January 10, 2006

Air Conditioned Drive Through Category Five




I’ve been looking at these photos of the Gray Line “Hurricane Katrina – America’s Worst Catastrophe” tour for a few days now.

Trying diligently to be even-handed, this PBS article about the tour lays out both sides.  In terms of “pros,” it states that the tour gives residents an effective way to witness the overall scope of damage; it exposes governmental failure; it keeps the catastrophe in the eye of the public and the Congress; and the Grey Line isn’t doing anything that many, many tourists aren’t  already doing on foot.  The “cons,” of course, are almost self-evident.

Like many others, my immediate reaction is to be repulsed by the tours and these pictures.  How could it not be exploitive turning those who are have been devastated — a large percentage being the working poor and indigent — into a circus attraction?

… Still, I’m not entirely satisfied with this reaction.  When I first saw these shots, I actually remember being glad to see any new photos dealing with Katrina.  If the public is feeling so cut off from the tragedy that a Gray Line tour is necessary to see it, can people really be accused of exploitation or voyeurism?  Considering that the catastrophe has largely disappeared from TV (as well as other media), could one argue that the tour might actually be necessary?

How is it possible the media offers no systematic follow-up, and there are no signature images of the ongoing situation?  That’s not to say there haven’t been plenty of random reports from N.O. and the Gulf Coast — along with pictures.  Conspicuously absent, however, are a number of primary story elements, such as overarching characters and settings.  How come such a disaster, for example, lacks its own ground zero?  How come there is not one building or structure that has come to symbolize the disaster ((such as the Superdome, one of the levees, a particular neighborhood, City Hall)?  How come there is no prominent official who has “broken out” as either a symbolic hero or villain of the tragedy (such as Gov. Blanco, Mayor Nagin, or that new FEMA guy)?  And how come the press hasn’t anointed a grassroots figure — Katrina’s own Cindy Sheehan — to represent the survivors?

I’m interested in your take on these images, as well as any thoughts on why Katrina (which seems to present such a  visual bonanza) is basically limping along in the dark.

(A few more pix hopefully still available here.)

(image 1: Steve Helber/A.P. January 4, 2006.  Via YahooNews. image 2: Steve Helber/A.P.  January 4, 2006.  Via YahooNews.  image 3: Sean Gardner/Reuters. January 4, 2006.  Via YahooNews.)

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Michael Shaw
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