Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
August 31, 2006

Your Turn: Something That Isn't There

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I spent a month on the Gulf Coast in January working on a story for National Geographic Magazine, published this month in a 24 page article. The idea was to take a look at the coast months after the storms, and see what, if any, progress had been made to try and get reconstruction going.

What I saw was depressing and unsettling. Many areas were virtually untouched since September; it was as if you had been dropped into dead zones which had been frozen in time. I was, as it happened, in Atlanta at Home Depot headquarters just about the time that Rita hit western Louisiana – the last week of September.

As we watched in their “crisis center” the movement of the storm, and the local reactions to it, the one surprising thing I learned was that right after Katrina, the usual “morning after” rush of shoppers to Home Depot to buy the things they needed for repairs never materialized. It was the first time anyone at Home Depot could remember (and they have all the numbers to back it up) when there wasn’t a rush to “fix things up.”

The reasons we now know. Hundreds of thousands of people either had left town, or, in too many cases, were unable to return to homes which had totally been destroyed. It was unlike anything that has ever happened in my lifetime in this country.

Storms hit every year, some homes are ruined, but there is always a reason for that “next day” rush to the Home Depots of this world: people are fixed on staying where they are, and want to start the reconstruction process as soon as possible. In New Orleans, and other towns across the coast, there was simply nothing to go back to. Nothing to repair. Nothing to fix. Nothing to work on. Nothing to hit a few boards into in order to keep the water out.

It is difficult to photograph something that isn’t there. Sure, you can see damage, and in many places it was an obvious and stark reminder of what had taken place. But when there is nothing left, you will be pressed to find a way to show that barren quality in a photograph.

–David Burnett.  August 12, 2006.

David Burnett is one of the deans of American photojournalism.

He co-founded Contact Press Images in 1976 and, over the years, has produced outstanding and well-known work for almost every major American and European print publication.  He was a leading source of news imagery during the Vietnam war, and this year, always the contemporary, he (along with his eloquent wife, Iris) became a full fledged member of the blogosphere.

In the extended quote from his blog, David refers to his photo spread in the August edition of National Geographic.  Using his cherished large format Speed Graphic, the shallow depth of field created a particularly unusual effect.  With Katrina’s impact already other-worldly, Burnett’s images add the impression that barely-recognizable automobiles might have been twisted inside a diorama, or that the scars wreaked upon the landscape might have taken place in (or else, actually left behind) a toy world.

I was quite moved by these images.  My reaction, however, was almost purely visceral.  My question is, what is it that these images accomplish that enhances, rather than diminishes or minimizes the poignancy of the devastation?  (And, since I’ve blogged incessantly this week about Bush’s pathological return to the Gulf, is there something inherent in Bush’s alienation from the disaster that makes the alienation in these images even more compelling?)

I realize a lot of the readership might already have gotten a jump on the last summer weekend.  Given that David has leant permission to The BAG to post these images, however, I am quite interested in your reactions.  It’s also a great opportunity to hear from those of you, loyal readers, who have otherwise been tentative to jump into the thread.

You can view the extended “Aftermath” series here.

(images: David Burnett/Contact for National Geographic.  2006.  Used by permission.)

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