I have been driving around for about an hour. Finally, I stop my vehicle, pick up the camera on the seat next to me, and get out. No need to pull to the side of the road. The streets of New Orleans are empty, and the gutter is full of mud.
It is February 2006, six months after Hurricane Katrina roared ashore and five months after the flood subsided. My first trips to New Orleans post-Katrina had been in October 2005 to help evacuees living with me salvage things from their ground floor apartment in the Mid-City neighborhood. We didn’t get much.
This trip is to take pictures. I’m a documentary and art photographer. Documentarists take pictures of the important events of our individual and communal lives. Of course, I would take pictures.
And so I do. Click. Click. Click.
One of the great advantages of digital cameras is being able to look at the pictures immediately.
Delete. Delete. Delete.
I try again. A child’s flip-flop has been stranded high on a chain-link fence by receding water. Surely that will make a worthy picture.
How can I tell this story?
I remember thinking, “The news media have already shown us that. I can’t do it any better.” Besides, that was not really the story.
Certainly, the hurricane and the flood had left all manner of things in wrong places and everyone has seen the pictures: A broken doll face down in the mud, a boat on top of a house, a refrigerator in a tree. But eloquent as they are, pictures of buildings on top of vehicles and vice versa, houses spewing their contents, piles of rubble, scattered toys and so forth, even pictures of people wading to safety, being rescued from rooftops, stranded on overpasses and in places never intended to be livable — and more — do not tell the whole story of what happened to New Orleans. Water that comes and stays devastates in its own particular way.
So it was that finally, the first of April 2006, I began to photograph the thing that had caught my eye from that first trip in October 2005: The waterline left by the Katrina flood on every building, tree, vehicle and sign — everything that couldn’t move out of its way — in 80% of the city of New Orleans. I had no idea what I was going to do with the pictures.
What I ultimately did with the pictures was create “WATERLINE: An interactive photo installation.” It was a true installation. 200+ linear feet of photographs of the waterline mounted edge to edge on white foam core panels with only the marks left by the waters that came and stayed lined up from photo to photo and panel to panel.
And it was interactive, garnering hundreds of comments written on the foam core panels above and below the photographs that reconstructed the water lines left by the receding flood of Hurricane Katrina. The comments came from hundreds of viewers who saw it in 15 installations around Louisiana and one in Florida between fall 2006 and its latest and perhaps final installation on the 10th anniversary of Katrina in fall 2016.
What I learned about photographing natural disasters
Look for the stories that aren’t being told
Typically, news media are all over natural disasters quickly, and, as I imply above, they do what they do pretty well. If you want your images to have an impact, you’ll need to find the stories that aren’t being told by news media.
Be sensitive to the plight of the people
Don’t be a jerk, sticking your camera in the face of traumatized people and/or invading their space from afar with a telephoto lens. I didn’t photograph people for my project but they are thereby implication and I think the images are more eloquent for it.
If you want to photograph people, talk to them first. Interact with them. You’ll end up with a better story. And I carried extra bottled water in my car to hand out to people cleaning out their homes in the sweltering heat.
Now is not the time to experiment with new technology
In fact, after that first day of trying to photograph Katrina, I set aside my digital camera, which I was still very new at using. I got out my familiar analog camera and shot the entire project on Ektachrome. I wanted confident control over what I was doing.
Of course, I don’t expect anyone today to have to go back to film for that reason. All I’m saying is that in disaster situations, stick with familiar technology because you are shooting under stressful, difficult conditions.
If you want or need to make money from your images, find another project
Not that making money from disaster images is a bad thing, especially if you have respected people in making them. Rather, I never figured out how to do it. I spent a lot but never made a penny off of WATERLINE.
I’m not really complaining. Although it would have been nice to at least break even, I had a larger purpose, namely making a difference for New Orleans.
The WATERLINE exhibit
WATERLINE was exhibited 15 times around the state of Louisiana and in Florida. You can get a better sense of the work, find more images, stories and comments on the WATERLINE Facebook page.
A book was also created from this project. “WATERLINE” was self-published via Blurb and is available on Amazon. Along with the book, limited edition posters of a segment of the WATERLINE panels are available here.
The 2016 installation was perhaps WATERLINE’s last exhibition. After that 10th anniversary installation, after 10 years of living and breathing WATERLINE, lugging it about the state installing and de-installing it (which no one else could ever do because each installation was tailored to the exhibition space). After searching for financial support for it, getting rejection letters from publishers to whom I proposed the book, and more, I needed to move on.
As I write this, I know that if some venue wanted me to install it again, I would (but my expenses would have to be covered). I truly believe it to be a unique and powerful work. It seems like at least some portion of it should be preserved, but I can’t fathom how or where or by whom. So today the panels sit in canvas cases made especially for transporting them in a spare room of my home. I can’t yet bring myself to destroy them.
About Bette J. Kauffman
Bette took up photography as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, exhibited locally and won a couple of photography awards during that time. She attended graduate school, then started full-time teaching, and with almost 10 years as an academic department head pushed photography out of the picture for a time.
Hurricane Katrina inspired her to pick up her camera again. For 10 years she developed and exhibited the critically acclaimed WATERLINE project.
Today she photographs the natural world and industry, including agriculture. Bette has a special fondness for construction sites. She also does architectural and street photography when the opportunity arises. Search online for #EarthAbstracts, #IntimateLandscapes, #CreatureEncounters, #HardHatArt and #PerformanceArt. Bette’s work is regularly invited into national and international juried shows. She sells photographs via several online and local venues, and you can find her blog here.
Editor’s note: We asked Bette to share her story of Katrina following the recent devastation caused by Hurricane Ida in the New Orleans area.