being represented fairly by the current class of small-hearted politicians and lazy bureaucrats. She's shown me that people around the world care about us after all, despite our government. She's shown me that it's not about FEMA, it's not about the Red Cross, that it's about amazing families like Elizabeth and Kenny's family in North Carolina. Like I've said before, it's just about people like you and me, on our own, together.

And at the end of the day, I'm just very happy to see my little brother smile again, laugh again, play again. But I know I can't call this a happy ending. We still have so much to do, so much to rebuild, so much to recover, so many pieces to pick up, so many questions to answer. This is a sunny day, but the end of the road is still clouded. No, it's not a happy ending, but thanks to this small, loving family in North Carolina, and all of you out there in the ether, it's damn well a happy end of the beginning.

And that's more than any of us hoped for a month ago.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Thou Shall Love, New Orleans

Thou Shall Love, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans

9th Ward Sealed

Playground, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans

"On Wednesday, the men tried and failed to gain access to Mr. Calhoun's neighborhood. Mr. Calhoun, an inspector of nonfederal airports and a Baptist minister, was stunned. He had repeatedly toured the area since the storm, both when it was unguarded and after troops began blockading the northern half of the Lower Ninth Ward. At a time when the rest of New Orleans was reopened, he never expected to find that the National Guard had sealed his beloved neighborhood so tightly that even Mr. Willie, as he calls himself, could not sweet-talk his way in.

"They're treating us like we're already dead," Mr. Calhoun said after he was turned away at three checkpoints and took his leave of a local police officer - "All right, then, brother" - who informed him that he needed an escort from a City Council member. There were no council members present."

Longing for Home in a Sealed New Orleans Ward - NY Times

Sunday, October 23, 2005

How I Work

I'm often asked about what kind of equipment I use in my work, whether it's the fashion and celebrity portraiture, or now, this body of documentary work I've been thrust into with Operation Eden. My answer is always the same: I use the least amount of gear possible to achieve the look I want. I'm agnostic when it comes to camera brands, and I'm equally comfortable with either film or digital capture.

But, for those that are curious, I'll list what I used to shoot most of what you've seen here... My camera of choice was the Canon 1Ds. I use it because it's rugged, well-sealed against the elements, and, most importantly, has a huge full-frame sensor. This is important to me for the best image quality, and because I often use very shallow depth-of-focus, which is much harder to achieve with the smaller sensors used in most digital cameras.

I most often couple it with a 24-70mm f2.8L lens, usually shot on the wide end, seldom past 50mm. Most of the portraits you've seen here where shot with this lens at about 50mm, usually wide open at f2.8. The only other two lenses I used in these shots were fixed focal-length, a 50mm f1.4, and a 35mm f1.4, used when I wanted something lighter and smaller, or when I needed even shallower depth of focus.

The only flash I used was the Canon 550EX, portable strobe. In these pictures I have it attached directly to the camera, but I most often use it with an off-camera cord. I need an assistant when I use it with the off-camera cord (most often my girlfriend, sometimes my little brother.) For the candids shot in the field, competing with the sun, I have my assistant hold the flash upside down, as close to the lens as possible, pointing straight forward, the flash head zoomed in so that light falls off somewhat at the edges, creating a hotter area in the middle. In this case the flash is set to sync at high speeds, which enables me to shoot wide open in blazing bright sun and sill sync a flash at 1/8000 of a second shutter speed (normally, you can't sync a flash higher than 1/250th or so), so I can get that bright "lit" look, and make the background dark enough and blurry enough to not distract from the subjects eyes, which are the most important thing for me.

For the "studio" portraits I use the same flash, this time attached to a small portable softbox, to diffuse the light. A second flash is placed behind the subject and fired into the backdrop by wireless when the first goes off. At least, that's how it's supposed to work. In practice, the second flash didn't fire half the time, and fired too brightly the other half. Nikon has a much better wireless flash system. But they don't make a full-sensor camera body to go with it.

