NOTE: BagNewsNotes is now located at Please update your bookmarks.

You will be automatically redirected in a few seconds...

« Please Pass The Danish | Main | Breaking News/Pakistan Earthquake »

Oct 08, 2005

St. Rita Ongoing

In considering all the failures associated with the Katrina disaster, how are we to understand the abuse of the grief process?

Because we're all pretty much friends here now, and I, along with you, have tacitly contracted to participate in the ongoing analysis of the prominent political images of our day, I wanted to involve you in a decision I was wrestling with.

As many of you are aware, I ran Alan Chin's remarkable photos from New Orleans about a week and a half ago.  For long time readers, you also know how interested I am in Alan's work, and his uncanny ability to position himself (and, of course, his camera) at the most fundamental political intersections.

Well, five days after Alan sent me the images I posted, he sent a second set that he shot at St. Rita's nursing home.  That's the establishment where thirty-four elderly residents were abandoned and left to die in the flood waters, and the owners were subsequently charged with manslaughter.

The reason I bring all this up is because I didn't known what to do with the pictures.  On first pass, they seemed both too ghastly and, to be honest, somehow unremarkable (perhaps with the first set fresh in mind).  And, I might have just retained that opinion (as well as the images) if not for the growing prominence of another catastrophe going on in slow-motion in New Orleans right now.

The issue I'm talking about is the autopsy backlog, the hang ups involved in the processing and cataloguing of the deceased, and the running problems (mostly involving liability) between the FEMA morgue and the one operated by the city of New Orleans.  The result (according to the LA Times) is that, as of Friday, only 73 of the dead in Louisiana had been identified out of a state total of 988.

Which brings me back to Alan Chin.

What tipped the balance for me in terms of posting these photos was the problem of corpses in limbo.  In my mind, I can only imagine how families and friends are reacting as they wait -- and possibly face quite a long wait -- for the remains of loved ones.  It was in this context that Alan's St. Rita photos became relevant to me.  Because, what is so disturbing about these photos is how they make an issue out of something so completely private, disturb the wish to be remembered better, and memorialize that which basic dignity expects to have rectified.

If you notice, I have broken my convention of leading off a post with an image.  That's because I felt the need to discuss these first.  Besides your consideration of what they are, I offer you these five nine (out of nine) St. Rita photos to think about whether they should have been posted at all -- and why.

1 Strita07A

2 Strita02A-2    3 Strita03A-1

4 Strita04A    5 Strita06A

6 Strita09A1-1    7 Strita05A1A

8 Strita01A1A     9 Strita08A1A

(click image for larger version)

Again, I believe Alan will be available for questions and feedback in the discussion thread.

(All images courtesy of Alan Chin/Gamma.  New Orleans. 2005.  Posted by permission)


These photos remind me of Man Ray & Marcell Duchamp's readymade "dust breeding" works.


The photos should have been posted so that in seeing them we move beyond the cliched metaphors print repeats ad nauseum. They capture desolation. i thought of how similar they are to the well known Romanian orphanages. Sanitizing the visual only helps those in power.

Oh my god.

It's corruption and perversion: dirty Jesus, sludgy babydoll, upended bed with muddy footprints. The images intimate the horror of the residents. More of a "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" vibe.

Restating the obvious, but Alan is a good photographer.

Absolutely they should be printed. I'm fed up with the beautification of the disaster down there. Bring it on, I say! Show the world how horrible it really is, wake people up for goodness sake!

BAG, one can only begin to imagine the agony on not being able to identify a loved one. As I've mentioned earlier, my brother-in-law was killed by a suicidal driver this summer. The shock of the news was very hard to process. But day by day, the details came out. Someone was thrown from the car? Who? We didn't want to know then. We recently found out, it was my brother-in-law. You would think that it would be too hard to bear, but curiously the mind becomes more settled with each bit of news. Horrifying as the details are to contemplate, it is worse NOT KNOWING.

The same with viewing a body. I'm pretty much against it, but the family was given the choice. My father-in-law said he just had to check -- "to make sure" -- and to say a final goodbye. I saw my father-in-law as he walked back in after viewing his son's body. The agony had been lifted from his face. He even managed a slight smile. "It's him. He looks ok. Yeah, it's him."

