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Sep 27, 2005

Katrina Aftermath: And Then I Saw These

(Update: 7.28.05 12:31 a.m. PST:  Due to the keen interest in this series, all the photos have been reposted at a larger size, and numbered for easier reference. Also, Alan Chin welcomes all questions via the comment thread -- critical or otherwise.)




Until last night, I thought the news images we had seen from New Orleans during the worst days of Katrina were fundamentally unvarnished.  And then I saw these.

Among his peers, Alan Chin is regarded as one of the finest photojournalists in the field -- and I say that not just because he is a friend of this site. What these photos do is bear witness to much of the information that was reinforced through the written word. At the height of the disaster, we saw scenes of suffering, but were primarily told how bitter, annihilating and incomprehensible it was. We saw death, but were told it was everywhere.  Also, we saw scenes of dignity and of contempt -- but not quite as boldly as this.

Two of these images ran in the September 19th issue of Newsweek, and Alan has graciously made the series available to the BAG.  Speaking to him last night, he felt it was vitally important that people understand how serious a failure of government had occurred in New Orleans.  "I mean," he said, "the Indonesians had a tsunami, and they still handled it a hundred times better."

From the standpoint of this site, and my focus on visual politics and media, I asked Alan if he thought there had still been a "filter" on Katrina.  I asked because these pictures seem that much more raw.  Not surprisingly, his answer illuminated the difference it made that most of the news photos were in color.  Chin explained:

"I shot it in black-and-white because we live in America, so no matter what happens, we always have visual elements that are very distracting.  I was one of the only people who did this in black and white.  I felt it should not be distracted by color, by the fact someone might have been wearing a hot pink t-shirt.  I didn't want that irony in it.  I wanted to get to the heart of the matter -- to the crucial thing."

If you were following the BAG last June, you might recall the intellectual equivalent of a brush fire that broke out here over a photo Alan took for the NYT  (Punching Up The Orange - link). Chin had been included in a joint American - Iraqi raid in the town of Mahmudiya, and BnN readers had a lot of questions about the success of the operation, the coherence of the military strategy, the procedures and ethics of embedding journalists, and even the production value of the photo itself.  But what made the discussion so worthwhile was that Alan suddenly popped up in it, burning up the keyboard from various Baghdad safe houses over several days, taking on all matter of civil (and even some less-than-civil) questions and comments.

Once again, Alan has kindly offered to make himself available to discuss his work.  Therefore, as you comment, feel free to offer him any question you like regarding any and all the photos, what he saw, or how they were obtained.  Alan emphasizes that he is not shy about criticism, so say what you will.  Of course, I thank Alan for trusting his images to the BAG.

(Gallery: Click for larger version)

4Chinno006  5 Chinno001  6Chinno012

  7Chinno002   8 Chinno015   9 Chinno008

10Chinno003  11Chinno004 12 Chinno022

13Chinno013 14 Chinno016 15 Chinno005

16Chinno020 17 Chinno021 18 Chinno017

19Chinno019 20 Chinno025 21 Chinno035

22Chinno027  23 Chinno026Rev

24Chinno32 25 Chinno33 26 Chinno29-1


To inquire about purchasing one of these images, or any of Alan Chin's work, please contact: Sasha Wolf Photographs.)

(All images courtesy of Alan Chin/Gamma.  New Orleans. 2005.  Posted by permission.  For more on Alan Chin: Portfolio. Kosovo Diary. Contact: [email protected]))


AC, A-1. This work is amazing, beautiful, sad.

The furniture store is a perfect way to end the series.

... this mind blown.

Finally! This is what we should be talking about. Thanks for these, BAG.

I was immediately reminded of the photos taken by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression. Your work is impressive and stirs all kinds of emotions. Best photo coverage I've seen.

I guess nobody here will be surprised that Mr. Chin does brilliant work. These pictures do show a lot that somehow gets missed in national coverage involving plastic-faced reporters strapped up in wind-tunnels.