These pictures of me and my little brother were taken, unbeknownst to me, by a national guardsmen I had met a few minutes earlier, who also happens to be an excellent photojournalist. Or more accurately, maybe he's best described as an excellent photojournalist who just happens to be a national guardsman. His name is Edouard HR Gluck, and we had met when he came up to me to talk about gear (it's the equivalent amongst photographers of dogs sniffing butts). He had assumed I was a photojourno down covering the destruction, but I told him, no, I normally shoot fashion, these are just unfortunate family snapshots.

He emailed me these shots later, of me and my little brother walking by the destroyed volunteer firehouse, which at the time housed the relief efforts in Pearlington, which were soon moved to Charles Murphy Elementary. The road we're walking on was a paved two-lane highway before Katrina turned everything in the area into dirt roads.

See also: Process and Intent

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Dead Baby Doll

Black Baby Doll and Limbs, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans

"Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a staunch opponent of pork barrel spending, tried to block $453 million for two Alaska bridges that had been tucked into the recent highway bill. Coburn wanted to redirect the money to the Interstate 10 bridge across Lake Pontchartrain, a major thoroughfare that was severely damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

Sen. Ted Stevens, the veteran Alaska Republican, was dramatic in his response. "I don't kid people," Stevens roared. "If the Senate decides to discriminate against our state . . . I will resign from this body."

Friday, October 21, 2005

Love and Hope in the French Quarter

We're married.

Walking through a deserted French Quarter, my people blown by hurricane to the four corners of the world, my tough little Yankee girl at my side from day one, we passed by a boarded wedding chapel.

I stopped her and said, "Last chance. This is as low as I've ever been. You want out, I don't blame you."

She said, without breathing, intense dark eyes staring into me, "Never. Never."

So I said, "I marry you. I marry you. I marry you. Here in my city, just us, under this setting sun, I marry you."

And we took this picture, as the sun faded to pink over the empty and quiet French Quarter.

Katrina Survivors

Patrick Crowe, one of my little brother's friends, Pearlington, Ms. I wonder if they'll ever play together again?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Soul Of The City

Seven Years Bad Luck, New Orleans

My soul vibrated at a strange pitch those days. The world I grew up in torn apart. The future clouded and gray. Trapped, stranded in the silent French Quarter, so near the places of my childhood, the reasons I'd come here, yet unable to get to them. A stranger at home. The prodigal son talks like a Yankee now. And the babble of history around us in the Quarter, oppressing me with it's weight. Ursulines Street, the nuns came here almost 300 years ago, to teach the little Octoroon girls how to marry well. And the history made the current misery seem indulgent. How many have died in this ancient city? Hurricanes, floods, epidemics, murders, wars. Ghosts at every turn, making me feel a coward for my anxiety.

"This is nothing new," I felt them spit, "we've seen it all before. Grow up. You're not special. This is life. Life is death. Move on." But I can't.

A magazine contacted me, they were putting together an issue on Katrina and New Orleans, and wanted to know if I had any images of renewal, of hope, of the spirit returning to the city. I understand their desire. They want to move on. It's been so long, after all. Isn't it better, now?

No. The people are the spirit of the city. How can the spirit return, when the people can't?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Big Red XVI

Big Red, in the wreckage of his coop

My family has owned a long line of roosters named Big Red. The first Big Red I remember was when we lived in the Nevada desert near Pyramid Lake, but for all I know there may have been many ancestors. That earlier Big Red died one night when coyotes dragged him off into the black desert night, leaving only feathers, and my first lesson about death.

This Big Red, though, he's a survivor. Let's call him Big Red XVI, because it sounds fancy, and like I said, I don't know how many preceded him. He once had six hens. He would fuck exclusively one hen at a time. Often. So often that they died from his affections. When he had fucked one hen to death he moved on to the next, until she died. So on and so on, until Big Red was all alone in the coop my mom had built for him in Slidell, Louisiana, just a few miles from her home in Mississippi.

