04/08/2008 11:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Photographing the Ninth Ward

I drove into the Ninth Ward a year and a half after Katrina left
it in ruins. Friends of mine who had already been there told me the
devastation was "unbelievable." I wondered what that
meant -- unbelievable.

My friends were wrong.

The Ninth Ward, in its ruin, was believable, but only in the way
certain dreams are believable -- post-World-War-III dreams. Miles and
miles of empty houses. No voices, no cars -- an eerie silence except for
the distant rumble of dump trucks, the occasional crunching of wood.
Now and then a darkened limo, or a Katrina tour bus, would drive
through. The initial documentary Gold Rush -- photography inspired by
overturned houses, cars in trees, and mountains of debris -- was plainly
over. Dramatic spectacle had given way to pervasive loss -- a condition
far less tangible, and difficult to photograph. I'm not sure what I
felt about what I saw. Disbelief? To be honest, I wasn't able to grasp
the disaster. It was too large to be emotionally comprehended,
especially by someone who doesn't live there.


St. Rose Missionary Baptist Church

And then, despite my original intentions not to, I began to take
photographs -- photographs that reminded me not so much of the New York
photographs I took in the early 1970s but of the fundamental reasons
why I even became a photographer. In those early years I'd walk around
the city for days (as I imagined Cartier-Bresson had walked around
Paris) searching for something to photograph -- a person, a dog, a store
window, a movie marquee, anything that might open up and reveal an
idea about life in New York City. One afternoon, however, as I watched
a wrecking ball punch holes in a building I had admired only the week
before, the thought crossed my mind that whole sections of the
city -- particularly the parts with a distinct cultural identity -- were
beginning to disappear. This image of the disappearing city stayed
with me, and, almost immediately, I began to photograph everything I
considered imperiled -- seltzer bottles stacked high in old wooden
crates, Ukrainian men playing backgammon in Tompkins Square, a
three-masted model of a ship in the dusty window of an Italian
seamen's club in Little Italy. I'm glad I took those photographs. The
parts of the city I intended to fix in memory have largely
disappeared. And since that time, for more than 30 years, using
photography as a means to memorialize loss has served as the
wellspring of my work.


Church of the Living God

By the time I arrived in the Ninth Ward in the winter of 2007, a
large part of the neighborhood had already disappeared, and the rest
was in danger of being hauled away. I began to photograph those things
that still remained: beautiful wrought-iron railings, a church organ
covered in cracked silt, and, oddly enough, a Sunday School bulletin
board full of thumbtacks. I wanted the photographs to say "See, this
was here, and that was there." For a photographer, that seemed a
simple enough and legitimate task. After all, the moment we allow
ourselves to forget the intimate details of a Somewhere, Donald Trump
and his friends, waiting in the wings, will happily make an entrance
and build us a new and improved Nowhere -- monolithic, impersonal,
luxurious, and white. The Ninth Ward was disappearing, it seemed to
me, not only because of Katrina, but because of a long-standing
indifference to the poor, an indifference now transforming itself into
a mercilessly strategic land-grab.


Louis Armstrong School

Photographs, though, not only remember, they register surprise.
And what surprised me most about the Ninth Ward were the left-over
particulars of a multi-layered human geography. What did I expect to
find there? The media invariably headline poverty and crime, but those
words, chanted like a mantra, don't reveal or illuminate anything;
they merely divert us from the deeper problem of American racism. In
fact what I found and what I photographed wasn't simply the remnants
of a dilapidated and dangerous neighborhood now demolished by a
hurricane, but the vestiges of a working-class community in which
aspiration contended with scarcity, and where religious faith found
expression on every block. From my perspective, the floodwaters had
washed away not only bricks and mortar, but also the toxic stereotypes
that separate us from each other. What was left, in other words, was
the vanishing common ground, and it is this familiar terrain that I
have photographed.

For more of John's photography, visit