While photojournalists are experts at capturing natural disasters and images of destruction, this is about documenting the aftermath of a cataclysmic event through the souls of its survivors. It's about stopping Americans like Mary, Melvin, Mabel, Dundee, Agnes, and Benton on a flooded street and chatting with them about their situation before snapping a portrait that further conveys their emotions without words. It's about recording the newly formed wrinkles on their faces and the twinkle in their eyes (or maybe the lack thereof).
After the news interest in Hurricane Katrina rolled away with the receding waters, and the public's interest waned, news crews and journalists packed up and left those still in need of housing, food, and medical care with nothing but a prayer. Photographer Chris Usher realized what others did not--that behind the vacant eyes of the survivors, there was a lot more to say. That perhaps the most important part of the disaster was just beginning--it was the story of the living trying to live again.
"Everyone was covering the story--no one was documenting it," says Usher. "No matter where you looked, there was a picture of destruction. It felt hollow to just shoot it and leave. You were walking on people's lives."
Down-to-earth and self-effacing, Usher is a four-time White House News Photographers Association award winner and has flown on Air Force One from Texas to Baghdad and back. Today, in a Virginia coffee shop a few miles from Washington, D.C., Usher is casual in blue jeans, a fleece pullover, and a torn Montana fly-fishing cap. He slowly puts away a bagel and cream cheese while gushing about this personal project.
"One thing I noticed when shooting there is that people [whether photographers or the news media] were afraid to get close," he says. "I think it was because [these were] their people."
When the first Mardi Gras after Katrina rolled around, an editor told Usher, "We're so over that story." Almost immediately, Usher took out a $75,000 home-equity loan and began the project "One of Us" on his own. Although he had covered the story in its infancy for Time magazine, he now sought to document Katrina survivors in a new way--to follow their stories of recovery by talking to them and taking their portraits, not just concentrating on the physical destruction around them.
"I wanted to shoot the people. Shoot portraits--but not environmental portraits. I wanted to shoot just someone's face, to get the real person. I really wanted it to be about the people and [not rely on] where they are," he says.
He wanted to become part of their families and to follow up on their progress. In fact, today he is in touch with many of the interviewees--some he even calls family. Others credit him for letting them hop rides home in his truck and for contacting loved ones on their behalf.
Usher craved rawness in his images. Artificial lighting had no place here; he only allowed himself the option of using reflectors. Then he simply drove around in his truck and began stopping folks on the street. "I wanted a completely raw, uncompromised demographic," Usher says. "My M.O. was to photograph when I found them, how I found them."
Armed with a digital recorder, a digital camera, and a film camera, Usher randomly rode up and down the streets in Louisiana and Mississippi, stopping people to ask them about their stories. Surprisingly, most citizens were happy to participate. "It seemed like telling their stories was therapeutic for them," says Usher.
Using the digital camera only for a time stamp, he did all the serious photos with a film camera, which he prefers for more personal, important work.
He used a Wisner Expedition field camera for most of the 4x5 work, as well as a Speed Graphic and a handheld Razzle, a modified Polaroid 110b rangefinder camera. Kodak supplied all the film and covered processing and book-printing costs.
One of his greatest equipment secrets: his war wagon, a 1985 Toyota Land Cruiser fully loaded for shooting in extreme situations like this. "It's outfitted with OME (Old Man Emu) heavy suspension, ARB Bull Bars and bumpers, a 10,000-pound Warn winch (with a dual-battery setup in the engine--one deep-cycle marine battery just for the winch and for jumping myself when the regular one dies), a rooftop multiuse platform (mostly for shooting), a spare 5-gallon can of gas, an XM radio, and a CB, of course," he says.
The result of his efforts is a self-published book ($40) that follows victims from August 28, 2005, to January 28, 2008, with portraits, anecdotes, and quotes from survivors that will sear your soul. Split up into days (Day 1 to Day 576), the book covers troubled areas in Louisiana and Mississippi. Every penny of the proceeds, with the help of Kodak, goes to these victims.
Usher revisited the Gulf Coast region six times over three years and traveled across the country by trailer for two months in 2006 to find displaced residents in other states. His subjects include families, parents, siblings, and children, as well as first responders, volunteers, and the media. Displaced residents were found at gas stations, liquor stores, campgrounds, and even a Starbucks in New Mexico. "I thought I might hear the same version from different people but the stories were very different," he says. "No one had the same story."
Driving home from his first trip, Usher began thinking of all the injustices he had been a witness to: hundreds of thousands dead. Others displaced and abused. This kind of stuff happens in Bangladesh, not in America, he thought--these people are one of us.
As he crossed the Mississippi border, a drop of rain hit the windshield in perfect sync with the first note of the next song on the radio--it was Joan Osborne's "One of Us."
Usher is currently looking for a publisher for One of Us to extend its reach. He can be reached and/or the book can be purchased through www.chrisusher.com or www.kodak.com/eknec/PageQuerier.jhtml?pq-path=13450&pq-locale=en_US&_requestid=1562. All book proceeds go directly to the Gulf Coast Fund and the Southern Animal Foundation.
[FYI: Kodak responded by enabling the digital on-demand printing and an online ordering of One of Us, facilitating the donation of book proceeds in partnership with ColorCentric, a KODAK NEXPRESS Digital Production Color Press customer.]