A boy dressed as the captain of the Titanic participates in the annual Children’s Tableau in Montegut, Louisiana in 2008. Photo by Kael Alford.
At a certain point in my career as a photojournalist, it dawned on me that every long-term project I had undertaken had a personal, sometimes subconscious motivation followed by a lingering question I couldn’t find answered in the news or elsewhere. Some photojournalists may label such callings “personal projects.” But like many freelancers, I have some say in which stories I cover. So in a sense it’s all personal.
Traveling and photographing for about a decade, I moved every couple of years to a new place, mostly in the Balkans and the Middle East. I tried to follow up on relationships between the stories I covered and in retrospect it turned out that nearly every place I worked was at one time a part of the Ottoman Empire—like a political map of the late 17th century.
When I returned to live in New York after two years of covering the war in Iraq and its aftermath, I felt discouraged about the ability of the American people (myself included) to steer their own nation on a constructive course, both domestically and abroad. With a growing eyewitness inventory of the limitations and unequal appropriation of global resources, the degradation of the natural world, and the record number of conflicts around the globe, I had my doubts about humanity’s chances as a whole to do the same. I suppose one could chalk up such foreboding and borderline antisocial feelings to a mild case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yet a nagging question remained, in the face of global turmoil: How could a single person contribute to public discourse in a meaningful way?
On a social and personal level, returning to New York, I felt isolated from most people around me. Many politically astute New Yorkers seemed able to shop happily or enjoy a cocktail at their favorite watering hole from time to time while living productive lives and most didn’t feel an overwhelming urge to go off and witness the next social movement in Iraq or Pakistan. I was preoccupied with events far from my daily life, which seemed inconsequential. OK, there you can add a stroke to the PTSD column.
So I began to search for a story that could help me return home, a story that would help me find a useful and slightly more suitable role here in the U.S. without abandoning the issues I found so pressing throughout the world. I was surprised to find such a story in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—a event that occupied so much media attention that it seemed everything useful had already been said. The mantra coming from many experts regarding the devastation of New Orleans was that the protection of wetlands along the coast of Louisiana was critical, and that no levee, no matter how well constructed, was going to hold back the Gulf of Mexico. The erosion of coastal wetlands left New Orleans exposed to the sea and the crisis is a ticking time bomb that has largely escaped national awareness.
Connecting With My Roots
My grandmother’s family came from the coast of Louisiana. She was descended from French immigrants who had intermarried with Native American residents well before the Louisiana Purchase. She and her brothers and sisters were raised speaking French. They were fishermen and shrimpers, though by the time I met them the family had turned to work in oil fields or elsewhere. Grandmother’s relatives had gained mythic status in family tales. The story was that our family—at least the Native Americans among us—had lost oil fortunes in dubious land deals with the government. Relatives spoke of an ancestral Indian princess of uncertain tribal identification. Her family lived in remote houses on the edge of the marsh where they hunted for pelts and could live off the land.
I found the family myths were set at ground zero, Louisiana, where the land loss was on everyone’s mind. I also found traces of evidence that helped explain the family stories—confederations of Native American tribes still petitioning the Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal recognition after decades, depleted oil and gas fields on their native land, a few lingering French-speaking residents with my grandmother’s family name—considered a “white,” not a native, name—and residents who remembered my great- grandfather’s hunting camp in the location identified by my great-uncle John. He pointed to where he once trapped with his father, now an open lake, the land washed out to the Gulf. Dead oak trees stood like skeletons on spits of land surrounded by water, once broad bottomland forests. Healthy marshland absorbs storm flooding, every square mile acting like a giant sponge. As a result of erosion, stubborn and historically disenfranchised communities along the coast who’ve made a living fishing and hunting for generations are now left exposed to massive flooding and damage from storm surges during increasingly frequent hurricanes.
Most oil exploration has moved further offshore from Louisiana and any claims on oil revenues are probably long lost. What remains of the oil infrastructure on the coast of Louisiana is a destructive legacy—thousands of miles of deeply dredged canals along oil and gas pipelines and shipping routes that slash across delicate coastal wetlands leaving a vast checkerboard of marshes exposed to wave action and the movement of saltwater tides. Erosion washes a football field sized chunk of Louisiana land out to sea every half hour. Many scientists say that these oil and gas industry canals are a primary cause of coastal erosion along with many other manmade factors.
Documenting the Past
The photographs I’m making may outlive some coastal settlements if funding and legislation and massive projects to save the coastal wetlands do not come. I’m researching the families, the geography and tribal structures, and various proposed solutions for coastal restoration, which are often controversial and backed by opposing interests. I sometimes feel like I’m compiling a family album for the great-grandchildren of the people in my photographs, impressions of a ghost society for future generations.
I’ve funded much of the project out of pocket and I’ve been able to continue the work thanks to a commission by the High Museum of Art
in Atlanta. The longer I work on the story, the deeper my understanding of the underlying issues becomes—and the photography is changing too, as people share their history and concerns and invite me into their homes. I’ve made a short documentary film, I hope there will be a book, and once the commission is complete, an exhibition. My goal is to help raise awareness about the strange treasure washing out to sea on the coast of Louisiana, but once again there is a more personal element.
My grandmother passed away the year I returned to the United States and I didn’t get to ask her questions about these communities that she perhaps knew as a child: what had changed on her later visits home? I’ve seen photographs of her sitting at a card table, with a full hand and a conspiratorial grin, together with long-lost relatives at John’s camp, a rough house on stilts, only reachable by boat, a vast expanse of green marsh and sky stretching to the horizon.
A Global Community
Increasingly, as the technology to make quality digital images becomes more available and affordable, we’re seeing a wider variety of perspectives from around the globe. Local photographers—professionals and amateurs—are picturing their own communities. They’re using cameras, cell phones, and hand-held video cameras the size of cell phones. The images distributed through news outlets now come from a wider range of sources than ever before and editors, scholars and critics are taking note. So should we, as photographers.
In the future, in an age that will certainly be more image-saturated than our own, perhaps what will distinguish compelling visual storytelling will be a more intimate or knowledgeable point of view on an aspect of the world we thought we knew before we saw a different way of framing it. As photojournalists casting about for creative and meaningful direction in the face of shrinking budgets and an industry shifting beneath our feet, we may be best served by following the threads of our own experience and then going deeper. Stories in foreign places are more vital than ever and need to be brought home in a way that sheds light on the concerns of distant communities, but images made from crisis to crisis with no back story or follow-up leave audiences without reminders of the past and little guidance for the future.
What’s the advice beginning writers hear? Write about what you know. Perhaps the advice for photojournalists seeking direction in these uncertain times should be—start with what you know, then live amid and become an expert in what you photograph.
Kael Alford, a 2009 Nieman Fellow, is a documentary photographer, photojournalist, writer and educator whose work has been published globally in magazines and is featured in the book “Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq.’’