I don't want to detract from the value of these photos, but I've always been uncomfortable with the use of black-and-white for certain subjects. One effect for me here is that the picture is actually soothing to my mind, as opposed to the disconcerting chaos of the real thing. The scenes filled with sleepless people and days of refuse are more painful to look at in color.

To compare, people always feel the need to photo concentration camps in BW, which creates a very different image from what you see on visiting one. The first thing I remember thinking at Dachau was that the people who suffered there did so within sight of pretty greenery and "normal" German life. Of course, I don't know if you can catch that in a picture.

Several of the more disturbing pictures (dead bodies) definitely have some advantage in BW, though; it somehow allows the mind to concentrate on what we should be looking at, before really realizing what it is. The pictures are so seductive...

OK. Too many words. Many thanks to the BAG and to Alan Chin for so many things we don't see in the national media.

Merriam-Webster Online

One entry found for FLOTSAM.

Main Entry: flotsam
Pronunciation: 'flät-s&m
Function: noun
Etymology: Anglo-French floteson, from Old French floter to float, of Germanic origin; akin to Old English flotian to float, flota ship

1 : floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo; broadly : floating debris
2 a : a floating population (as of emigrants or castaways) b : an accumulation of miscellaneous or unimportant stuff

One entry found for JETSAM.

Main Entry: jetsam
Pronunciation: 'jet-s&m
Function: noun
Etymology: alteration of jettison

1 : the part of a ship, its equipment, or its cargo that is cast overboard to lighten the load in time of distress and that sinks or is washed ashore

I keep thinking of the dustbowl and "The Grapes of Wrath."

Thank you, Alan, not only for taking these photographs, but for sharing them with this forum. Since Katrina made landfall I have been agitated that visual documentation of this unbelievable and inexcusable devastation has been edited, diluted, and supressed in our reputedly free press. Have these been published anywhere (other than two in Newsweek)?

The reason I've been so upset is because I know something about what "devastation" means. On September 16, 2001, when the mayor said it was okay for the public to re-enter lower Manhattan, I got on the subway at 14th Street and headed downtown. I wanted to go because I didn't want to be sheltered from the reality of what had happened to my city, to my fellow New Yorkers. I didn't want to be informed by TV and newspaper images alone, I didn't want people to clean up the mess for me without having any idea what they had cleaned up. I wanted to see with my own eyes, and I knew there were limitations to my imagination. And about that I was right. No matter how many images I'd already seen--through my own or others' eyes--I was not at all prepared for what awaited me when I came aboveground.

My experiences of lower Manhattan after 9/11 were not just visual. When I stepped off the train into the Fulton Street station I felt sheer panic before I could identify why. That's because it smelled like fire (as opposed to smoke), like get-the-hell-out-NOW! danger, yet the station looked completely normal. The smell was frighteningly close yet nothing around me was burning. I shouldn't be here, I thought; I don't think I am brave enough to do this. But I let myself be moved along by the group of strangers heading silently for the exit to the street.

When I got aboveground I had no idea where I was. For those unfamiliar with Manhattan, Fulton Street is on the east side, a significant distance from the World Trade Center site on the west side of the island. Police barricades and National Guardsmen in camouflage constrained our movements that day. This point was as far west as civilians were permitted.

I couldn't recognize where I was because in addition to the jarring sight of the military on my city's streets there was a 4-inch-thick layer of ash covering every surface. Every surface. The ash muffled our footfalls, obliterated ALL color, and had slid off store awnings in swaths like heavy snow. Alan is right to photograph in black-and-white because color is inseparable from our experience of our surroundings. When color is taken away, we can begin to see. If the photos lull, it is because some of them are too beautiful.

Utter devastation is its own universe, and direct experience of that universe is the only way to truly comprehend it. It escapes capture in images and defies description in words. We must be careful not to poeticize disaster, which I see happening in this forum sometimes. It removes us still further from the people who lived through it, who are themselves devastated in ways that words and pictures can't ever fully document or express. Two weeks after my first trip to lower Manhattan, I went again. I couldn't recognize where I was on that second visit because all of the ash was gone.

