About six months ago I went to St. Bernard Parish with my cameraman, Jason, to get my own share of disaster photography for a documentary that I'm making, which is different from the documentaries everybody else made or is making. Every fifth person in New Orleans is either making or helping make a documentary. We are like the Amazon tribes whose families were said to consist of a mother, father, children and one anthropologist.
We chose for our first foray a beached shrimp boat in St. Bernard Parish that was carried several blocks inland by the storm surge before it slammed into a house and rested there to provide a backdrop for the news. On the lawn of the house there was a broken plastic Santa shadowed by the huge boat as well as a bunch of soggy schoolbooks. I bent down to examine a notebook that was having its paged riffled by the wind and saw that it was a first-grader's exercise book and the page I was looking at had on it, written in a child's hand, a poem titled, "I Love Santa." I kid you not. It got to me. I read the poem out loud and a tear I hadn't counted on sprung down my cheek. I hope Jason got a close-up.
When I stood up, two women wearing shirts that said, "Make Levees Not War," were coming toward me and we struck up a conversation. They told me that they had houses on that street and that this was the first time that they'd come back from Dallas after the storm. I asked them how badly their houses fared, and they told me that they hadn't gone to their houses yet; they'd come to see the shrimp boat first because they'd seen it on the national news. One of them said that she was afraid to see what remained of the house where she'd raised her kids, and her friend had tears in her eyes. I was in the middle of asking another question, when the woman I was interviewing exclaimed: "Now, there is a real celebrity!" She tore off the lapel mic and headed for CNN's Anderson Cooper, who had appeared suddenly with his own cameraman.
Cooper thought he might use the shrimp boat as background to anchor the next day's news. I asked him, while he signed autographs for residents, how he could keep from becoming part of the story. He shrugged. Of course, we filmed the whole thing.
Those were the last days of the photogenic disaster when no matter where you pointed your camera you were bound to hit pay dirt. On Aug. 18, just shy of the one-year anniversary, somebody burned down the shrimp boat. Around the same time, two bulldozers belonging to a company building a monument to the victims of the Ninth Ward were stolen from the site.
The two crimes against image and symbol-making were psychically related. One year after Katrina, we are no longer photogenic. The cameras focus on narrow slices of rebuilding, which is all that fits within the lens. If you've been looking at the city for a year, things look better. Most of the flooded cars packed in the neutral grounds and under freeway overpasses are gone. There is no debris in places most visible to motorists. There are trailers and gutted houses in every wasted neighborhood. If you look only at the swarms of life in isolated spots you might feel optimism, but if you look at what's around these spots you might feel dread instead. Yes, there is a recovery going on, but there is also a pervasive depression. The media isn't equipped to deal with both hope and despair; it can only show and tell one story at a time. The Gray Zone where we live is beyond its power.
In New Orleans, nothing is what it seems. People believe things they don't say and say things they don't believe. To the media, we are recovering. To ourselves, we are sinking. Our heavily mediated and heavily medicated city is generating paradoxes, not certainties. About the time the shrimp boat burned and the monument-building machines were ripped off, there was a picture in the newspaper of a young woman from Los Angeles playing songs on a guitar to St. Bernard residents waiting in line at a parish office. The singer looked super-optimistic and the women looked amused and disbelieving, but at least they beat the Aug. 29 deadline/anniversary for permits to rebuild.