That few miles made all the difference to Big Red when Katrina hit. Her town in Mississippi was flattened and flooded, the part of Slidell that Big Red's coop was in just had trees down. His roost fell apart, but he survived, missing just a few feathers. And hens.

But the hens were his own damn fault.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Help Pearlington Mississippi

Pearlington Living, September 2005. Bedrooms on the left, kitchen in the middle, living room on the right, bathroom out back, in the woods. That's my mom kneeling on the right, trying to comfort one of the ladies.

Been camping? What's the longest you've ever roughed it? Two days? Three? Five? Living in a tent, exposed to the elements, your grooming slowly falling apart, making you look more crazy, more primal, each day.

Many people in Pearlington, Mississippi have been roughing it for 51 days now. 51 days. The first Gulf War was fought and won in less time. We flew men to the moon and returned them to Earth in less time.

Many of the church groups who had been coming through and helping are now gone. Americorps is there. But most of the people who are helping now, they're just regular individuals, like you and me. They're helping distribute aid when it comes in. They're helping people clear trees, in case the mythical FEMA trailers ever show up. Here's what's needed in Pearlington right now, as of today, 51 days later: (read more after the jump)

--Food, non-perishable. MREs are still available, but they're worried that could end soon and want to begin stocking up for the winter. They particularly need hearty meals, like stews. They're working hard all day, and need a lot of protein.
--Packaged socks and underwear (all sizes)
--Daily toiletries, like deodorant, shaving cream and razors, and soap (including laundry soap)
--Daily staples like coffee, sugar, salt, pepper
--Towels, all sizes
--Trash bags
--Paper towels and toilet paper
--Cleaning supplies
--Work gloves
--Chain saws
--Rakes, shovels, and yard tools
--Volunteers, volunteers, volunteers. They have a big tent set up for you. Don't go to Disneyland. Go to Katrinaland. It's the vacation you'll never forget, I guarantee.

Send items UPS or Fedex, not by mail, because this is what the Pearlington Post Office looks like.

So, again, it's just us, people. You and me. If you want to help out, send stuff (or yourself) here:

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

Thank you.

Update: A few people have told me they've had problems with Fedex not delivering packages they sent, and suggest sticking with UPS. Aside from knowing that the Post Office is useless, I can't confirm anything about Fedex or UPS. It seems hit or miss, many Fedex packages get in, others don't. But, I haven't (yet) heard any complaints about UPS, so maybe they're the safest bet right now.

Old Smashed Truck

Pearlington, Ms

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Katrina Survivors

William, Jackson, Ms

We met William by the pool at the hotel we had evacuated to for a day, to get a taste of civilization. He was worried about three elderly sisters of his in New Orleans that he still hadn't heard from, two weeks later. He talked nonstop, nervously, and gave us several recipes that none of us had time to write down. Everyone we talk to has a tragic story, a misery on their shoulders. We do too. There's too much tragedy and not enough shoulders to carry it. It's just too big, this.

I really hope William found his sisters.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Huge Ass Beers To Go

Bourbon Street Tries Again

The French Quarter maybe had a couple hundred people in it, and they all had huge ass beers.

Two nights later, along this sidewalk a couple of blocks away, Robert Davis got beaten by the police.

I guess the French Quarter really is getting back to normal.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

One More Dead In The Lower Ninth

One Body Found Here, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Flooded Cars

Near Waveland, Ms

Many people parked their cars along this highway, because it's the highest point in town. It wasn't high enough. There were at least dozens of cars and trucks tossed and littered along a stretch of highway maybe three miles long. It was like the La Brea Tarpits for automobiles. Like I could imagine them struggling vainly to right themselves, to pull themselves out of the ditch and clean up, to await their owner's return.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Mom Finds Her Glasses, FEMA Loses Mom

They washed up just fine.