AC said: "I mean . . . the Indonesians had a tsunami, and they still handled it a hundred times better." That's sadly right. We (as in the entire country) seem not to realize we should feel deeply ashamed about that.

Wow, those are amazing. Thank you so much, Alan.

I have a question about the 19th image here, the one with the tree branches. With the others, you pretty much can instantly figure out more or less what you're looking at -- with this one, you can't. What is the picture actually of? The cloud formations behind the trees resemble a nuclear mushroom cloud, and the image is vaguely/indirectly almost more powerful than the others because of that (possibly I overstate). But I may be misreading it.

I guess my question is, could you provide just a bit more information about what is going on there?

Thanks again.

The woman wrapped in the American flag (blanket) is a beautiful picture. She is alone in a crowd, no doubt resting and thinking.

The second main picture is great. The small child, likely older brother, likely father holding child all line up by height. It really hits the inter-generational family bond, and family poverty, and perhaps how that family will all come to have a similar world view. It is also striking how the elderly persons are sitting, and there are no other chairs, not even for a little four year old boy.

Oddly enough the photo's with the spray painted warning graffiti is just as expressive as some of the looks and expressions on peoples faces. The words really leap out and put thoughts, fears, etc into the environment. At the same time it is a bit ghostly.

One that jumps out for me is "I AM HERE." I am here - but there is no one there. Ghostly indeed. I have a gun. It may have been a desperate ploy of self-protection against danger, but the message itself plays like a warning from an unseen, nightmarish bogeyman in the closet, from some childhood scare story. An invisible lurking menace.

I agree with Chris: black and white news images take a lot of impact and immediacy out of photos. I like it and I don't. A picture could be gritty in color, and still be gritty in grayscale, but what you focus on when everything is gray is the forms and tones as opposed to the colors. The images become timeless and take away from the sense of immediacy.

Black and white leads to a more reflective take on news while color emphasizes the immediate. Perhaps because we're used to seeing old black and white pictures, perhaps because of the lack of color contrast, I don't know.

How many days was Mr Chin covering the devastation? How did the people in the photos react to the camera? Was it difficult to be in the middle of all of that? How exactly does a photographer cover something of such magnitude?

Those are powerful, sensitive, intimate images from a large disaster. Well done.

Thanks to Alan for sharing these pictures! I have seen other powerful images--I am haunted by the one of the body floating in the canal--but these capture the experience of the displaced--the resignation, the shock, the disorder.

I was at the Tate Modern in London shortly after the discussion last June in a gallery dedicated to political art, specifically, anti-war pictures. I was struck with the realization that artists have not been creating accessible anti-war art. In this, they have as passive and self-absorbed as the SCLM.

Then I remembered Alan Chin's photographs from Iraq. His photos--his observations with a keen eye--are among the most profoundly anti-war statements that I have seen.

And these pictures reinforce my respect for his skill.

The picture that caught my eye is the one--sixth of the thumbnails-of three men and a woman, sitting, waiting, in the midst of chaos. The woman is asleep, her head resting on a man's shoulder. She is vulnerable, and the men surrounding her are watching over her, exhausted but protective. It makes me see the enormity of humans ripped from their surroundings.

Thumbnail 13 reminds me of the New Yorker cover we were considering yesterday. It highlights for me the sentimentality of the New Yorker cover.

Thanks for these great images, Alan. I think the B&W decision was a good one. These images can sit side-by-side with depression-era photos and fit right in. I do hope some kind of book/site of the Katrina images can be made public. I'm thinking the dead woman doesn't look so unhappy to be gone...

To start, I want to clarify what I said about Indonesia and the tsunami; I was on the phone with Michael Shaw and I threw that out as we were talking about the impact of Katrina. I should add that I was not in Indonesia, and I don't really know that they handled that disaster much better than we did here. But I think my point is clear, that a great power like the United States obviously has the resources, the trained units, the organizational capacity, to have responded more effectively than we did.

