Friday, February 25, 2011

to move

There are two incidents that I have experienced in the past week that I want to talk about. First of all, when I was stressing out this morning about my guest teaching at an Elementary School, I went for coffee. I spend every Friday and Sunday morning in this coffee shop and order the same thing. What I love about Fridays is that there is hardly anyone here. People come and go but it's quiet and I can do work without seeing a bunch of people I know. Today, in the midst of my coffee order, the barista told me that someone bought a gift card for someone who came in to the coffee shop today. I ended up only paying for my bagel because someone had purchased a coffee for someone had wanted to make a stranger's day. My day was made, and it reminded me to pay it forward. So I'm going to try to do a couple nice things for people today.
The second 'pay it forward' example I saw was yesterday afternoon. I was in a computer lab on campus when a woman came in with a small baby. She sat down at the computer and was obviously trying to get work done but her babe was pretty restless. It was an obvious struggle, and a girl sitting behind me went over and asked her if she could hold her daughter so she could get some work done. The mother had a relieved look on her face and was able to be productive for a couple minutes. Generosity and little sacrifices like this make me extremely happy and have a lot of faith in the world around me. Just thought I would share.

The next thing I want to talk about is creativity and inspiration. The funny thing about inspiration is that it moves me so much that I get frustrated. It's something that I have been forced to balance: the need to move and travel for creativity, and the need to have something stable. It's not that I'm unhappy when I feel this, I just know when I'm in one place too long, I feel like my life is just sitting and my heart gets dusty. I see a lot of my friend circle getting to travel and experience the rest of the world and a part of my heart starts out of envy. I understand that there is a reason why I'm supposed to be here, now. But that doesn't stop the ongoing cycle of the desire to move. I have to wonder if I'll ever find a balance among this; if the need to constantly be moving will subside. I believe it's also a bit selfish, you know. That it is always my desire to move. And what will make me happy. I live a very solo lifestyle. A lot of people don't understand it. And a lot of people can't keep up with it. I don't blame them, it's chaotic sometimes and you learn to adapt quickly. But I will never sit in an office at a 9-5 job and I will never feel comfortable in a cubicle. I feel like when my soul is happy and fulfilled, I can be a more productive person to the world. When I'm shooting photos, it's the happiest and most fulfilling thing I can be doing with my time. And who can deny you of that?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Trip Report: NOLA (Part 2)

After city park, we realized how hungry we were, so we made our way over to a poboy restaurant by a cemetery. I've never had a poboy sandwich in my life, but let me just tell you. I am a big, big fan. As I was ordering, the woman behind the counter, May, started asking me about why I was in the city. As I explained the project to her, she told me that her and her husband, Yang, would be happy to talk to me about the hurricane. I ate while Yang talked to me about their experience about the storm. Her husband explained to me that they decided to stay in their restaurant for the period of the storm. As soon as the hurricane was over, they emerged from their shop, and everything was destroyed. He said it was the scariest thing he has ever experienced in his life, and I witnessed the deepness of the terror in his eyes while he said this. They thought they were the only living beings, and their moving around was the only sound that they heard. No birds, no cars, no wind. Just quiet.

I listened, thanked them and then asked to take their photograph. (Yang and May- owners of Yang's Poboy) As we were getting up to leave, two men sitting at a table behind me mentioned that they overheard my project. They introduced themselves both as Mike and that they were both contractors for houses, doing storm repair. I boldly asked if I could see a before and an after house, and they said they would show me as much as they could. We excitedly jumped in the car and drove to the "After" house.

The same hardwood floors that were in there before, but they redid everything else. It was a beautiful house. After taking a short tour, we were on to the "Before" house. When we arrived there, Mike handed me a flashlight. "Breathe into your shirt, or don't breathe deep. Don't touch anything. Remember, someone used to call this a home." The pool outside was covered up to ground level with grass and Mike told us that there was hurricane debris inside of it. I asked if there could be a body buried in this debris. He slowly nodded and I felt sick to my stomach. As we entered the house, most of the bottom floor had been stripped of its walls. A lone faucet and shower head stood in the midst of everything. Seaweed was hanging from the ceiling above the door, and the whole house was hot and reeked of mold. He took us upstairs and before we entered the old tenant's bedroom, he explained to us that things were virtually untouched since the storm.

Once we walked in the bedroom door, my breath was gone. The guy's deodorant, comb, hairdryer, cigarettes and ash tray, and clothes were exactly where he had left them. Mike explained to us that this man that had lived here gathered up 3 bags of clothes and tried to leave. And didn't make it back. I found negatives on the floor, and tears welled in my eyes as I held them up and a perfect image of a girl smiling was displayed in front of me. I had no idea whoo this was, but she was obviously important to him. We left the house and I couldn't believe what I had just seen. The storm just became very very real to me, and there were ghosts of Katrina everywhere I went.