My mom and little brother are still in Las Vegas, so far from home. And home is still a mess. My mom feels like she's drifting and rootless. She was stunned by the wealth on display in Vegas, the contrast from where she just was. She's still getting the runaround from FEMA, but by this point we don't expect much more. It seems the application taker we dealt with in that sun baked parking lot in Mississippi, the one who could barely operate the computer, who had been up for 24 hours, the earnest blue shirt, well, he messed up her application, and now she's in a bureaucratic no man's land. But at least in Vegas they have AC and seats to wait in for six hours, and when they tell you you need to call the 800 number, well, look, they've got a special little room off to the side with a couple of phones in it just for that. We'll take any improvement we can get.

I had a drink with one of those earnest blue shirts, in the French Quarter recently. She was a Peace Corps volunteer who had come down to help in any way she could. She was assigned to be one of the FEMA application takers, and when she told us about her experience she was almost in tears with rage and frustration. She told us about how she got less than an hour's training. She told us about how the official FEMA reps, the mandarins above her, hiding from the public, how they were little better than glazed-eyed morons, just shuffling papers and waiting to leave. She told us about the trick questions on the FEMA application, designed to automatically disqualify people if answered wrong. She told us how the poor survivors were yelling at her in frustration, then consoling her when she would almost cry from it, then asking her if she had any food they could take on the way out.

She grit her teeth, held back tears, took a big drink, and said "I only wanted to help, but I can't."

She said she and some of the other volunteers had taken their official FEMA blue shirts, and used them to clean the floor.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Charity Hospital

Hello, America. You fancy yourself the proudest member of the First World, and since you're reading this on your computer, you probably are. Got air-conditioning? Cable TV? A microwave? Congratulations, citizen, you're doing just fine. But, as some of you are learning, uncomfortably, there's another America, the Third World version. Dark and brutal, dimly lit by a faint flickering American Dream high up and far away. That's where I come from. If you could embody this shadow America in a single institution you'd be hard pressed to find a better candidate than Charity Hospital in New Orleans, where my mom was born. (read more below)

A cousin I never had a chance to meet died here. My uncle Sonny and Aunt Dusty had an infant here. After delivery he was taken away and placed on a bare table by the overworked staff. He had been low birth weight, probably due to malnutrition, and died that day. Being too poor to arrange funeral services, Sonny took his dead baby home with him, sitting on his lap in a little plain coffin, and buried his son himself. Three weeks later Charity Hospital called to tell him to come claim his dead son. They didn't even know he was gone.

Charity Hospital loomed large as a horror house for my family. They lost themselves there, literally. Eyes. Teeth. Limbs. Lives. All butchered, then forgotten about. Your cat or dog, First World America, was getting better health care than the poor wretched humans forced to decide between nothing, and Charity. And that was their only choice.

It's always been that way down here. Charity Hospital was founded over 250 years ago, which makes it about the oldest hospital in America. It was wretched from the start, because, after all, you get what you pay for, and this was literally a "Hospital for the Poor."

In 1815 someone wrote, upon visiting Charity Hospital, that it "served no purpose than to confine the wretched and compel them to die in a place contrary to their choice." Patients were found abandoned. Chickens wandered in, and their shit covered the furniture. The mattresses on which the patients slept were filthy with “the visible marks of the putrid discharges of those who had died on them of the most pestilential diseases."

This is how the other half dies, citizens. 1736. 1815. 1967. 2005. The years keep rolling by, a time lapse stream of lives lived hard and lost easy. Welcome to the new era, same as the old era. Everything new is old again.

I told my mom that after what happened at Charity last month, the flooding, the abandonment, the death, the bodies floating up from the basement morgue, the damage to what had been damaged its whole life, that they were thinking of tearing it down. She said she's been hoping for that since she was born.

