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Aug 16, 2007

Renaissance Village From The Outside

Over the next couple of days, The BAG offers you photographer Alan Chin's latest series from New Orleans.   In contrast to previous posts, I felt these images should not be overly reduced.  (If you click, you can still increase each another 20%.)   Below, Alan participates in some Q. and A.  And as before, he has generously agreed to engage in any discussion.

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BnN:  You've now documented the Katrina disaster at regular intervals over the past two years.  What have you been trying to accomplish?  How would you weigh the success and weaknesses of the work?  Are you planning to go back again?

AC: Actually, this was my ninth trip in 2 years. I have tried to make a "big picture" documentation of New Orleans in this time. First was the storm and its horrible aftermath. Then i followed several families to Arkansas and Ohio. Next, the physical devastation. After that, Mardi Gras, and the beginnings of rebirth. Finally, stagnation. Last year, there was a six-month period when things did improve. But that leveled off, and it seems that what was going to get better did, but that the rest remains frozen and paralyzed. Only half of the 500,000 pre-Katrina population has returned, and many people say that they will leave again.

My work, at its best, has shown this process. However, one of the limitations of photography, as I've pointed out in the discussion here, is that often you need words to fully explain a situation. Context has to be provided. Photos can be misleading, or very narrow. Also, there is the seduction to make beautiful images in the midst of despair. Sometimes this beauty, though haunting or ironic, can also provide too much aesthetic pleasure, and therefore create too much distance from the reality, be that as it may.

If i go back, it will be to take a look at the elite and wealthy culture, which was barely affected by Katrina and now either likes to pretend that the disaster didn't happen, or finds it a blessing in disguise.

BnN: To what extent do you think the traditional media uses images of Katrina to basically sell product and feed off the misery?  As a large number of anniversary-related stories come out, what should we be looking for in the visual coverage? What would represent the lowest common denominator?  And visually, what higher standards should we expect?  Considering that these FEMA trailer cities are the "hot story" right now, how would you answer these questions specifically relative to the trailer parks?

AC: I think that to the degree that the NYT and others DO cover this story, generally they hit the right points. Formaldehyde in trailers. Rising crime and murder. Reluctant return. Relief money tied up in bureaucracy  and distrust of the recipients. Corrupt and inefficient government and police. Hospitals still closed. Inadequate reconstruction of levees.

The problem is not necessarily the coverage. It is that Americans seem to have lost the ability to connect the dots, to willfully ignore painful truths, to be concerned only with the local. In other discussions here, we have talked about the paradox of how a huge majority is now against the war in Iraq, or at least against how it has been implemented. And yet the protests -- having been relatively small, and peripheral -- have barely reflected this.

So it is with New Orleans and Katrina. It would be hard to find a reasonable American who doesn't think that this whole story is one of government ineptitude, and out-and-out race and class bias. Yet some of the same people who know this would still vote for the current administration or one like it. Perhaps because they are more scared of a big government than they are of a failed one.

What we need the coverage to do is to tie all of this together -- to say it is no accident that a war is not going well in iraq, and at the same time, a recovery effort is not going well in Louisiana. The skills required for both are similar in many ways. Thus far, the traditional media, though effective in pointing out the specific problems, has refrained from drawing obvious conclusions, and is therefore guilty of tunnel vision. Katrina and Iraq are two sides of the same coin.

(Previous Chin New Orleans posts at The BAG: The Katrina Landscape (5/3/06); St. Rita Ongoing (10/8/05);  And Then I Saw These (9/27/05).  All images courtesy of Alan Chin.  New Orleans. 2007.  Posted by permission.)


The lack of global thinking (not, as the term is usually used, as an economic entity, but as an ability to think comprehensively at many levels at once) is the cause of many of our problems, social, political, economic, and environmental.

As I look at these excellect pictures, I see a huge refugee camp. I see bored youngsters with nothing to do, but, maybe, get into trouble. I see trailers, which are extremely vulnerable to high winds, which accompany hurricane forces, as well as tornados, prevalent in the South. I see a barren landscape, with absolutely NO trees.

