Friday, August 21, 2009

The one with the artist statement.

Chuck explained to us that he had been living in his trailer with his three-legged dog, Spunk, for going on two years. He’s a marble worker and tiler by trade, offering his services to his neighbors that are getting back on their feet and rebuilding their houses. He has even made a poker table for the governor of Louisiana. The house that sits next to his trailer had been built by his father decades earlier. He had grown up in it, raised his children in it, and couldn’t bear to leave it. He said in passing, “Two years and two hundred square feet…” That’s where this project derives its name.

This essay documents the remaining FEMA trailers and the people that live in them. Since this essay’s infancy, it was never intended to be a documentation of tragedy, or for my travels to be considered disaster tourism, a practice that I consider ethically ambiguous at best. On the contrary, it is meant to be a sensitive retelling of the state of New Orleans and the under-represented population that occupies FEMA trailers. Not all stories are happy, but, by the same measure, not all stories are sad. This series of photographs conveys, as truthfully as I can, the stories of the people documented in this visual essay.

This project began, in earnest, in September 2008 when I traveled to New Orleans as part of a photo essay class. The interest in the story began long before that, however. The news networks ran stories about Hurricane Katrina, day and night, for weeks after the storm. I saw stories of volunteers helping to rescue people from their homes in between stories of people looking for their lost family members. I wanted so badly provide some relief for these people. I had grown up with the understanding that I need to think of others before thinking of myself. I was only seventeen at the time and had no way of getting to New Orleans. I would have to wait. When I started college, an opportunity to go to New Orleans finally came. Long after the networks had forgotten Hurricane Katrina, I had the same desire to provide relief to residents of New Orleans, though it would come in the form of a photographic essay organized into a book and gallery exhibition.

After having followed the story for years, I was convinced that I knew all that I needed to make a successful photo essay. I quickly found out that my perceptions of the situation at hand were largely incorrect. Talking to residents of New Orleans helped me understand the situation better than any news report ever could. There were more dynamics and facets to all of this than I could have ever realized. Political, social, and economic issues surrounded this hurricane and I realized very early on that this problem stretched far beyond the Bush administration and FEMA. As I learned more and more, I felt like I could empathize with these people instead of insulting them with how little I knew. In this way, the project experienced a sort of creative genesis.

I returned to New Orleans in June 2009 to continue what I had started months earlier. The time apart from the project wasn’t detrimental, however. In fact, it helped my project become more focused. During my time away, I grew more mature, more skilled, and more confident about my craft. Lessons learned on the last trip helped me be a more effective photographer by slowing down and being more deliberate, and I believe the new collection of work reflects that. Overall, I am more satisfied, both technically and conceptually, with this body of work than I ever was with the original.

In the same way that the project underwent a creative genesis, this book has evolved significantly from its original published version. As I reflect on it now, the original book was hastily made and it’s something that I regret. Now that I have the experience of presenting this work in the form of a book once, presenting old and new material in the form of a book is a different experience. Just as my photographic process has changed, the process of presenting this work has also changed. This new book is the logical progression from the original offering.

The number of trailers in New Orleans is quickly dwindling, due to new city ordinances and FEMA policies. Residents of New Orleans, whether they do not have the funds to rebuild, or are still waiting for government assistance to arrive, have a continued need for their FEMA trailers. After more than three years, their plight gets very little media attention aside from specials that run at the end of August and beginning of September for the anniversaries. Families that still live in FEMA trailers are under-represented in New Orleans society, and especially in a national context. Citizens outside of Louisiana are often ill-informed of the current situation. Two Years and Two Hundred Square Feet seeks to inform its audience that residents of New Orleans have a continued need for help and that, three years later, New Orleans is not back on its feet.

This project will continue to evolve until there are no longer and FEMA trailers in New Orleans. Until that happens, I do not consider this to be a comprehensive series documenting the final 2,650 trailers in New Orleans that existed on September 20th, 2008. As of March 29th, 2009, there are only 1,042 FEMA trailers residing in New Orleans. Due to new city ordinances and FEMA policies, trailers are disappearing at a staggering rate. Before long, no FEMA trailers will remain in New Orleans. This issue needs to be documented before the families the families in need that occupy these FEMA trailers are swept under the rug and forgotten.

To this day, Chuck is still slowly rebuilding the house that his father had built. He is like so many others in New Orleans, doing what they can to make ends meet while trying to get their former lives back. They would rather endure life in a FEMA trailer than leave the city they love so much. I hope that after viewing this body of work, you tell others of the state of New Orleans. Spreading the message will give people like Chuck a voice. Thank you very much and I hope you enjoy.

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