Regarding the 19th photo with tree branches, that is houses in waist deep water that were set on fire by looters, near St. Charles Avenue. very possibly it could have been caused by broken gas mains or other causes too. but the firemen at the scene said that it was looters. A helicopter is dropping water to prevent the fire from spreading to neighboring houses. It looked and felt like a scene from "Apocalypse Now."

How many days was Mr Chin covering the devastation? I actually made two trips, these photos are all from the first, Sept. 2 to Sept. 7. Then I went back Sept. 11 to 17.

How did the people in the photos react to the camera? Some people did not want to be photographed in, what, for them, was a humiliating or embarrassing situation. I respected that and left them alone. Most people, however, wanted their plight and suffering to be seen by the world, and, were actually amazed that the story was getting coverage in more than just the local New Orleans or Louisiana media.

Was it difficult to be in the middle of all of that? It was difficult in the sense that you simply do not expect to see such misery and unnecessary suffering in a major American city, even one as normally poor, corrupt, and disorganized as New Orleans.

How exactly does a photographer cover something of such magnitude?
Actually from the practical point-of-view this was easy. Fly to Baton Rouge, rent a car, go by the Wal-Mart to stock up on supplies, and drive into the affected area. Because that area was large, there were a lot of places to go to and investigate, to see what was going on. I had been in New Orleans only six months ago so I know my way around well enough, and the threat of looters and violent types, though real, was vastly over-rated. I mean, there was one policeman and one National Guardsman shot, neither fatally. That's bad, but hardly that bad.

Mr. Chin's choice of Black & White was inspired.

in my opinion this medium forces the viewers, as well as the photographer ~ to focus on pure composition, the presence and absence of light ~ rather than spectrum / colour attention.

fwiw, my favourite is image chinno33.jpg where Mr. Chin gets close, then gets closer And i would enjoy seeing more portraits of the victims, rescue workers and static scene watchers done in this fashion...

...because it is in Mr. Chin's B&W portraits that we rise above not only colour towards pure composition; here, this artist reveals character and the gamut of emotions these people express, therein.

It seems to me that the choice of black and white plays with the temporal dislocation we experience when we confront the New Orleans disaster. I have this continual feeling that this is the sort of thing that happened in my grandparents generation, not in my own, except when I wake up in the morning, it's still there and it's still now.

One additional distraction of the use of color is that adult viewers are fairly good at gaging the era of a photo by the nature of the color processing. The use of b&w eliminates that temporal cue as well.

Poking around Fables of the Reconstruction, I saw a link to an amateur do-gooder's site with a lot of pictures, some showing that some of these themes ("LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT") are pretty widespread.

readytoblowagasket - you paint vivid pictures with your words.

I am so sorry I made that snarky post months ago questioning Alan Chin's authenticity. I was humbled then by his most sincere email to me, and I am further humbled by the images he has now shared with our gracious host Michael Shaw.

I was so jaded way-back then, but this site has helped me regain my soul, and some HOPE! because through this internet portal, I have seen the TRUTH finding its way to the light of day. By the means of a camera lens, a welcoming web site, reality breaks through the darkness to find the breath of life.

Both Michael and Alan have a sensitivity, a thirst for truth, and a professional integrity; such ethics/standards are so profoundly lacking in the mass media. This blog is not about staged performances or scripted speeches or photo-ops or surrealism. This is about Life, and this site delivers.

The only question remaining is -- how do we honor the works that have been offered here? How do we carry their torches?

Thanks, Chris, for the kind words and for the links. I can't get enough of the pictures, whether b&w or color.

The more I look at Alan Chin's photographs here, the more they evoke: I am reminded of Civil War era death portraits (especially #05, whose black tarp looks like her makeshift mourning dress) as well as Civil Rights era unrest (#06--two women, #03-1--blood on the street). Timeless is right! Also, some are iconic of the Deep South, like #20, a lone African-American standing in some no-name flooded, deserted small town. How many times have we seen some of these same images of poor black Americans? Like we have gone nowhere in a hundred years. I'd like to see an exhibit of some of these photos alongside photos from the flood of 1927.