Katherine and I made our way to the lake, and as we were walking along the steps of the edges, it started to rain. Driving back into the city, I noticed grates in the highway to drain water quickly. It wasn't raining hard, but there was a ton of water.

We went home that night and I was feeling the weight of this storm. There was so much left untouched, and it was a lot to handle. That night, we met up with a friend of a friend, Katie, at Cafe du Monde, which I am now obsessed with. We shared Cafe Au Laite's and beignets while we talked about the day.

Before I left, with a huge help from some friends from National Geographic, I had gotten in touch with the photographer, Tyrone Turner ( who shot the Hurricane story for the magazine. He had given me the name of a guy, Robert Green, who he thought might be able to help me understand the rebuilding process. I called Robert, and he said that he would meet us that afternoon and show us around the neighborhood of the Lower 9th Ward, a place that due to a break in the barge, flooded more than much of the city.

We decided to drive around the lower 9th ward area, and we visited the only park that is currently up, which was completely controlled by solar power (it was awesome). We played in the park for about 30 minutes and then went to lunch. After lunch, we were driving back into the city when I saw an old abandoned church. I asked to pull over, and we went exploring inside. The carpet had been ripped out, but the pews had served as an obvious bed for those who needed it some nights. Stain class shadows left colorful squares on the floors and a huge mural of Jesus with his arms around New Orleans was painted at the very front. We walked around in the church, and then looked around at an abandoned Christian Academy right next to it. It was hauntingly beautiful, as chandeliers still hung from the ceiling, above the black mold and broken glass covering the floors.

Driving around the lower 9th ward in the morning, in the car was Katie, myself, Katherine and her roommate Melanie (Thank you Melanie, a hundred times over, for the use of your car.) As we were driving around the neighborhood, we found houses without walls, but with light switches still attached, railroad tracks that led to nowhere, puddles of water that perfectly reflected houses and then we found Helen. As we drove our car past, a very cute old woman waved at us from her porch. I thought how photogenic her wrinkles were and how much I wanted to talk to her. We pulled over and started talking to her. Helen was 90 years old and full of sass. She was definitely one of a kind, and embodied old New Orleans culture. Sweet smells drifted from her kitchen and she talked about how all of her neighbors were going to wonder why she was talking to "all these white girls." It wasn't said as a racist comment, but more so of an observation. She told us about her experience with the storm, and agreed to let me take her photo. When I gave her my information and told her that she could find me on the internet, she asked if the internet was something on the television.

We then visited Robert Green. He was probably the most inspiring person I've met on this trip by far. He invited us in to his Make It Right home in the Lower 9th ward and the rest of the girls played with his grandson, Everett, while I talked to him. Robert lived in a FEMA trailer for 3 years before his house was built by Brad Pitt's organization ( Robert told us his story as he walked around the neighborhood. When the storm hit, his mother, who he lived with, was very sick. They tried to leave in their car for Baton Rouge, but sat in traffic for 7 hours before deciding to turn back. After turning back, they tried to go to the Superdome but got turned away due to lack of space. They went back to their house, and had to break their attic ceiling onto their roof because their house was flooding. The water picked up their roof and carried it 200 yards down the road to a tree. The roof hit the tree, and when it broke, Robert lost both his mother and his 3 year old granddaughter. Tears filled both his and our eyes as he recounted this story, and he walked us to the tree. I asked him, "how has this storm made you a better person?" And he told me, "It's no use hoping for my granddaughter or mother back. Hoping that will do nothing for me. I can appreciate all the moments I had with them, but I now appreciate every moment I have with my grandson and my family." I have to sincerely thank both Robert and Tyrone for helping make this trip successful. Robert explained a picture he had of the barge breaking into the lower 9th, which caused the neighborhood to flood. If the government had moved the barge, like they were supposed to, it would have prevented much of the flooding, and might have saved hundreds of people's lives.

We left Robert's house fulfilled. I parted ways with Katherine and Melanie and Katie and I went to dinner in the French Quarter, where my hotel was. Despite my dislike of shrimp, I accidently ordered a bowl of barbeque shrimp for dinner. Since it was my last night in NOLA, and neither one of us had ever had our fortune's told, we decided to go do that in Jackson square. We sat down with Madame Teresa who had Mardi Gras beads on the table and fake candles on her table, sitting in a lawn chair. I had told Katie beforehand (since I'm a little afraid of flying) that I have always been scared to get my fortune told because I never wanted a death card, and especially because I was flying the next day, if I got a card that predicted my death, I was going to flip. As Madame Teresa told us to draw cards, the first card I turned over was a guy, laying on the ground with seven swords stuck in his back. As I verbally started panicking, Katie laughed uncontrollably and Madame Teresa told me that it wasn't a death card, but that I need to "watch for backstabbers." We left the table and giggled all the way back home.

