In December 2010, I had my first brief encounter with New Orleans. I had been drawn to the Lousiana city for years, but was only able to stop a few days while passing through. What I saw there changed me. It had been five years since the devastating flood caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
Five years had passed but the city still bore its bruises, some were stark and in plain view, others were buried in the back lanes. Chance took me through the Lower Ninth Ward with its hollow, boarded-up houses, silent witnesses to the people who perished there and those forced to leave their homes, their belongings, their physical memories and sometimes their loved ones behind.
Shortly afterwards, I passed through the former Six Flags amusement park, which now lies desolate on the brink of Lake Pontchartrain which overflowed and flooded the park and surrounding areas under water for up to a month after the storm hit. Years later, the seven-foot-high tidemarks remain. Although the city is mostly back on its feet and continues to recover a decade after the disaster, the Lower Ninth Ward and abandoned amusement park remain chilling testaments to the devastation suffered by the people of New Orleans in 2005.
Walking through Six Flags was one of the most haunting experiences I've experienced. The stillness was profoundly disturbing, a place once full of the voices and excited screams of families, was now a barren expanse of land inhabited by immovable dinosaurs whose life had been cut brutally short leaving behind only huge metal skeletons broken and bent against a grey sky.
In her essay Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag addresses photographs of war, atrocities and people in pain. She writes: “We can't imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can't understand, can't imagine. That's what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.”
I always intended to put together a series of the photographs I made during my two days in New Orleans, but it took me five years of failed attempts. The images don't show any people, or events at the time they took place; they show only a fraction of the aftermath of disaster and a slow recovery process. As a visitor and observer, I can empathise with the witnesses and victims, but I will never know how it really felt, how it feels now ten years on.
A poignant statement spray-painted on a wall at Six Flags seen through a shattered window and the comfortable filter of my viewfinder reminded me of this. "What is it that you think you understand?", it read. I will never know what it was like to be there, to love there, to flee from New Orleans, or to remain there. These photographs will only ever be the superficial interpretations of an outsider regarding the pain of others, one I can neither fully imagine nor fully grasp. But making these images had an impact on me; it was my attempt to try to understand, so five years after their making, I have finally decided to share them.
The 28 images in the series are documents and metaphors of a place battered but not beaten. Some day I hope to return for a longer stay, but for now, this is my much-delayed and brief love letter to New Orleans, its strange beauty and its unflagging courage to brave the storm.