The Post-Katrina Portraits Afterword

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The following is the Afterword from the book “‘The Post-Katrina Portraits: Written and Narrated by Hundreds”Drawn by Francesco di Santis“.


In doing the drawing of this series and reading or hearing each story, receiving daily inundations of other’s experiences as only the people who lived them could express, I had entered a nuanced and beautiful reality – the sense of a mass movement or fate of a land exemplified and depicted through the expressions of individuals, responding to, coming to grips with and pulling themselves from tragedy. Aesthetically I pursued a sense of history or chain of events demonstrated by intense deliberations over single precious moments.

I called myself Common Ground’s “embedded artist”, engaged in what seemed both an organization and a socially phenomenal movement in its periods of dramatic momentum. In the words of one of its co-founders Malik Rahim, we formed to “restore hope and teach civic responsibility”. In the words of Lisa Fithian, a core organizer, our efforts were “building parallel social systems”. As another co-founder Scott Crow said, “whatever you call it . . . it’s revolution . . from civil society.”

I came to New Orleans September 11th, 2005, entering the zone of the greatest natural and artificial disaster to ever hit the continent in recorded history, eager to become a part of the collective story, of which I would facilitate a particular consolidation. The first few dozen portraits entered the world without a clear conception of how the project would evolve and the scale it would assume. Very few portraits among the first several hundred would make the published cut as I had yet to codify the criteria for the series. yet even before the project’s first stirring crystallized into the creative regime i spearheaded, the basic philosophical approach and desired path stood clearly in place for me.

I began this collection of voice and memory with the understanding that any event or movement consists “only” of all the individual lives composing it, regardless of how drastic or large, regardless of all the grand, sweeping relevancy it may boast. All high  numbers, especially those involving the complications of humanity, appear when investigated, as a multitude of ones and upon the opening of dialogue no adult remains reducible to the demographic status which another might identify as their background or upbringing.

Aware of history as a social construct I decided it would exist most honorably if constructed with the direct intent of those living it. I preferred to seize and share its reins rather than be herded, to produce and contribute rather than simply inherit or receive it, to own rather than subscribe to it, to grow towards honest explicitness about its source and creation rather than defer to a vague sense of inevitability. Whether one looks through one or many strains of history and claims they are full of truths or full of lies, we remain nonetheless, un-absolved from the reality of history’s continuous unfolding throughout our lives. History, like any social norm or institution, when it fails to provide satisfaction or accountability before the public it serves or is part of, becomes a whole ordeal, subject to instability, reconstruction or abolition by a questioning populism, disaffection or transformation.

In twenty-first century society with a surplus of media and emergence of voice, a burgeoning spectrum of media sources, we become more responsible in our maturity for what kind of history we create and what kind we internalize, for who we listen to, who we believe and why than previous generations could have been.

Sometimes we know of as many mirrors being help up to the world as there are hammers attempting to shape it. As the Information Age advances, these “hammers and mirrors: have come closer to being the same tool, for when we consistently pay attention to a medium or media source however we intake it, we begin to allow it to define us. Conversely, regardless of how entire information industries sophisticate themselves to load the attention span of masses indefinitely and routinely, the individual choices of those who consume media remain a kind of bottom-line within that paradigm.

These stories come from those who essentially serve as actors, writing their own script on a vast transformative stage with no director. In reading their stories deposited in prosperity’s commonwealth, we respect these subjectivities and perpetuate them, making space in our mind for them to exist as individual people. Ultimately we take on the same task that each of them asserted for themselves, to make sure they are not invisible, silent or lumpen.

This grain goes, i would say, against that of “representative” or “indirect” democracy, where the self gets lost in institutions external to it and can only manifest as another vote in a mass which necessarily effaces its own adherents, where one pro-actively forfeits how their fate is swayed by a majority or a compulsory leader. Instead I sought to promote the enfranchisement of identity one-on-one, where all persons revealed themselves as worthy and significant subject matter. I bottom-lined the compilation of this book as an attempt to understand the post-Katrina story from a vast and inclusive body of subjective information, what people were doing to help themselves with the context of their own lives.

Whether you are looking to find yourself, family member, relative, neighbor or comrade, whether you are reading from a great distance or long after the fact to get an up close look at the crux of a historical moment – you could have chosen only to read the professional word of those unaffected or the detached registry of statistics. hearing from some of those with the passion and allegiance to the “earl of the Louisiana” to resolve to never leave “come hell or high water” or to come back and start all over again despite the odds offers an illustration of a region’s heart and soul impossible to appreciate otherwise. In choosing a media that aims to support and embody the perspectives of those drawn on the basis of what they’ve done and gone through, rather than what they have had the privilege to study, we bring a past event to life for ourselves.

In finding portrait candidates to propose the project to, I essentially adopted a “come one, come all” policy that ran a gamut o diverse walks of life and types of people and an incredible range of emotion. Some seemed like they could fill more tapes with their monologues than we could buy. Some could only speak in terse and grisly phrases laden with regret, horror and post-traumatic stress. Some could only sit and weep at their memories when asked to recall. In such cases I sometimes just let them keep the drawing after I finished.