See also:
Lord I Just Can't Keep from Crying

An Afternoon Of Forgotten Stories

Friday, October 07, 2005


Iberville Housing Projects from Basin Street, New Orleans

This was where Storyville stood. Where Louis Armstrong was born, and sang the Basin Street Blues. Where jazz was dreamed up. Where EJ Bellocq photographed the prostitutes. It was the underbelly, the joy, the passion, the fear, the anger, the sex, the death. The wild sweaty life. They tore it down and built a big prison, what you see here. The Iberville Housing Projects. Now empty and quiet, its residents storm-tossed first to the Superdome, then the Astrodome, who knows where now. Next door is St. Louis Cemetery #1, where Marie Laveau sleeps. All's quiet and dead on Basin Street tonight, and it's lonely.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Laundry Basket In Tree

Pearlington, Ms

Under The Crescent Moonrise

Philip Turner, 62. Alva McKay, 44. New Orleans.

I took my girl for a walk along the Mississippi River, where it snakes around the Quarter, bending the city into its crescent shape. It was under a pink setting sun and a rising crescent moon, and a cool breeze blew the stink out of our noses, and the mosquitoes off our arms, and then we met Philip and Alva.

They were half on their way to drunk, watching the River drift past Algiers. As we walked past, Philip shouted "Hey, I saw y'all on TV last night!" Only, we weren't on TV last night. But we stopped and talked to him, and that was the point. Philip's a street performer in the Quarter, and that's the line he uses to stop people. To stand out from the crowd. Philip dances with a broom for tourists. Whenever I would raise my camera, he would laugh and burst into song. He lives in the Ninth Ward. Rather, he used to live in the Ninth Ward, before Katrina, and the flooding. He survived in his attic, and said he swam like fucking Johnny Weissmuller to get out. At the moment this picture was taken, Philip's earthly possessions consisted of a large lady's bike he called his Cadillac, a small bag of clothing, a nine iron, and a half-gone twelve-pack of beer.

Alva was helping him finish the beer. She was also from the Ninth Ward. She was separated from her entire family, and her husband. She was distraught, and despite Philip's heroically drunken efforts to make her laugh, she often slipped into quiet tears. She asked me if I remembered that big wave that happened last year. It happened on Christmas, she said. She said she cried when that happened, and she knew in her bones that New Orleans was next. She said she was no Bible thumper, but that God was so powerful he just flicked his hand and her family was gone. And when she said this she made a flicking gesture, like dusting off her arm. She said God's so powerful, and tears started. So powerful, she said softly. She asked, Do you believe? No, do you believe?

I don't even know what I'm saying anymore, these days. What am I saying? Like Alva, I'm no Bible thumper. I don't even believe. But I'm saying, when you look at the faces of my people, I'm saying you need to know, really know, that "There But for the Grace of God go I." We're all one really bad day from oblivion. I'm saying, live with that in mind every day, and you'll understand the power and love and soul of New Orleans, and my family.

Katrina Faces

Catherine Carr, 55, Pearlington, Mississippi

Catherine was a volunteer helping with relief efforts in Pearlington. She had been through some scary hurricanes in Florida, where she lived, and came to Mississippi with Presbyterian aid workers to help in any way she could. She had a stern, no-nonsense air about her. Not mean, more like a sweet art teacher that's sick of students goofing off. She was so frustrated, a restrained anger, at how this hurricane was being handled by the government agencies, compared to the lightning response she had seen in Florida in the past couple of years. As we were leaving she came up to my mom and gave her a nice little work blouse she had found for her in the donated clothing, saying simply, "Here, I knew you would like this." And she was right.

People like Catherine are the anti-FEMA. Effective. Caring. Personal.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Survival In Mount Zion

Greater Mt. Zion AME Church, Pearlington, Ms. Two skiffs rest on it's front steps. They were used to rescue several elderly parishioners from the floodwaters.

Mr. Marshall Collins sits in the wreckage of what was once the church. You can see the hole they hacked in the ceiling to escape the rising waters, pews and snakes and the occasional alligator swimming in the water below as they waited for help to arrive. The walls are buckled, and the waterline mark is visible near the top of the stained-glass windows. The floor is coated in inches of oozing swamp muck.

