The images in the pages of every newspaper five years ago were haunting. A man stood atop a floating mattress. Black smoke was billowing up from a raging fire in downtown New Orleans. A moldy wall framed a fireplace in an uninhabitable home.
One of the most comprehensive displays of those photos from 2005 is on display now at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. Some were never published before and are quite difficult to view. But in addition to hanging their work in a gallery, the photojournalists behind those images wanted to do something more.
Photographers Johnny Hanson, Smiley Pool, and Kevin Martin asked fellow photojournalists to host a workshop for young people. Hanson, Willie Allen Jr., Kathy Anderson, Tom Fox, David Grunfeld, Richard Hannon, Brad Kemp, Denise McGill, James Nielsen and Mario Tama donated their time and cameras. And on a recent Friday they spent the day with 26 aspiring photographers, ages 11-21.
"You know, our job is to take. We take a photo. We report on things and we’re always taking down information. This is a way for us to give," Hanson said.
The kids started out by viewing the photos on display at the museum.
"This is where you guys were. This is the world you were living in," photographer Smiley Poole told them. “We want you guys to go out today, against the backdrop of where you guys were five years ago and tell us where we are now."
"What we’re going to try to teach you is to dig into your heart and soul and pull out how you see the world and how you want to express yourself," Hanson added. And with that they hit the streets of New Orleans.
Twelve-year-old Kim Kaiser, a grin pasted on his face, was clearly in his element. He got his first camera just a couple of years ago. He went looking for jazz musicians and found some outside the Café du Monde. “I like the way they move when they play, and the way they talk about the songs,” he said, adding that jazz represents all that is “good” about the city of New Orleans now.
Certainly all of these kids have seen their fair share of the bad. Kaiser lost his grandfather in the aftermath of Katrina. He gets sad when he thinks of him, he said. He misses hugging his grandpa most of all.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, students found a scene so quiet and still that they could hear the crickets chirping. They took photos in and around abandoned buildings. The professional photographers offered their students shooting tips. Hanson held his hands up in a square to show Kim Kaiser how to frame a shot just right.
"Let people cross in front of you. Create layers," Hanson told another student.
"Just move in a little bit, you have to get close to your subjects, ok?" Tom Fox told his student Marcus.
Twenty-year-old Caitlin Sullivan lost two friends to suicide after Katrina. But at the workshop she found beauty in a "second line"—a jazz ensemble marching through the streets, following a funeral procession.
When they returned to the museum, the coaches showed their students how to crop, edit and tone their photos. Then they chose their best work for a slideshow. And just as the organizers had hoped, their photos told a new story about New Orleans. Five years after Katrina, the images are refreshingly ordinary
"It's about the people and the culture and not the physical," said Sullivan.
"I took those pictures to remind them that New Orleans is still the same," Kaiser said.
"At the end, the children showed us the future," Hanson said. "Maybe we should explore the world through their eyes a little bit more."