So to all those people who are being kept in limbo as they await identification ... my heart weeps for them.

Yes, they ABSOLUTELY should be posted! All images must be seen. Because this is not Romania, although I am beginning to wonder. Alan has brilliantly captured what's essentially human in a few inanimate objects, in these quiet, abandoned scenes. When you see the teddy bear in the ravaged bed and the mud-caked (dead) doll on the floor, you think of children. You think of the helplessness of the people who were senselessly DROWNED in their beds! Unbelievable. The filthy floodwaters have marked their passage on the walls; the body-removal bootprint on a nearby table (rather than on the floor, where boots are supposed to be). The pictures are heartbreaking and horrifying. They articulate the abstract — death, flooding, devastation, destruction — so that we who are not there may understand what has happened. Like the pictures of the Vietnam War that showed us what the human experience of war really is, they contain a moral statement about how people suffered and died. I think the content of these images is as important or even more so than the previous batch (except that the first batch dealt with race). They make me incredibly sad.

These immediately brought to mind>these photos of a kindergarden in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster as photographed recently.

BAG and Alan,

You should post them. The realities of this catastrophe must not be airbrushed away. I trust Alan's extraordinary art. There is a line, somewhere, not bright, that may cross the line into the gratuitous and macabre, but this is not it.

Posting these photos is something that the internets can do that the mainstream print media cannot. I saw one photo, closely cropped, that showed elderly hands, stiff now, gripping a bed rail.

Absolutely yes, these should be posted. I thank you for doing so.

Had just read an LATimes report about the body-recovery problem in NOLA before I did my ritual morning check-in on BagNews. This article adds even more dimension to these profoundly heartbreaking pictures. (I hope it's okay to post an URL to an article elsewhere.)

Every last detail of this tragic story MUST be communicated to the people of this country without the typical gloss, glamour and "don't look there" techniques of the main stream media. The people of this great country MUST wake up to the abomination that is the current administration.

The picture of the foil-covered hearts.

As I mention as often as possible, I have a profound trust in, and respect for the insight, judgement and knowledge of "the BAG collective." (As many of you look forward to that day's BAG offering, the BAG always looks forward to your individual responses, as well as the responses to those responses.) In light of my initial tentativeness about posting these images, I greatly appreciate your conviction as to their importance.

I have added the remaining four photos to the post.

I'm fairly familiar with a couple of nursing homes in Vermont and Kentucky, having elder family in both locations for a while now. A lot of the details in the photos reveal the universal desire for residents to personalize their space, while limited by the neatness mandates of a medical facility and their own physical capabilities. Sad little mementos and scraps of life, but enough to keep a bit of hope and cheer bubbling along.

You are looking at these people's living rooms, and from that perspective the damaged walls and upturned furniture look like all the other flood-damaged living rooms. Knowing that the occupants of those beds were mostly incapable of leaving them without help is what changes things. Knowing that the residents had placed their security in the hands of the staff is what brings a glaring criminal light to the images. All the beds become coffins, and the coffins are scattered and left open.

We are not comfortable with death; our culture is about 'life' - movement and activity, consumption, and the mileposts of change like birth/ adolescence/ relationships beginning or ending/ job changes/ moving to new homes. We don't understand death. I was hesitant in viewing these photos, thinking they contained bodies!

Instead, these pictures are spaces where lives, and bodies, were. They are frames for questions we cannot answer. The imagination runs frantically about, looking for some clues to attach our thoughts upon. Were these people dementia patients who knew not the who where what when why of was happening? Were they simply too physically feeble to protect themselves in even the simplest ways?

And finally, we are repulsed at the indignity of the ends of these lives - filthy intruding waters, mud, disrespected personal momentos - and wonder what our own end might be.

But the light (see the light?) continues. And, yes, these photos are important.

As with the previous round of photos, I would love to read Alan's thoughts and comments about his experience taking these photos. Was it difficult to gain access to the inside, whether because of physical or bureaucratic obstacles? Had the bodies already been removed by the time he arrived? What exactly is the toy leaning against in photo #8? It looks like the building was damaged only by flooding, not by high winds, making the deaths even more shocking, more appalling. It must have been quite moving to be there: Did the light and the religious imagery have an effect in person? They certainly have an effect in the pictures.