You could breathe the wet heat.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Katrina Survivors

Tom Page, Pearlington, Mississippi

A Quarter Life

Ensconced with my girl in an evacuated courtyard apartment on Ursulines Street. A midnight call to my mom for her birthday leads to two hours of telling the old French Quarter stories. I'm older now, and now I'm more curious about her crazy life back then, as a teenage hippie runaway on Bourbon Street in the sixties, back when the French Quarter was truly weird.

She told me about how she go-go danced (not stripped) in silver boots at the Gunga Den. It was owned by mob boss Larry Lamarca, who's girl my mom also knew, Linda Brigette, a famous bombshell burlesque dancer. About how one night a local guy grabbed Miss Brigette's boob, and Lamarca went off, told the bouncers to watch the door, told the band to play loud and don't stop, and took the man into the back courtyard and beat him bloody in front of the dancers, including my mom.

She told me about Ruthie The Duck Girl, who used to roll through the streets of the Quarter on roller skates, holding a big white duck, bumming Kools and beers off locals, and occasionally screaming "Fuck off and die, motherfucker!" to startled, nervously amused passersby.

So many stories. I thought her life after I was born was full of turmoil and craziness and stress and eccentricity, but it was always so. Things I've seen in this life lead me to believe that some people are fated to a wild, erratic life, tossed from storm to storm. My mom is one of those people.

That's what I was trying to do when I bought her her Eden, make a place for her that wasn't erratic. A place with no strings attached, and no landlord breathing down her neck. A safe home for the runaway. But now she's a runaway again, of a sort. Back to square one. Try again.

She said, laughing, "Thanks for the trip down memory lane." And I had been Googling while she had been telling me her stories, not because I thought they were tall tales, but because I wanted it in front of me, to see as well as hear. And Google confirmed everything she told me. And I told her what Google said about the characters she told me about.

It told me that Miss Linda Brigette died of a stroke a couple of years ago. That Ruthie The Duck Girl became the Duck Lady, and went mad, and wound up in a nursing home. Hopefully not one of the Flooded Death Nursing Homes Katrina left behind.

"Awww," she said, "New Orleans was easier on people like that back then. I don't know if it would be possible for them to exist the same way, now."

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Life On Hold

Katrina Gothic, Slidell, Louisiana

Here's were we are now, one month later. My mom was going to go crazy if I let her stay in the Gulf. There's nothing that can be done there right now. Nothing but survive, living day by day, in the newly-created Southern tribe of third-world hunter-gatherers created by the storms. It's a nonstop job, sun-up to midnight. Cleaning, worrying, lining up, being knocked down, gathering decaying provisions, drifting.

My mom said that for people without jobs, they sure work hard. If you've ever been homeless you know just how much work it is. If you've never been homeless, don't worry, with the way things are headed it's just a question of time.

I can't have her living in a tent, waiting for the Bushvilles to be built, someday, maybe. So, a few days ago we evacuated her to Las Vegas, at least for a couple of weeks, to recuperate. We have some history there, and some contacts, and I figured if she's going to be competing for survivor scraps she's got better odds in a city with 3000 other survivors than in the gulf with 100,000.

So far I've been proven right. The FEMA office there is at least indoors, with seats to wait in, and air conditioning. These small condolences make a difference, even though the idiot blue-shirts she finally reaches after her six hour wait tell her the same things their idiot cousins told her in the Gulf, weeks ago:

"I'm sorry, the FEMA computer is down right now."
"Did you try the 800 number?"
"Here's a trick, instead of pressing 3 when you call, press 2, there aren't as many Spanish speakers so you might get through to somebody. Oh. Ummm. Maybe try calling at 3AM, it's less crowded then."
"I'm sorry, the computer is still down."