NOLA, overall was an incredible trip for me. Everyone that I met, shared experiences with, let me photograph them, etc, made the trip both beautiful and haunting. I have shared all these photos with you in order to show you an accurate depiction of my trip, so please refrain from downloading them. Thank you for reading my story. Half of the proceeds from the photos I sold in the gallery here, went to the Make It Right Foundation, and the same will be true with any of the Ghosts of Katrina photos bought off of my website. We can continue to rebuild this city. I owe a huge, HUGE thank you to these people:
University of Wyoming (specifically Michael L. and Sarah B.)
Gallery 234
Melanie M.
Katie B.
Jennifer O. and family
Cary B.
Mike D.
Helen O.
Chris M.
Connor N.
Nori N.
Robert Green
Tyrone Turner
Rebecca Martin
Sadie Quarrier
Pete Hill
and finally, Lowepro Camera Bags.
I sincerely appreciate all of your help and support through this project. I can't wait to return to New Orleans. My question, "Why would you return?" was answered at the end of this project. The food, the people, the culture, the music. It is all unique and beautiful. New Orleans is unlike anywhere else in the world. And it's just the feeling you get when you go there that keeps you wanting to come back.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Trip Report: NOLA (Part 1)

After my recent post about my lack of a trip report for my New Orleans trip, I received a couple messages from various people encouraging me to write one. So here it goes!

I found out I was leaving for NOLA on my birthday in September. I have never been thrust into a situation where I felt so unprepared, and plus, I only knew one person there. I sent out probably 30 emails to various people around the country, asking for their support in finding myself a ride from the airport, people to take me around, people to talk to, etc. The immense amount of responses and compassion I found was so incredible. I eventually got in touch with a family there, a friend of a friend, and an old friend who I hadn't seen in years. So one and a half weeks after I learned that I had gotten the grant to go, I departed for the city.

My first twenty minutes in New Orleans made me quickly realize that I had never experienced diversity in this type of setting before. My skin color has never made me a minority in my life, and suddenly I was in a situation where this was the only thing that I could see: a separation and a difference. "Uncomfortable" isn't the word that I would use to describe this feeling, but it's something that I believe everyone should experience at least once in their lives. It was a paradigm shift, and I was grateful for it.

Walking down Bourbon Street from my hotel with my friend Katherine who I hadn't seen for years, I was made aware of the culture instantly. In Laramie, the bars are the only places open past 11 PM which was not the case here. Everything was open, there were lights and colors and people pouring out onto the streets. We sat down at the bar and got ourselves some seafood to go, when I got a call from the family that I was directed to before I left. As soon as we ate, we were off with them for frozen yogurt at a delicious little shop. We talked about the hurricane and everything that I wanted to see and do and visit.

The next day, I woke up ready to go. We had a quick stop by a coffee shop by Tulane while Katherine ran to a meeting. I wandered around the school, and stopped under this tree with an insane amount of Mardi Gras beads hanging off of it's branches. I think this is when I realized how important culture is to this city. It's not a "party" city, it dawned on me that this is a city that enjoys celebrating their mixing pot of culture and food. Tulane was a beautiful campus and I was told that it was not touched by flooding at all. We drove away from the old building structures and big rooted trees and started driving out from the city.

Very quickly, things turned empty. When I say this, I mean to say that buildings turned into shells with broken windows, and houses turned into shipwrecks.

I was amazed how much work had not been done to clean these things up. People lived next to this and walked past the black mold everyday. Sidewalks became covered with vines and weeds and there was so much abandonment. I learned after the trip, that many people didn't have the choice to come back. The amount of money and manpower that it takes to tear these things down is unrealistic.

We tried talking to some people working on a house about the storm, but I realized how difficult it was to start up a conversation with people. Hurricane Katrina, for many people is associated with a lot of hurt, loss and grief. And for going up to talk to complete strangers, many people's defenses go up immediately.

So we drove back through the city, winding through city roads and highways. We passed the Superdome, which if you watched the news when the Hurricane was happening, was the place where thousands of people lived in unbelievable conditions for an unbelievable amount of time. This was five years after the storm, and it was pretty symbolic for me to see the Superdome being resided and renewed. We made our way to City Park to check out some trees that I was told had lichen lines growing around them. The thought is that when the toxic water floated through City Park, it killed the lichen, which is now growing back in distinct rings around the trees there. We made small talk with a couple people, and my main question I was trying to answer was, "Why would you come back here?"
Not being from New Orleans, or not spending more than the past 12 hours there, I couldn't understand why people would come back to a bowl shaped city that could fill with water again any minute. No one could tell me a straight answer, all they could say is that New Orleans just had...a feeling to it.

We also chased pigeons through the park.

I was starting to panic a little because we hadn't talked to anyone that would let me photograph them, let alone talk in depth about the storm to a complete stranger. I felt really unprepared and discouraged, and I was starting to get pessimistic that I would be able to fulfill the requirements for this trip at all. To bring back 25 gallery images in only 2 full days in a new city seemed like an unrealistic expectation.