These pictures should have been the backdrop to 'Brownie's' disgusting appearanc before Congress today. He simply couldn't have continued his liefest with these images speaking volumes about the depth of his incompetence.

Powerful, disturbing and possibly the best evidence yet of the utter failure of BushCo to deal with the tragedy.

Thank you so much Alan for sharing your extraordinary photos with us on the Bag.

Stuck by all of them... the elderly woman slumped in the flag says it all.

I agree... in this day and age a color photo says look and move on to the next page.

Thanks again.

The eye slows down in your essay Mr Chin, as for a sad song.

Many of these pictures evoke a religious element--the man standing in the water looks like a kind of reference to baptism, the folks on the overpass look like the Israelites fleeing Egypt, the folks lying on the cot like the holy family, the folks sitting in chairs like a kind of congregation, the woman with her hand on her child's head a madonna, the furniture sign a crucifix. Part of their power, in other words, is that they bring back to haunt us part of our own tradition as a (nominally, anyway) Judeo-Christian nation. These are our brothers and sisters, the ones Jesus said we will be judged for helping or not helping, the ones that the Torah claims are strangers that need our help and love. If ever the gift of tears were given by God, it is in these pictures. If ever an answer to the question--if not now, when, if not me, whom--were possible it is after seeing them. May Jesus, may God move us in these photos to see that these folks are the body of Christ, the people of God and it is our duty to do so much more than talk about their images. Our humility, which speaks to us from these fine documents, must turn to peaceful but not passive action.

very much struck by commonality of despair/resignation in photos. Broken-backed (black) people slumped. 'Cos they are black/white photos, light seems to emphasise this more.
On a different level, poster tracy commented on the etymology of 'flotsam': Meriam-Webster also has this as a definition of the word 'government'. " obsolete : moral conduct or behavior : DISCRETION"
Increasingly, I feel the judge of a societies worth should be how you treat your old people, your poor people and your sick people. Not a new or original idea, but whatever happened??

Caption for #6: "I survived Katrina but all I got was this lousy flag."

The woman with the flag blanket over her shoulders-- is she Milvertha Hendricks? A photo of her outside the Convention Center on Thursday Sept 1 was widely punlished. In that one, the flag blanket is wrapping all but her face, and I thought it was the central iconic image of the whole rotten tragedy. In yours, she looks far worse. Do you know when you shot that? Does anyone know what happened to Milvertha Hendricks?

i would really like to see these photos on a larger scale in person. there's a dramatic connection with good photography like this when a fine print is staring at you in all its clarity on the wall, that is only really hinted at on the web and in newsprint. these are shockingly rich photographs, which through the correct choice of using b/w, captures what should never have happened to n'aleans quite starlingly and clearly. i need to restrain myself when talking about the actual hurricanes, i find it far too upsetting that this country can't (or wouldn't) respond quickly and effectively in a disaster. and to allow this to happen to this extent among the least fortunate among us is unconscionable.

thanks for sharing these & to the bag for the forum. it's rewarding to have the opportunity to see a body of work like this in one shot.

yes, according to AP the old woman in the American flag blanket is Milvertha Hendricks, 87 years old. The AP photo, in color, by Eric Gay of San Antonio, was published widely. Mine, in B+W as you see here, ran in Newsweek. I took my photo on the morning of Saturday, September 3rd, at the Convention Center. So she looks far worse, because it is two days later than Eric's photo. She and the thousands still at the Convention Center were finally evacuated later that day. I do not know what happened to her after.

Sharon Rosenzweig, it looks like the same person. In the color picture you saw of her she is in front of the convention center in the rain on September 2. Hopefully, she got out within a few days. Alan was in N.O. from Sept. 2 to Sept. 7 and from Sept. 11 to 17. I think she looks bad in Alan's picture because it's impossible to sleep in that chair. She looks pretty good for 84 years old, though. Here's the color picture:
Milvertha Hendricks, 84, vítima da tragédia em Nova Orleans,1581,1699858,00.html

I have a question: why black & white?

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