The government should have, first thing, while repairing the dikes, planted and re-planted mangroves, trees, and tried to repair the land, to prepare for the future. They should have rebuilt public housing for the less well-to-do. They should have invested in public recreation programs for youth. In short, it is everything they should have done in Iraq after the invasion: repair the infrastructure, make contact, meaningful contact, with the population, and shake hands across cultural divides.

What is the origin of the problem? Our very poor education process, which compartmentalizes learning. Power point-like thinking, inside little boxes, limits our comprehension. Instead of synthesis in education, crossing disciplines to provide a sense of the whole, we get a constricted, isolating, world view which makes bigotry, war-mongering, and narrow ideological perspectives possible.

Alan your work has a simplicity and directness that captivates the human condition. It moves me in many ways and I often return to it.

When you observe that "..the traditional media, though effective in pointing out the specific problems, has refrained from drawing obvious conclusions.."
I am unable to respond in a simple and direct manner like your photographs, alas all I can offer to assist in understanding the media is:

Manufacturing Consent, the classic Canadian documentary which explores the propaganda model of the media.

Its long over 2 hours, its old 1992, it drags in places but it still can assist many " connect the dots.." now to the second coffee and to your latest work.

A good narrative usually needs a villain. One difficulty with constructing a coherent Katrina narrative is the reluctance to clearly pin responsibility on the relatively few people producing the ongoing catastrophe. There is no such thing as a natural disaster. Government agencies, developers and others made choices that forced hundreds of thousands of black New Orleans residents out of their communities, and left the city a toxic wasteland. I think a collusion of the forces described by Chomsky and the like, as well as the development of shorter news cycles that produce the failures of news coverage described above.

All this "camp" needs is a gate, some 8' tall razor wire and a sign the reads "Arbeit macht Frei," I mean "Work Makes Free."

Horrible, utterly horrible.

What struck me in the photos was the isolation: I see people waiting, directionless, in a perpetual transition. I wonder how this is different from their previous lives in New Orleans. I wonder if the biggest difference is that now they are visible to us.

It is hard to connect the dots in a society that glorifies the individual and treats events as entertainment. I watched the media coverage of another catastrophe, the bridge collapse in Minneapolis from my perch in France--99% of the coverage focused on the human interest story (the tragedy of lives cut short, the narrow escapes, the heroic response.) A few have described the difficulty of the clean-up efforts, the detective work undertaken by the feds to figure out "whodunit," the quick response by local and federal authorities to replace the bridge, and now, some political bickering. I missed any that described the context, the deliberate actions taken by conservatives over the past couple decades to cut funding for the infrastructure.

The coverage of Katrina is very analagous. I conclude that Americans aren't really serious about understanding or changing anything. As a society we have adopted a reactive "don't look back, move forward, here's the storyline" mentality.

The New World Order

# 1
parade square
row on row
external structures
sterile white
a devils brew of
internal toxicity
a living graveyard
# 2
your mailbox again
our records show
your cheque
was mailed sometime ago
# 3
got my rabbits foot
a job
the cedar smells good
but this ain't home
# 4
are those folks
over there
comin or goin
# 5
whats the dude doin
# 6
ain't much for a stage
but plugged in
I'm not here
# 7
this is bad real bad
I've been through worse
# 8
hey young girl wearing
'woman with weapons
for warfare'
# 9
another leak
another day
whats new

PTate in FR "I conclude that Americans aren't really serious about understanding or changing anything.'

That's a broad brush statement this is a broad bush response.

I believe Americans understand and want serious changes. Information gained from polling on medicare to Iraq confirms this. Citizens are constantly betrayed by elected leaders, the corporate elites, and the party which has two names but feeds primarily from the same trough. The MSM compliments this state of affairs. We don't do a hell of a lot better in Canada but with four parties are able to limited the damage and sometimes get qualitative results, like medicare. As power becomes more concentrated in global money markets, NAFTA etc we fight rear guard actions and continue to slowly lose ground. If our Harvard denizen come politician Micheal Ignatieff can learn from a bus driver then its instructive for us to reconsider our fellow citizens in a similiar light.

"my country, t.o.t
s.lan (d)o.l.

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