So, we finally discovered where the Red Cross has been all this time. Looks like they've been in Vegas. Turns out they must also like roofs and air-conditioning a lot. I guess it's really hard to concentrate on aid when it's all hot and dirty and the sun is beating down on you. So, a quick 2000-mile commute is all that's needed for Gulf victims to get some living money and a voucher for two weeks in a hotel while FEMA looks for the power switch on their computer. And it looks like even this little program might soon be going, going gone.

There are two huge blindspots in the future right now, for us. One: what exactly is the government's plan for short-term and long-term housing? Good, bad, or ugly, just tell us what it is and where we stand, so we can plan accordingly. Two: is my mom's job, her perfect $6.91/hour job, going to restart, and when? And if it restarts but she has no place to live locally, is she allowed to sleep under her desk?

Without clear answers to both these questions it's impossible to make many plans for the future. So it's day by day. Same life, different line. Is this how the diffusion happens? Is this how families get separated? Is this what the Dustbowl felt like?

Finally, and most importantly, my mom wanted to thank everyone who's written, everyone who's donated, everyone who's offered her help. She said her mind is blown. This little Cajun woman at the back of life's line, she's in awe of you all. She's in awe of your generosity and spirit and care. Thank you for keeping her spirits up when fate conspires to drag her down.

Thank you all for not forgetting about her little corner of the world.

The last picture I took of them before we split up.

Me, I'm going into New Orleans tomorrow to see what I can see there. I'm going to see if I can get to the starting place of this whole story. That little shack on McKain Street, in one of the roughest parts of town. See that street sign in the background of the top picture? That's all my mom's got left of the street she grew up on. I want to see what's left now.

I'll try to keep you posted.

Life and Death at the Roadside Park

There's a little park just off Highway 90, on the far outskirts of Slidell, Louisiana. We always called it the Roadside Park. It's huge mossy shade trees and shell-gravel mini-roads are surrounded by marshes and inlets on all sides. It was one of the anchor points of my childhood, a place we always went to on our frequent "adventures" around the countryside. When I was fourteen my mom taught me how to drive on its little shell road, and I can still remember the crunch of the shells under the tires as I rolled around at walking pace, an ice cold bottle of Pepsi sweating between my legs.

Now a houseboat, washed in from the marshes across the highway, rests in the middle of the road I learned to drive on.

This massive concrete picnic table is the only one in the park that wasn't dislodged and ripped from it's foundation by the hurricane. I was kind of glad for this, because this is the one we sat at that day when I was fourteen, and had po-boys and that ice-cold Pepsi to celebrate good times. I was glad that at least one of my anchor points had stayed anchored.

There were a dozen or so abandoned cats wandering what was left of the park, in the fading light. Padding silently in and out of the bushes, hungry, surrounded by the smell of death and rotting plants.

We found some cans of cat food nearby, lined up and unopened. I had no can opener, so I caveman-bashed the can into the edge of this dislodged concrete bench until it splattered out all over the bench, and my pants. We also left the remains of some donated hot lunch we had had that day. You can see a truck washed into the bayou in the distance behind the cats. Normally that would be a wall of dense green trees, now washed away. We sat back and made sure the cats came over to eat, which they did, although not before the flies got there.

Dinner came much too late for this guy.

Snoballs and Seafood

Snoball Dude, where are you when we most need you? (hope you're OK)

MRE jambalaya can only cut it for so long.

New Round Of Print Sales

Some of the new images for sale.

The first edition of prints I offered for sale to raise money for my family's rebuilding is now closed. If you were one of the early people to grab a print, thank you. I'll be posting the edition numbers as soon as I can.

I've now issued for sale a second edition of entirely new images. Many people have been asking me to sell prints of the images I've taken in the Gulf, so this second edition includes a few of those, as well as style, scenics, still-lifes, and nudes. As with the first edition, these images will be issued on a time-limited basis. I'll sell them for no less than two weeks, no more than a month. When I close the edition, they're done.

Like I've said before, I never sell prints this way, but this is an extraordinary need, so I'm doing whatever It takes to help my people myself.

If you'd like to buy a print, or donate via Paypal, click here.