Monday, October 29, 2007
Camp Nola, '07 Edition
I am guilty of what Sen. Daniel Patrick (you used his middle name when you wanted to make him sound serious) Moynihan once called ‘benign neglect’ …. Not a serious attempt to avoid action, but inaction caused by non action. It is, well, much more benign. In my case, it is looking after my writing responsibilities on the Blob. So, this is perhaps what the doctor ordered: I am in New Orleans where I have been since Friday, working with a small but dedicated and talented squad from the National Geographic conducting a ‘Photo Camp’ for a group of young (12-16 years of age) Vietnamese – American kids who live in NOLA, and who families have been in the forefront of those who wasted little time in trying to reconstuct their lives after Katrina ravaged their East New Orleans homes two years ago. We're trying to teach them how to be photojournalists (you know. .like "Photojournalist In a Can") The kids are middle and high schoolers, and following a very successful ‘Photo Camp’ a year ago with some NOLA kids from more downtown neighborhood, a second one was scheduled this year, but this time with kids who share a common experience, having lived through Katrina. Driving to and from E.N.O. you pass by large tracts of neighborhoods – houses, apartment buildings, shopping centers – which are still ongoing ghost towns, unfixed, unreturned to, and uninhabited. It remains more than an eyesore; it is still a shocking site to see such places which have not only fallen in between the cracks, they have become the cracks.
I Mean, Where Are the Crowds?
This weekend, aided by a half dozen photo students from Loyola University helping head up the teams of 4 kids each, we have tried to explain both by example and by illustration, some of the techniques which let tyros hone their photo skills. It is always amazing to see how quickly enthusiastic students (of any age) pick up those hints and run with them, and start making some excellent pictures. I was here in early 2006 to do a story for Nat. Geo. Magazine, and while there has been much progress in getting the city going again, it is painfully slow. Sure in the French quarter, wonderful restaurants abound, well populated, and Uptown, the amazing and beautiful gentrified quarter, dotted with historic houses and cute cafes, people slink in waiting lines outside some wonderful eateries. But there remains much scarring, and it’s evident in nearly every quarter.
A big 'Poisson' photographed at the local VN farmer's market
You have to merely start to speak with someone who was here for the storm and/or its aftermath to feel the barely contained pain, worry and and angst. Yet, with the photo kids this week we had a great time, watching them break through social inhibitions, and begin to try and take pictures in ways and places they most certainly wouldn’t have tried before.
Where IS Everyone? St. Charles St., 10pm
NOLA retains an air of fun even through the difficult times, and yet you see and feel the contrasts on a walk through the edge of the French Quarter, as I did tonight coming home from a team dinner. All of a sudden, having stopped for a minute to call home on my cell fone, I found myself alone on St. Charles street, surrounded by the shell of a former hotel, a parking lot, and a virtually empty sidewalk. Three years ago, it would have been teeming with people, but tonight, the silence was, if not deafening, somewhat disconcerting. The city is still fighting an ongoing crime wave, as different elements of society deal with the return of gangs and shooters, and I don’t mean photographers. New Orleans is one of those cities which, like Redsox Nation (ok, so they just wrapped up the Series in way less than five games!) has citizens all over the country, people like me who have some kind of soft spot in their hearts for the city which has provided so many good times. The Vietnamese photo kids, most second generation (most of their parents left either in the “end of the war” exodus in 1975, or several years later as Boat People) speak pretty good English, and retain their knowledge of their mother tongue.
A Visit to the Buddhist Temple: Buddha with US & Vietnamese flags
A vibrant, overworked priest, Father Luc, looks after a flock of dedicated Catholics whose lives revolve around the church, and you cannot but admire a guy who, as he put it tonight counts amongst his parishioners, people who have lived through the partition of Vietnam into North and South (1954), a dozen + years of the American War in Vietnam (not the “Vietnam” war..) and then a resettlement in the US which wasn’t, in itself, very easily done. The community is close knit, sticks together and provides a vast number of services for its members. Today, there was a health fair offering Tetnus shots, acupuncture for pain, and in another room, a large choir readying to sing at Mass. I don’t know what will happen here, except that the drive of the neighborhood is powerful, and they WILL make it if anyone does. If the photo kids can help document their lives as part of that rebirth, then my few days here will have been very worthwhile. Tomorrow I hope to do a drop by and see Herb Gettridge, who, at 84, decided he wasn’t waiting for someone to do it for him: he rebuilt his house wall by wall, room by room, and finally succeeded in getting electricity restored, at which point he brought his wife back from Michigan. People like Herb, and the Vietnamese across town in East Nola, will be the ones who recreate this city. It won’t be the shyster developers who are jockeying for position in the attempt to be the king pins of re-construction. It’s about the people: and one can hope that in the end, it will be The People, Yes! who Triumph. Thanks to Kurt Mutchler (who drives like I wish I did), Susan Poulton & Jim Webb (co-directors.. or at least they are now that I have called them such) and Kathy Anderson of the Times-Picayune, a great photographer who brings an unabashed humanity to her work (and proudly displays her paper’s Pulitzer Prize in her living room, though you have to really LOOK to find it.) As usual with workshops, I think the teachers get more out of it than the students, the difference being that we realize it right away, while the students won’t really know what they have learned for months or even years, when their pictures really start to fall into place. One decided advantage: lunch is more likely to be pho ga (Vietnamese noodle soup) instead of a Mickey D’s Drive through. We’re just sayin… David