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Four Years Later: Still Here, Stories After Katrina

New America Media, Book Review, Reviewed by Khalil Abdullah Posted: Aug 28, 2009

Editor's Note: Four years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, the Big Easy still has the highest vacancy rate of any city in America. Meanwhile, many of those who have returned continue to live in squalor. The stories of New Orleans are captured in a recent book of photography by NAM contributor Joseph Rodriguez, "Still Here: Stories After Katrina."

Still Here: Stories After KatrinaIn the first photograph in "Still Here: Stories After Katrina," Earl Slaughter stands at the edge of a pond. There is an arc of an open area, but the setting is not pastoral. The grassy, tree-lined embankments slope down to the water from the backyards of nearby houses in Denton, Tex.

The town, 35 miles north of Dallas-Ft. Worth and more than 500 miles from New Orleans, became an initial sanctuary for some survivors of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Slaughters back is to the camera and we view him taking in the scenes serenity. Within an instant of our first glance, we know that photographer Joseph Rodriguez is demanding that we contrast the ponds still waters with the memory of Katrinas unrestrained fury that must remain fixed in Slaughters minds eye.

Graphically, "Still Here" is an exquisite book and another welcomed testament to the power of black and white photography. It is not a large volume, but the industrial-like design and heft of the cover amplify the permanence and solidity of the title. But, as time inevitably unfurls, there will be fewer and fewer eyewitnesses to what was a great American tragedy.

Photo by Joseph Rodriguez

Though there are no pretensions about attempting to capture a dramatic moment of rescue or survival, "Still Here," a title taken from a Langston Hughes poem, is as much about those themes as works in any medium or images from any news source. Rodriguez has assembled a body of photographs resonant with emotions, from anger and despair, to fleeting joy and distilled compassion. The photographs are enhanced by commentaries and captions by Patrice Pascual. Her writing functions in a complementary role, never overwhelming the reader with either volume or analysis, but enlarging the canvas with details that make Rodriguezs photographs all the more poignant.

For example, we see Chaperell Washington with a look of such pain and sorrow that we know whatever has transpired must have deeply pierced her soul. The death of a loved one? No, she returned to the Ninth Ward a year after Katrina hit, this time without her children. The family was evicted from an Atlanta apartment after they ran out of FEMA money. She had to send her children to live with their father, an evacuee trying to make a new life in Houston.

While there is certainly more Pascual could have written about Washingtons circumstances, we learn enough to know exactly why her face, the mirror of a mothers separation from her children, is consumed by such anguish. So, herein is one of the layers of the photographic challenge, to be able to convey the universal and the specific within the same image. Rodriguez treads this path well and the images can stand alone. But the books objective as an eyewitness to the humanity of Katrinas survivors all but demands the explanation the text provides and, on occasion, Rodriguez himself weighs in with written commentary.

Rodriguez has laid out subplots of his subjects transition from New Orleans to Denton. We meet Julia Stewart, who, at age 70, swam to safety through flood waters with her younger brothers. She evacuated to Denton, but understandably was anxious about the home she owned in New Orleans. When Julia died in 2007, the family was still in rental housing. There are others who likewise appear who are now dead; survivors of Katrina but not its wake.

And, then there is Charles Robinson. Sitting in a wheelchair, he appears in three separate photographs. We are told he was gunshot-paralyzed before Katrina. He is first seen with his mother and brother. Later, in a second photograph, he is only with his brother, who we find out was murdered before the books publication. In the third, he is alone. But, take note. In no picture does Robinson look directly at the camera. In his final photograph, we see him holding his hands over his bowed head as if to escape the enormous weight of loss and isolation.

Photo by Joseph Rodriguez

"Still Here" is provocative: an indelible portrait of human beings summoning courage, resilience, and hope, when, in the face of despair, they could be forgiven for less.

Related Articles:

Katrina Pain Index 2009

Gulf Coast Leaders Share post-Katrina Census Concerns with Congress

Preparing the Americas for the Next Big Disaster

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