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August 28, 2006

Katrina Anniversary: The Art Of Misery


In the summer issue of Aperture, Fred Ritchen (the director of Pixel Press and the Transmedia Center at Temple University) reviewed The Body At Risk (link), a photography exhibition dealing with “the vulnerability of the human condition” over the past hundred years.

Ritchen described the show as “concerned photography,” which he elaborated as:

“the notion that a compassionate, empathic approach to human suffering, with the photographer serving as eyewitness, is able to provoke society to do something about the problems revealed.”

In that context, Ritchen cautions that such exhibitions mostly offer a “self comforting delusion” because their display causes little to happen.  Perhaps his critique is aimed mostly at photos in galleries or museums.  Alluding to the effectiveness of social images in publications such as LIFE Magazine, however, I assume Ritchen’s point also extends to the news press.

As dedicated as I am to political imagery, I hope the stream of Katrina-inspired photo-documentation is having some tangible impact on the reconstruction of the Gulf.  However, I’m under no illusion about this week’s anniversary visuals.  With summer at its exhaustion point, its hard not to see the “concerned” pictorial coverage as feeding the commercial interests of the media, as well as various political aims.

As a case in point, I was put off by the heavy-handed images in this week’s NY Times Magazine lead story, “Children of the Storm.”  (That’s the cover shot above.  The on-line edition offers this dedicated interactive feature.)

In the piece, we have image after black-and-white image of children in what often feel like tightly-scripted and self-conscious expressions of misery.  In the shot above, for example, we find a boy who is somehow wet posing disconsolately in front of the camera nearby an open hose.  The decrepit surroundings suggest the ground — fed by that notorious Gulf water — might even be contaminated.

Here are a some others that seemed to preach more than inform.


(click for full size)

In this image, we have a small girl with a slight prosecutorial hitch in her right shoulder (in synchrony with Mom’s).  As the mother’s alter ego (or the photographer’s?), how much insight can be derived from an enlisted child (unless that’s the real subject here.)  Given the various agendas (Mom’s, the photographer’s, the magazine’s), how is one to respond to what comes off like display?  In other words, how can we tell how much the child’s suspicion has to do with the mother’s social grievances, the child’s everyday response to her lot, or the fact some (I’m assuming, white) strangers have just invaded for an anniversary?


(click for full size)

And then there’s this.

If the girl wasn’t prompted to sit on the cooler, and the lonely facing bench wasn’t placed in the corner, and the items on the floor weren’t arrayed like that (which they very well might not have been), then my apologies.  Offered up as a news photograph (as opposed to an “art photograph”), however, I find the composition problematic just for the evocation of contrivance.

More troubling, however, is the long angle.  With the cavernous effect, the image functions more like a public service announcement.  In a stretch of time where the conscious (visual) news consumer — bombarded by misery — has been forced to develop much finer instincts regarding what feels genuine, the exaggeration here seems counterproductive.  (On my first pass, the pic had a “Katrina meets Gitmo” feel to it.)

At the outset of the interactive feature, the photographer cites a discussion with the NYT Mag photo editor.  With so many thousands of children dispossessed by Katrina, the editor asks, “how come I haven’t seen any of them?”  It’s a good and noble question which motivated a commendable assignment.  In many of the resulting images, however, perhaps too much effort went into making up the difference all at once.

According to Ritchen, a good part of the problem with “concerned photography” is that the images lack the “compelling synergies of newer media,” the “political strategies,” and the “pragmatic responses to the imagery” that might actually elicit a truly social response.

Maybe I’m wrong about these pictures.  In showcasing these images (as well as showcasing the showcase), however, my hope is that we might better challenge the veracity of political imagery, and, in doing so, deliver a less contrived viewpoint to a more activated audience.  If that’s what we’re doing here everyday, I think it’s a particularly worthy effort this “Katrina Week.”

(images: Brenda Ann Kenneally.  NYT Magazine.  August 27, 2006.)

About the Photographer


  • snobar

    Maybe a bit off topic, but the biggest shame of all is uncovered by Greg Palast and it may also be read at my blog borderlines

  • MichaelDG

    Dear Bag,
    The main question on my mind, which relates to your musings, is how well do these photos reflect the status of the majority of New Orleanians one year after the storm. I am sure that these children do indeed live in poverty- does this reflect the condition of many or most children living in the city today? The nation and the world was horrified at the neglect of impoverished residents in the face of a terrible disaster, and we were enraged by the governments inept rescue efforts. Do these pictures portray continuing failures on the part of our government or are they pockets of poverty in a city that has always been impoverished?

  • MichaelDG

    (Oops, my last note was posted before I was finished)
    In fact I think these photos reveal that once again the Bush administration is all photo ops but no substance. What happened to “the largest disaster relief effort the world has ever seen” which Bush promised last year? I suspect that New Orleans has succumbed to the same fate as the reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq: much bravado and talk, no real planning or action.