Picture #8 strikes me a little different from the others. The little clown doll with the surprised expression and upturned eyes seems so alive. He also looks so incongruously clean, as though he just fell down to that spot a moment ago. In that photo the presence of a being seems still there.

These photos do not incite shock. They break the heart. Pulitzer Prize material, I think.

These photos do not shock. They break the heart.

Has Mr Chin ever won a Pulitzer? These are good candidates.

haunting. eerie.

Mr. Chin's work deserves publication. That being said, have these photographs been published elsewhere?

FWIW, when ever you publish multiple images, it becomes more difficult to engage in the raison d'etre of this site; iow, de-construction of news = photo-journalism and other, visual propaganda.

eg., were I (or any one else, for that matter) to now engage in a discussion of the composition, P.O.V., inherent bias, etc. yadda-yadda of Mr. Chin's work ~ it would be counter-thread... rude.

so... what's the point, Michael ?

Was it difficult to gain access to the inside, whether because of physical or bureaucratic obstacles? Had the bodies already been removed by the time he arrived?

The bodies had already been removed when I visited the St. Rita's Nursing Home, in St. Bernard Parish. I went with my colleagues Christopher Morris, from Time magazine, and Paulo Pellegrin, working for Fortune magazine. In a nice example of cooperation, we were given the directions on how to get there by Stanley Greene. Also, Doug Mills from the NY Times had been there, and Timothy Fadek, whose photos of the Terry Schiavo mess earlier this year were featured on this site, was the first; he photographed the bodies. As the bodies were no longer there, there were no obstacles to go in. Once inside, however, the toxic mud on the floor made it very slippery, and the smell of death was awful. The build-up of humidity and moisture was such that I could barely see through the viewfinders of my cameras as they fogged up completely.

What exactly is the toy leaning against in photo #8?

That looks to be a clown, and yes, it was cleaner than the other debris. Perhaps one of the body-recovery-workers pulled it out from a closet and then put it down on a bed, where I photographed it.

It looks like the building was damaged only by flooding, not by high winds, making the deaths even more shocking, more appalling. It must have been quite moving to be there: Did the light and the religious imagery have an effect in person?

Here's the thing, yes, if we did not know that 34 people died in this place, of course it would look like any other wrecked building; there would be the personal effects and family photographs and so on. So it is the knowledge that we have which made being in that place so emotionally wrenching. I mean, imagine, we could have gone there knowing what we know and then later learn that it was the wrong place and no one died there and we would feel like fools, mixed ambiguous feelings. But in this case there is no doubt whatsoever, we saw extra clean body bags that had not been used, discarded surgical gloves, and the footprints. So we know for sure, that knowledge of unnecessary death in our heads as we moved slowly through there taking pictures. Afterwards we were exhausted in every sense. And it was barely dawn when we arrived early in the morning, and it slowly became brighter in there as the sun rose.

I would like to thank Janet for reminding me of the Chernobyl site by Kiev resident Elena Filatova, which I haven't been to in a while. though my former boss, an archaeologist was during and after their White House siege, putting Mr. Yeltsin in power. It is hauntingly similar, when a disaster strikes, but ours will not be uninhabitable for at least 500 years in some places.

I may be jaded coming from the St. Rita's Parish in the South Bronx, NYC, where the church is a basement, its vaulted ceiling the top of the first floor, as I remember it, a $1 a month to attend, where many buildings were being demolished there, in the footprint of the Janes and Kirtland Foundry which built and assembled the US Capitol dome, the "hat box" prior replaced in the Lincoln Administration (allowed to leak by Republicans in the last administration), the wrecking ball still allowed there and outlawed in Manhattan, though I've seen evidence of symbolic "balls". It is a terror of another sort when government is not prepared to, as a former mayor of a California city, (Irvine? he was thrown out of a Presidential debate here in the Bronx, sued the police and lost) stated in his platform, to use the military to respond to disasters and not as Executive branch expeditions.

