Half of the Ninth Ward wouldn't have street signs today if not for Common Ground, among its many other valuable accomplishments. One of the people who came to New Orleans was 25-year-old Francesco di Santis, who drove here from Austin on Sept. 11 to join the organization and begin work on more than 2,000 portraits of returning survivors, relief workers, rebuilders -- participants in New Orleans' history. These drawings recently became his self-published, glossy, hardcover oral history coffee-table book, The Post-Katrina Portraits: Written and Narrated by Hundreds.
"It was a subtler form of disaster relief," says di Santis, who lived and worked in the Ninth Ward until October 2006. "Some people were replenishing their family photo albums with the drawings." Most folks however, donated their portraits to di Santis, after writing upon them their own hurricane tales. "A lot of survivors didn't write their stories on their drawings because of the emotional difficulty. And I did encounter some nastiness," recalls di Santis. "But most people wanted their stories to be accessible. They wanted the world to know their perspective."
Di Santis posted a Web site (http://postkatrinaportraits.org) to display these collaborations. "The originals were hanging on the walls of Common Ground's relief center and health clinic," di Santis says. "Until volunteers and residents and neighbors who were returning, began telling me I should turn them into a book."
The illustrator/editor says he did not want the book to be, "all traumatic stress and sorrow. It's about rebuilding," he says. "If there wasn't a positive struggle following the tragedy, this wouldn't have been worth doing." The book's multi-voiced narrative begins with evacuation stories ("I saw Hurricane Katrina coming like looking down the barrel of a gun, and I got out of the way") then moves on to tales from survivors and evacuees, before concentrating most heavily on disaster-relief workers and people rebuilding. The book's last work is from the city's first post-storm Mardi Gras.
Yet, Post Katrina Portraits' 422 pages are populated with severe, dark, gray faces; nearly all of di Santis' mostly black-and-white drawings give off a palpable air of suffering. "Many of the relief workers contracted Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome vicariously, from living in the ruins and seeing the waterline every day," di Santis says, explaining his portraits' lack of emotional dynamics.
The book is a handwriting analyst's dream. Chicken-scratch cursive and meticulous fonts in 12 different languages are especially fascinating, if slightly taxing to read. Some narrators were unable to write their own stories down and so told them on tapes, which di Santis later transcribed. "I'd never been to that part of the South before," he admits. "The illiteracy I encountered was surprising to me." Wading through the survivors' handwriting quirks does provide emotional insight, but the transcribed stories should have been typed out to give the reader a needed break.
Di Santis says Common Ground originally had agreed to publish the book. "I'd wanted them to use it as a fundraiser," he recalls. "But the organization suffered a lot of internal turmoil, conflicts between organizers, and in the end they were not able to make the investment." Di Santis then attempted publication on a larger scale. "But publishers had too many suggestions, like, 'Why not make it just 200 pages, or even 100?'" di Santis says. "Or why not make it a graphic novel or publish it in paperback? And does it have to be in color since the drawings are all just black-and-white charcoal anyway? Well, there's also pastel and china marker in there."
Despite di Santis' admirable stubbornness of vision, most of these publisher suggestions wouldn't have weakened the book's impact, and might have made it -- and the survivors' stories -- more accessible. Although every page can be downloaded from the Web site, as an object, its size and shape make Post-Katrina Portraits tough to take out into the world, read on the go and share.
The huge glossy pages are impressive, but the book's retail price of between $20 and $50 also makes it slightly cost-prohibitive. "My real desire was to sell it to other disaster-relief organizations at its printing cost of $15 a book," says di Santis, who sells it to bookstores for $20. "If an organization then turns around and sells it for $50, that's a huge fundraiser."
With 2,000 copies printed at $15 a piece, one has to wonder where a 25-year-old disaster-relief worker gets $30,000 to publish a glossy coffee-table book. He declined to address the issue.
Just as perplexing, however, is why he would spend so much to create such an elaborate book, and then omit page numbers. 422 un-numbered pages? "I felt they would have cluttered it," di Santis says. "Also, people were still handing their entries in to me up to the final hour that I was scanning the pages in, so that in the end it was just too confusing to number them all." Especially considering the book's size, it could stand to include not only page numbers, but a meticulous glossary. As it stands, one could search and search through all the similar-looking pages, unsuccessfully trying to revisit a drawing or story one finds moving.
Upon first glance, Post-Katrina Portraits is a big, beautiful accomplishment. Locals should thank di Santis for pouring his life into this city's current cause. Many people will undoubtedly read and love this book. The difference between appreciating it or not, may simply equate to the difference between art that is good because it serves a noble cause, and art that stands on its own.
- At some point right after the flood, many locals crossed paths with the Common Ground grass-roots disaster relief organization, which blossomed in New Orleans on Sept. 5, 2005.