  • Nezua-Limón Xolografik-Jonez

    I’m wondering if the choice of Black and White are making any kind of subtle statement about race issues in this disaster. Or perhaps it’s just to give them a “documentary” feel.

  • boxcar

    Thanks for posting these images.
    The true damage that these images, and nearly EVERY image you see on TV or news media outlets is that they serve to distance the viewer from the INTENDED effect by packaging the image in a stylistic treatment that pushes the buttons of our collective unconscious that have already been wired.
    What i mean by this is that over the course of our lives of anyone living today, we have seen so many images that we have a cultural iconography and language that has been engrained in us. (Side Note: This is why we have 15 second commercials now! Commercials were once a minute. Over the years we have been taught all of the shortcuts and “assumptions” that images combined with audio that allow us to truncate storystelling.)
    You mention “news photograph (as opposed to an “art photograph”)”.
    Every image we see on TV or in the news is an “art” image. Whether the intent of the photographer (or photoshop specialist) is benign and just hoping to create a cool picture, the result is that the viewer is immediately cushioned from FEELING ANYTHING real. Or different from what they would feel watching a movie that evokes strong emotions. The end result is that the viewer, while being moved by the imagery, is not affected in any REAL way because subconsciously the image is defined and packaged as make believe. Something removed from reality…like TV or the movies.
    This is, I believe, a very REAL intent of the media outlets and governments to desensitise people from demanding real action and accountability. And to mollify the desire in the individual to any type of action at all.
    The images are beautifully moving, but they are nothing more that coffee table art.
    Compare these images to the Abu Ghraib photos and you know can see exactly what i mean. The powers that be do not want authenticity in their news images, but Hallmark moments. “Sorry to hear about your tragedy…”

  • human23

    I really take issue with how you read these images.
    These images convey a tone and spirit. You imply a kind of exploitative impulse behind them, but you fail to justify this implication. You suspect an image is staged; I suspect it’s not. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’d expect an argument of some kind behind your view to the contrary. Have you reason to distrust the photographer from prior work?
    In any case, you and Boxcar fail to suggest any alternatives. How would you capture the truth of the situation, how would you go about engendering a strong, constructive response? What are the pictures you would have taken? Endowed with a strong sense of righteousness, you could point out to the rest of us the correct and appropriate approach.
    Just saying.

  • Cactus

    Piling on to what boxcar said, one of the adages of the sixties was about titillation vs. real sexual passion. “Playboy” is titillation with all its airbrushing/photo-shopping, etc. These images, as lovely as some of them are, are titillation for those of us horrified by the loss of one of our cities. They are saying, ‘isn’t it just too awful what happened to these people? But aren’t the kids cute?’ There’s a simplicity and directness to B&W photos that often lends a once-remove feel that makes them seem more impartial (more journalistic?). If they were in color, I think they might be more chaotic, easier to identify with, easier to locate the spots of horror.
    Incidentally, the Soros people (OSI) have issued grants to some photographers (and journalists) to study certain phases of Katrina aftermath. It should be interesting to follow them and see what they come up with. One of them is a group of African-American photographers, which might answer some of our unasked questions about the white press being behind the cameras.

  • Tim Lyman

    Bravo for nailing the NYT Mag for their incessant heavy-handedness. I live here in NOLA and it’s gray all the time here, as in up one minute and down the next, not at all like these little invasions of our children’s privacy to pose them like the narcophilic models that disgrace their ad pages. What goes around….

  • Kevin Bjorke

    News photos that collect news as it happens, unbidden and out of control, will always be different in tone and character than those that have been predefined by the picture editors. It’s not at all clear here — for all we know, every shot was predetermined and laid-out to an advertising-like degree well before it was shot.
    Or not. Who knows.
    When I see a lot of open space, though, as in that last photo, it usually leads me to think that the photo has been composed to leave that space not so much for dramatic effect as to leave clear room for the titles and overlay text.

  • Brian Boru

    What seems to me to be striking about the first foto is the blank staring into space on the child’s face that is so common on fotos from the 30’s, particularly in the really depressed rural south but also in the faces of people lined up at welfare offices, the street-corner apple vendors etc. As a non-flooded but nonetheless wind and rain damaged New Orleanean, that’s a very realistic expression — I’m sure my own visage is often similar.

  • LanceThruster

    I think the photos accurately express the despondency whether or not there was some “staging” to capture such a feel. For instance, the scene with the little girl on the cooler looked like a rental property I owned. You could not always tell why the residents arranged things the way they did or why the children staked out the space they did. I would be curious if the shoots were done by dropping in and moving on or if the photographer spent any time with the subjects to catch them in relatively unguarded moments. To my eyes, the “naturalness” looks as if the photographer was there long enough to blend somewhat into the background in order to get the shots they did.

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