Tuesday, August 26, 2008


On American Experience: New Orleans
I think I learned more about the history of New Orleans in two hours than I've known my entire life. Granted, I know a lot more of the current history of New Orleans, specifically the police corruption during the early 1990's when 60 police officers got charged with various felonies. Some of the history of the oil corruption in the Gulf Coast region, I had also been aware of, just like the oil corruption elsewhere. More recently, I've been very aware of the whole situation surrounding Hurricane Katrina, including, not surprisingly, more police corruption and another lesson in how the government manages disasters poorly.
I think the part that I found the most interesting is how the city was before the Jim Crow laws were enacted. Blacks and whites intermingled in a way that, even by today's standards, was remarkable. That was one thing that really impressed me, because as a city, it was decades before its time. When the city was forced to comply with Jim Crow Laws, however, a city that had been so open since the beginning was bastardized. As a result of that, I think we can attribute many of today's problems in New Orleans on racism within America, long after the city was founded.
After the Jim Crow laws were enacted, the blacks and white were separated from each other, resulting in the lower 9th ward being populated by black people. The lower 9th ward was also very susceptible to flooding, as it was, in many places 15 feet below sea level. The depressing part, in my opinion, is how quickly the city went from "anything goes" to "anything goes as long as blacks and whites are separate". After the Jim Crow laws were repealed, however, it seems very little progress was made to work past the color divide.
Even in more recent years, with Mayor Ray Nagin at the helm, it's clear that white people identify with him more than black people. In his 2002 election, Nagin received 85% of the white vote and 40% of the black vote. Less than half of the black people living in New Orleans identify with a black mayor, perhaps thinking of him as more of a white man with dark skin than a black man. This could have further fueled tensions between the administration and the people of the lower 9th ward, immediately following Katrina.
Additionally, the people of the lower 9th ward may have seen Nagin's defense of the black people as ingenuine due to the reasons described above, but also due to the fairly impotent response to the disaster. It's hard for me, as an outsider, to not understand why the people of the lower 9th ward thought they weren't a high priority, even though they were the most affected. Economically speaking, they probably weren't a top priority. If you want to crunch the hard numbers, the cost of repairs is probably more than they're ever going to make back in taxes or FEMA funding. Unfortunately, the people in charge don't see the intellectual and cultural value of the city as much as the residents that inhabit it.
How do you weigh the intellectual value of a group of human beings? And how does that balance out with their economic contributions? What are the moral implications of employing such cold, harsh equations? How do the interests of others, within the city, play into the decision? Would there be a different reaction if we were living in the times of a more free, less racist, New Orleans? Will any of us ever get answers to these questions?

On Shelby Lee Adams:
Appalachia is somewhat of an anomaly. It's a region of the United States that's characterized by its incredible poverty and its commitment to agricultural living. Within the entire region, approximately the size of the United Kingdom, there are only two major cities: Knoxville, TN and Pittsburgh, PA. Economic progress has been made in the region, but 108 counties within the region are considered to be beyond help, compared to 219 in 1960. A commitment to rural values has hampered attempts to bring industry to the region, both by the Appalachian Regional Commission and the federal government.
This film pulled me in a lot of different directions. I could understand the intentions of the photographer and I could understand why people might object. In the end, though, I couldn't decide who I agree with. There are certain values that I will never fully understand as an outsider and I believe anybody that claims to understand, fully, the gravity of all opinions presented in the film is not of sound mind. This would be the same if the people of Appalachia came to Minneapolis. The cultures don't necessarily intermix. Our capitalist, metropolitan society has much to learn about rural, agricultural life.
First, I had to acknowledge that Shelby has knowledge that I don't have and wasn't presented in the film. Therefore, I have to trust him as a higher authority. Additionally, I cannot look at the artwork produced by Adams with the same eyes as I look at a piece of art created within a capitalist, metropolitan environment. Many of the photos I saw were very human and were done very tastefully. Others, I found very strange and, sometimes, almost manipulative of their situation.
One thing I had to keep in mind, however, was that essentially all of these were tableuas, so Adams is taking a higher control of the situation than a documentary photographer typically would. This is especially evident with his choice to use a large format camera system, which I don't typically associate with taking spur-of-the-moment photos. Some also employed lighting, which is taking even more control of the situation and also taking more time for the photographic process. So I had to understand that all of these were very carefully setup. This, in my opinion, takes them out of the documentary photography world and into the fine art world. This basically nullifies any argument that these should be taken seriously as documentary photos. This work is merely an interpretation of how these people live.
So if they are an interpretations, then is he taking advantage of these people? Not necessarily. As long as the people being photographed and the viewer understand that it is a highly interpretive photo of these peoples' lives, then I think the "manipulation card" cannot be played. I think the disconnect is where he represents his work as a factual document. That's what really bothers me and others featured in the film. To simply name your book Appalachia is inviting viewers to believe this is an accurate representation of the region. Unless the creative process is thoroughly explained in the book or viewers of the book have seen the documentary, then I have to disagree with the work being produced, despite its inherent technical and creative qualities.
Don't lose faith on me now, though, I'm not damning his work. There are accurate events (you can't really fake a funeral) portrayed within his work and that's to his credit. However, the representation of those accurate events is where, I believe, the intention changed from portraying these events accurately and representing these events stylistically. Whether or not that is moral or immoral is up for debate. I'd love to hear what others think.

1. How has the church taken over social services where FEMA and local government have fallen short?
2. How has the church contributed to the reconstruction efforts.
3. How has the closure and subsequent reopening of the streetcar lines affected transportation.
4. What is the public opinion of nursing homes and other care facilities following the death of several elderly during Katrina?
5. How have city facilities, such as hospitals, public works, etc. recovered
6. What is the public opinion of the police following Katrina?
7. What happened to the animals left behind during Katrina? How have local humane societies dealt with abandoned animals?
8. How are city officials dealing with abandoned homes? How is this inhibiting reconstruction efforts?
9. How have local restaurants recovered?
10. How has Katrina disrupted the local music scene?

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