On August 28, 2005, I set out from Washington, D.C., in my War Wagon—a 1985 Toyota Land Cruiser outfitted with a winch and a rooftop rack suitable for tripod use to cover Hurricane Katrina for Time magazine. The trip, which I figured to be a three- or four-day assignment, turned into a three-week experience that has affected me profoundly.
Seeing such total and immense destruction—or nothing at all where something used to be—day after day, surrounded by the smell of death and decay . .. interviewing and photographing first responders, volunteers, and, most significantly, the survivors and evacuees who had lost everything, including family members and pets . . . was overwhelming.
While photographing the survivors in those first few days, I was so moved by their stories that I decided to record them with my small Olympus digital recorder, which I generally use for IDs and captioning details. I noticed that as these people spoke, they were reliving their experiences; it was palpably visible.
I began to realize there was really no way to translate the total feeling of destruction, loss, and sadness through images of the destruction itself. These images always seemed a tawdry example of the reality, regardless of how many houses were on top of cars, or vice versa. But, to me, the stories of those who had lived it, combined with the look in their eyes and the expressions on their faces, came as close as possible to the real thing.
Thus began my project, “One of Us,” capturing portraits and interviews of the survivors and others whose lives were forever changed by Katrina.
When I returned to New Orleans three months later to do a follow-up cover story for Time, I was slack-jawed to find that the only visible changes were that the water was gone and some of the debris was in piles. With most of its inhabitants dispersed across the country, New Orleans was a ghost town. Those who stayed were defiant, angry, confused.
I quickly realized that the situation was bigger than a news story. It was an historic event equivalent to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s—a cataclysmic disaster that caused thousands to migrate, or stay and suffer, with little or no help. Katrina needed to be documented, not just covered.
Due to the deadlines inherent in the news cycle, my first two trips were shot almost entirely digitally. I love the convenience and speed of digital photography. I rely on my Nikon D2x and Nikkor glass for my digital work.
But I still can’t get what I really want without good, old-fashioned film, especially big film like 4x5. I don’t believe there is a digital back that can give you even half the information a single sheet of film can record, not to mention the optical properties large-formats offer.
I returned at the six-month anniversary for a week, and again at the one-year anniversary for a two-and-a-half-month project, which is underway at this writing. My goal is to retrace my steps in the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, then travel the country, gathering stories and portraits of those who have not, or will not, return. My hope is to publish a book and create an exhibit with the portraits and stories of these brave people.
Work in Progress
Since starting “One of Us,” I have traveled in a 21-foot Ameri-Lite Travel Trailer, pulled by my War Wagon, with an Apple Mac PowerBook G4 for wi-fi Internet, quality recording equipment (Marantz PMD-660), my 4x5 equipment, and a large supply of film. At first, I was shooting primarily in black-and-white. The surroundings were almost colorless and Kodak Tri-X has a grain and contrast signature that has always been my favorite for documentary work.
Since color has been gradually returning to my subjects’ lives, I’ve been relying on Kodak Portra 160NC for my latest work on “One of Us.”
In the pure sense of documentary fieldwork, I want to photograph my subjects as I find them, with available light. I love the latitude, the shadow detail, the color, and the sharpness Kodak Portra 160NC renders, especially with available light.
I use a Wisner Expedition field camera for most of my 4x5 work. I have a Speed Graphic to use with various old barrel lenses, but the journalist in me needed something hand-held and quick to use. I turned to my “Razzle,” an old Polaroid 110b rangefinder camera affordably modified by a guy in Australia to shoot 4x5 film.