After Hurricane Katrina made landfall in late August 2005, a ravaged American Gulf Coast cried out desperately for aid. Parts of Florida were flooded, and the storm surge had crushed coastal Mississippi, all but destroying cities such as Waveland, Bay St. Louis, and Pass Christian. It was in Louisiana, however, that Katrina swathed her largest and deadliest path, due to the catastrophic failure of New Orleans’ flood protection system. Over fifty levee breaches left 80% of metro New Orleans underwater, in some cases for weeks, before floodwaters fully receded. The city suffered over 1,400 fatalities, with thousands more left homeless and displaced.
Close on the heels of Katrina’s retreating floodwaters, New Orleans residents Cat Malovic and Joanna Rosenthal co-founded The New Orleans Kid Camera project. Both graduate students in Tulane University’s master of social work program, Malovic and Rosenthal were joined by a host of creative and industrious partners looking to contribute to the city’s recovery through their unique program. The New Orleans Kid Camera Project shares common philosophical ground with many community oriented art projects, notably Zana Briski’s 2000-2003 work in the red-light district of Calcutta, as well as contemporary Kids With Cameras projects coordinated by Gigi Cohen in Haiti, Jason Eskenazi in Jerusalem, and Teriz Michael in Cairo. The New Orleans project, however, situated itself uniquely and immediately amongst the direct aftermath of a devastating natural disaster, where the kids’ wounds were fresh, the shaken reality of their lives so utterly foreign. Assisting the city’s youth in the emotional aftermath of Katrina, by creatively empowering them with photography, became the Project’s focus.
My involvement with the Project came in January of 2007, shortly after my graduate work in the art department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, had taken the direction of camera-making and pinhole photography. With an invitation from the Kid Camera Project to teach weekend workshops, a trip volunteering in New Orleans with Habitat for Humanity turned into a doubly rewarding experience. In preparation for the workshops, I spent the fall semester designing and fabricating large-format pinhole camera kits. Each kit—plywood siding fit to a 4×5” film holder and assembled using thumbscrews—was handed to the kids as flat parts in a small cloth bag during the first weekend workshop. Groups, which varied in size from one child (in the 12th ward) up to almost thirteen (in Gert Town), ranged in age from five to fourteen years. Regardless of age, all of the kids assembled, photographed with, and even painted their cameras by the end of the third workshop.
For three weekends straight, we met with groups by ward or neighborhood, each once per weekend. The Gentilly group met Friday afternoons in their FEMA trailer park, the 9th Ward kids on Saturday mornings in front of their home, 12th Ward on Saturday afternoon, Gert Town on Sunday morning, and Orleans East on Sunday afternoon. Considering their photographic experience had previously been defined by the satisfying ‘click-clack’ of an SLR shutter, the kids’ somewhat skeptical response to sheet film and lensless cameras was easily understandable. Regardless, a quick presentation showing Justin Quinnell’s ‘Smiley Cam’, and passing around a couple of image-laden books, sufficed to completely pique their curiosity. Shortly, each group of previously unconvinced kids were busily building and painting their cameras, and then making images. After twisting the cork into place on the lensboard of her recently constructed camera, a five-year-old girl from the Gert Town group could scarcely contain her excitement. With camera raised high over her head she rushed down the sidewalk, yelling out to show her family what she had made, before settling down in the middle of the road to make a self portrait. One of the older kids in the 9th Ward group, having already mastered most functions of a
35mm SLR, immediately realized that the four-to-eight second exposure time of his box camera meant that movement would be recorded as a still image. The subsequent photograph of the clouds moving lazily across the sky above his home remains one of my favorite images. I remember clearly the certainty in his face—though he could neither compose the shot nor see immediate results—as he pulled the cork shutter, counted to four, and calmly moved on to create his next image.
Beyond introducing pinhole photography into their repertoire of creative knowledge, however, it was the act of constructing functional cameras with their own hands that complimented the kids’ creative strength and confidence in a very unique area: craft. Each handmade box camera, replete with cork shutter and custom paintjob, evolved from a singular relationship, shared only between maker and the made. With their own pinhole cameras in hand, the kids’ knowledge of taking photographs moved beyond the slightly impersonal metal and plastic 35mm cameras used in past meetings and returned immediately after each session. In craft, they took physical and conceptual ownership of photography at a new level, and met photographic expression on different terms. In recording themselves, their families, and neighborhoods—with cameras they had made themselves—these kids created fresh and beautiful perspectives on their lives, the likes of which they and others had not before seen. While the tragedy of the hurricane and its aftermath permeate many of these images in subtle instances, it is instead the kids’ resilience, sense of wonder, and elasticity in the face of hardship that stands out. It is for the nourishment of such qualities that community groups like the New Orleans Kid Camera Project exist, and I am honored to have been able to give my time towards this end.