Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Tear Drop

The first in a series of Public Service Announcements I shot for Katrina survivors

My heart hurts for my hometown, for the Gulf. I can't sleep at night, my chest is tight. These amazing people, the huge hugs they give, the smiles they flash, the parties they throw. If you've ever experienced their spirit you never forget it. That's what makes this so hard for me.
"Summing up what has happened since the hurricanes destroyed large parts of four Gulf Coast states last August, doctors from the departments of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, Duke University Medical Center and Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center paint a fairly grim picture of the instability that has followed:

• One survey found that 68 percent of female caregivers had a mental health disability because of symptoms of depression, anxiety or other psychiatric disorders.

• Another survey found that 19 percent of police officers and 22 percent of firefighters reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while 26 percent of police and 27 percent of firefighters reported major depressive symptoms.

• A crisis-call center in Mississippi handling inquiries mostly from people dealing with depression and anxiety reported a 61 percent increase in volume between March 1 and May 31, 2006, compared with the period just after the hurricanes, Oct 31 and Dec. 31, 2005.

• The deputy coroner of New Orleans recorded almost a threefold increase in suicide rates, from nine per 100,000 to 26 per 100,000 in the four months after Katrina hit. And the murder rate in New Orleans, which fell in 2005, has risen by 37.1 percent above pre-hurricane levels for the first half of 2006.

• In Louisiana, mental health counselors supported by federal government agencies made 158,260 referrals. This doesn't include people who sought support independently.

• Recent estimates suggest that only 140 of 617 primary-care physicians have returned to practice in New Orleans. Only 100 doctors along the Gulf Coast area are participating in the Medicaid program, compared to 400 before Katrina hit.

• And estimates also suggest that only 22 of 196 psychiatrists continue to practice in New Orleans, while the number of psychiatric hospital beds has been sharply reduced: as of June 14, the authors said, there were only two psychiatric beds within a 25-mile radius of New Orleans.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

One Year Holding On

Today is silence for me. Breathe in, breathe out. Respect for all that we've endured, thankfulness for all the help we received. Jaw set tight. It's still too enormous for me to get my head around, so I won't try. Words are often useless for me, and today, more so.

So instead, a simple photograph of my mom's Eden, one year on. She's sitting on the front porch of what will be her new home soon. It's risen on the foundation of the home Katrina destroyed, only steps away from her FEMA trailer, and every day she looks out the trailer window a thousand times at it, and her gold smile lights up, and she whispers "Thank you, Jesus."

It's been built by the sweat and love of volunteers from all over the country. From all walks of life they've come into the Gulf to help their brothers and sisters. Normal, average Americans, disgusted by their government's inaction, they've picked up hammers and done it themselves.

One day there's a moldering heap of rubble, the next day hippie volunteers from Burning Man bulldoze it and take it away. One day it's a flat slab of concrete, the next day a pre-fab home kit is delivered by One House At A Time and New Hope Construction. One day there's a jumble of materials, the next day a church group from Oregon shows up and builds the frame and shell. A little later a group from Pennsylvania shows up and paints it my mom's favorite shade of green, and puts a tin roof on so she can hear the rain fall at night. And not to be outdone, a group from Alabama comes over and sheet rocks the interior, then comes back and builds her a deck for good measure.

Like I said, too enormous for me to get my head around. So today I want to just sit and rest, and enjoy the look of pride and place in my mom's eyes.

We may have far to go, but we've come a long way.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Katrina Every Day

Imagine that more than half of all the homes in your city were destroyed. Moldering, decaying. Imagine that all the friends and neighbors that lived in those homes were scattered across thousands of miles. Imagine all the history of your life, your family's life, the culture that you breathed in, muddied and torn.

You'd be depressed right? Sad? Stressed? Maybe even suicidal? I would be. I'm thousands of miles away, and I am.

What would my life have been like if I'd never left New Orleans? What if instead of becoming a photographer in New York, I became one down there? Would I be like John McCusker now? Here is a man who couldn't take any more.

There are many more like him. The suicide rate in the K-hole is three times higher than it was before Katrina. Depression is the norm.

I'll be there over the next week making portraits of survivors for use in public service announcements highlighting the need to reach out for help when it all gets to be too much.

It's just a tiny drop of help in a vast ocean of need.

Friday, August 11, 2006


Eden, Nine Months On

Where are we now?

Too much to write all at once, so just the basics. My mom and little brother wintered in the love and care of the Bennett family, of Elizabeth and Kenny and Mr. Jack, and daughters Toni Marie and Kailie, and all the huge-hearted people in Swansboro, North Carolina. About four months ago my mom had to return to Pearlington in order to keep her job, which had been held for her through the Herculean efforts of her boss and friend Mr. Simpson.

That's not the only reason she had to return, though. As the rest of the country inevitably turned its eyes from the Gulf and its suffering, she felt more and more isolated each day. A lone little bottle of Katrina mud floating in a sea of tranquility. Misery truly does love company, and she felt the need to go back and blend into the misery and grinding survival of the Gulf, with people who truly knew what she was feeling, thankful for the salvation that was the Bennett family, and strengthened by the time she had had to recuperate and clear her mind.

Strengthened for the fight, she could join with her neighbors and family in rebuilding her homeland. Refusing to give in, refusing to surrender. So for the past four months she and my little brother have been living in a FEMA trailer on her property. It's not nearly as nice as the place the Bennett's donated, but it's good enough for more than 100,000 other survivors. Successive streams of volunteers have trickled through Pearlington, helping her and her neighbors in amazing ways, which I'll go into later.

And where have I been? Why I have neglected this story, even as so much happens, and so much need remains? I ask myself these things every day, and have only a jumble of half answers and excuses.

There hasn't been a single day since the storm hit that it hasn't been on my mind. Not a day goes by that I don't worry about my family, and my hometown, and its despairing future, and what I can do to insulate them from it.

I needed to focus on my career, to keep it on track, to make sure I have enough money to be counted in modern America. I knew I'd have a few months to do this while my family was safe in North Carolina, and hurricane season had yet to start. You saw those images one year ago just as I did. You saw poor people drowning in my poor city. You saw working class people having everything taken away in a single day, all along the Gulf. Each dollar I sweat for is one more chance at survival for my family. Each dollar I sweat for makes my family count a little more. How much is enough in this new America? I don't know. How much was enough in Gilded Age America? Because that's where we're headed, and I don't want us left behind again. So I've been hustling.

But it was more than that. I was overloaded. I felt like I couldn't do enough, there wasn't enough time in the day to show all of the pictures, and tell all of the stories. I'm a perfectionist, and if I can't do something justice I don't want to do it at all. I don't want to let it down, I don't want to sully its power. I feel like I couldn't do it all at once, and since I switched the comments into a moderated format to prevent increasing abuse from partisans, I felt like I didn't want to do it at all.

But I didn't quit. I continue to donate my photographs to aid organizations working in the Gulf. I continue to raise donations for relief. I applied for (and unfortunately did not get) a Soros Foundation grant to continue the documentation in the Gulf.

And I'm still not quitting. I'll be back down next week to photograph more, to help in the rebuilding, to donate my work to relief, and just to visit with my family. My heart is there, it's always been.

And always will be.