Things only became real in the Lower 9th Ward after we left.
Last summer I worked in New Orleans with a small group of students from various universities through the non-profit organization Students of the World. We were tasked with creating a video that focused on the rehabilitation work being done in the city, specifically in the Lower 9th Ward where the devastation was the greatest.
The summer started in Austin, Texas for training and orientation. We would sit around in Dr. Strangelove-esque conference rooms, the eight of us, listening to descriptions of what sounded like a foreign country. “These people are different,” we were told. “They will have a strange dialect. They eat different foods. They come from different economic backgrounds.”
We drove 500 miles to what would be our home for the next month in the French Quarter, a block from the infamous Bourbon Street. The apartment was lush and intimate, with strategically placed candles dotting the apartment, lit as if only to show their authenticity. There were two bathrooms and a metal-framed balcony, complete with wicker chairs that looked out onto the constant zoo that is Bourbon Street.
When we made our way to the Lower 9th for the first time — leaving the tourist utopia of the French Quarter — the scenery changed like the way a dream can quickly shift from one environment to another without warning. The Mardi Gras beads and Art Deco banisters gave way to fenced in convenience stores and abandoned churches. Like walking into a war zone few things still stood their ground, and those that did looked ready to give-up.
We were to make a 5-minute video for Make It Right, an organization that is building affordable, safe, green homes for residents of the Lower 9th Ward. The ambitious project comprises just a few blocks of the Lower 9th; the rest is still vacant lots, abandoned homes or the occasional family holding their ground. MIR homes are drastically modern, outshining the barren remainders of a past life.
As I filmed the images of destruction, reconstruction, resilience and hope, the world of the 9th Ward was no more real to me than its images displayed on my LCD screen. I viewed that world as a set of aesthetic choices. Interviews became a mental exercise in monitoring various technological devices. Every room turned into a scavenge for the most pragmatic and pleasing light, every rotting house a series of textures for my mind to manipulate and my camera to mimic.
I experienced every person mediated through an electronic screen. They were not real. Their stories of Katrina were only levels to be adjusted for optimal sound quality. Their tears of past horrors were only pixels resembling the qualities of water.
The camera became a defense against the very reality that I was hoping to capture.
When we got back to Austin we had gathered more than 40 hours of raw material. In order to whittle this down into a five-minute video, we had to upload and watch every tape.
Removed from their native environment, the images changed. I no longer viewed the screen in order to maintain a visual standard. For the first time I became an observer.
The gravity of the images set in. Whose house was this? Where are they now? Why did they leave these possessions? Why does a rotting trophy maintain its glow? How long does it take for a ceiling fan to wilt?
No longer was I able to hide behind my craft. For the first time I gazed at the glowing screen and experienced the humanity of the images.
Back to school. Books, coffee, familiar faces, football, binge drinking, routine. My first week back I was removed, estranged, trying to align my summer experiences with a place that had previously been second nature.
As the weeks passed this fire to consolidate my past present and future lulled into a flickering ember. The routine of school, the familiar faces, the same old same old clouded my desire to incorporate that foreign land into my everyday, but I still maintained one thing that time can never change.
In the same way that a family album enables us to embalm time through the photograph, no matter what routine formulates my everyday privileged existence, my images will forever remind me of the voyeuristic resilience and horror that I witnessed in the Lower 9th ward.