I roved the neighborhoods via bicycle scouting like an intrepid bee, finding so much nectar in the firsthand accounts, the primary sources of survivors and residents struggling to regain their lives. I thrillled in reconstructing a saga through the lens of art and literature where all the research came from hot, living bodies, an enduring source of intrigue.

As media infrastructure, the Post-Katrina Portraits came like a vast net pulled through an ocean of tremendously pained, yet largely undefeated humanity, as I probed to find anyone who wanted to be caught as a gem. With so much of a region of story-telling cultures in turmoil, I indeed found many gems.

To participate in the Post-Katrina Portraits, one had to first participate in the post-katrina scene. I considered myself a “visual folklorist” in collecting the narratives of those speaking through a broadly reaching and long-running yet consistent aesthetic theme, of memory for memory’s sake within the communities it served rather than the “bottom-up” tradition of “speaking truth to power” or the “top-down” tradition of waiting to be lip-serviced, saved or condemned.

In this depiction, people describe their acts and sentiments at decisive moments or in daily conditions, by personal volition or necessity, without any one source which can claim to fuel all their deeds and convictions. Those who speak here do not do so from the lowest ranks of a larger entity. The subjects make themselves a part of their own history rather than putting themselves in a position to be turned down or betrayed by it, creating their own grain more so than going against or merely being subjugated by an existing one.

As I went on this “hunt for faces and stories” as i called it, I never carried any pretense of serving as “the voice for the voiceless”, making a point to distinctly steer away from that paternalizing tone of false professionalism, activist fetish or martyrdom syndrome and also to just acknowledge the plain contemporary ground truth. many of those who I sketched had also taken part in producing or had enjoyed interviews from a whole host of media. many corporate and independent media workers eager for first dibs on a hurricane survivor’s story or a volunteer’s statement had approached many of those drawn before I got to them. Even without such technology or concentration towards us however, short of being put under duress, we always have a voice so long as we prove daring or comfortable enough to speak or write.

As the year since Katrina progresses I had the goal of recording the uphill struggle of neighborhood rebuilding, an experience of the empowerment and trials that grew from tragedy, the local hardships, both those new via the suddennes of disaster and those simply escalated and exacerbated by the disaster’s initiating moment.

The potential dichotomies between masses and leaders, academic and unprofessional, famous and forgettable, icon and anonymous, historical and insignificant, profound and cliche, informed and ignorant, “getting the scoop” and sifting through the mundane all get circumvented by a simple loyalty to the present place and time – raw and usually unpretentious anecdote stands valued besides accumulated knowledge. One can only gain legitimacy for our concern here by blossoming in and owning their personal history where it directly intersects with humanity’s greater story.

Influences and recollections from beyond the present place and time may occasionally make themselves known but may not become a dominating filter or cast an opaque shadow over this kind of intensive recording of an event. The distant and the past may provide a flourish for the moment and scene in question, but cannot lock a preconceived chain around it. For so many this media project became essential because of the immensity of material to get lost in on the surface, while the simplest questions could simultaneously point deep below it.

How this “Post-Katrina” reality translated into a literary structure bewildered and amazed this artist and host of authors. The characters get introduced the whole way through. Rather than the continuous “roll” of the relatively uninvolved, nondescript camera’s “eye”, the “flashes” of constantly introduced active agents with many fresh perspectives, monopolize their respective pages, flowing their streams of information one-way. Through a conglomeration of witness, presence, work and thought, the kaleidoscopic narration glides over an entire spectrum of human response and feeling.

Many who joined the series did so with the sense of the project itself helping with the restoration of their homeland. It may well be that the models of disaster relief that have developed since August 2005 will have more profoundness in their long-term fruition in responding to future disasters than the significance of this disaster relief effort itself.

For me respecting the heritage of those displaced or dispossessed by disaster is mandatory to relief work. Awareness of regionality is a crucial dimension of politics – places deserve to have their own names for a reason. Entire cities are not portable, will not exist elsewhere. New Orleanians, in particular tend to have a very strong sense of neighborhood and local culture sadly lacking in lands overtaken by suburban and ex-urban sprawl, car culture, corporate monoculture and mass media consolidation. And recognizing this upon arrival, the city promptly won my heart over.

In some ways, since Katrina, New Orleans has only become more of itself, relentlessly perpetuating its own follies and glories so profoundly endemic it since French imperialists first settled a port city among the swamps of the Mississippi Delta. From the 18th, 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries, copious evidence surfaces of an improbable landscape of industrial hubris suffering from a legacy of financial bankruptcy, racism, complacency with political corruption, yet thriving off its own cultural richness. Surviving despite itself, New Orleans struggles to stay larger than its own self-inflicted disasters. Yet also outstanding from these dynamics and conundrums of cultural complexity, the grassroots disaster relief efforts that have come to birth in the aftermath have proven truly novel and become a new layer embedded in the social fabric.

I felt the need to memorialize so much of the community that has formed after Hurricane Katrina and Rita and the affected communities in North America’s gulf region with deep roots here beforehand. Finally I solicited, appealed to, drew, reviewed and arranaged what so many personalities have produced in this large “collective moment” because I believe we in the present are also responsible for what kind of history we leave for our descendants to pick up.

May they find it useful in dealing with their own disasters.

“One Love”, as many say in New Orleans.

Thank you,

Francesco di Santis