The first and last photographs (1 and 9) of the patients' bulletin boards reminded me of assemblages by Joseph Cornell, a surrealist artist haunted by the passage of time. Here we see the patients' few treasured possessions from their earlier lives. The rosaries and small crucifixes could have been First Communion gifts. These elderly Catholics treasured their rosaries because in pre-Vatican Council days, the rosaries were often blessed by the bishop, archbishop, a cardinal or even the Pope himself. What was precious to them in their last days? They cherished the images of people they loved. The faded greeting cards in the last photo show how important it was to them that they not be forgotten. They took solace in the belief in an afterlife. These humble objects survive them as a moving testimonial.

To Alan: Thank you for making these and the other New Orleans photographs (and thanks to the BAG for sharing them with us). They are an indispensable record that required inordinate courage and strength to document, and I am grateful that you went where I could not go.

I have another question: I've read that people were trying to save those who were trapped in the nursing home as the floodwaters rose, and they managed to knock a hole in one wall and get some of the infirm out alive. Did you see the wall with the hole and if so, did you photograph it? Just curious, not sure why.

I asked about photo #8 because I thought it was a bed with safety bars, but I wasn't sure. It is unrecognizable as something you'd ever lie down on, of course, and certainly the bars were rendered irrelevant in the end.

I also asked about the flooding vs. wind damage because I do not count the flooding as Katrina's doing. (NB: Please don't anyone explain to me about the storm surge and the tides and the physics of hurricanes on a city that sits below sea level; I know the science part already.) I count the flooding as a preventable, human-caused catastrophe: across-the-board gross (criminal?) negligence for years by inept/incompetent politicians, first and foremost. And then the (criminal? we'll find out) abandonment by the Manganos, who owned the place and left those people to die. To my mind, people did not have to drown (because the levees did not have to break, etc.) and so, the images do shock me, as in I can't believe this happened. I don't live in an Eastern Bloc or Third World or totalitarian-ruled country; or do I?

Images are no less powerful because they need some backstory to be fully comprehended. Alan's work is evocative and emotional because his images show that something is wrong, something is happening/has happened that is not normal.

To M. Gonzo: Is manipulation of public opinion by supression/censoring of news and images unworthy as a topic for discussion here?

I think you are being extremely--and unnecessarly--delicate when you worry about our reaction to these pictures. Bodies could make me squeamish, but the muddy, disorderd aftermath of a tragedy? As Alan mentions, it is only our knowledge that 34 people died here that make these pictures haunting in a way that other pictures of the devastation are not. People do not need to be protected from the truth. They may not like it, but they, we, need to know.

These pictures are hard to look at, but only because we know what is not there. The one that caught my attention is the last one, of the bulletin board, with the pictures of family. Perhaps a victim is staring out at me from within the crucifix. Her smiling loved ones remind me of what was stolen. I am overwhelmed by the ordinary.

when ever you publish multiple images, it becomes more difficult to engage in the raison d'etre of this site; iow, de-construction of news = photo-journalism and other, visual propaganda.


Your point assumes that the purpose of the site is limited to the de-construction of news. I agree that is a central purpose, but I don't see it as an exclusive one. Because the blog format is conducive (more open than the MSM; more acessible than the art space; more timely than print; free; supportive of some conversation; etc.), why shouldn't the site also function as a form of gallery for important images (and views) that would otherwise remain (less or) un-seen. As the BAG continues to gain notice and respect among photojournalists (especially from posts like this), I hope to do more.

I see no problem with presenting a gallery. I did, though, when reading your up front post, that there would be bodies, or images that would definitely not be seen in the general press or that were too difficult for public consumption. I believe it is the documentarian's - and the artist's - duty to bring to public attention and to make us seewhat powers that be would conceal. What you did present is a gallery of very moving images by Alan Chin that, in their cumulative effect, are a powerful document of loss, perhaps with more power in this context than the more blatent depictions of bodies would be. It is the coincidence of art and documentation (from the good eye of Chin) that gives them such power. JC-S

I don't see any problem with showing these photos. I live in Kuwait, and my (English-language) newspaper sometimes has color photos on the front page of something graphic - e.g., a Palestinian child who has been killed. When we already know that something horrible happened, it shouldn't be shocking to actually see it. Obviously, I'm not talking about bloody, gory pictures that have no purpose, but maybe we should see more realistic pictures of the consequences of war, for example. It's strange that we see so much blood and guts in movies, but we question whether we can handle actual photos of something that really happened.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

My Other Accounts

Blog powered by TypePad
Member since 07/2003