Rant: Photography in New Orleans / Houston

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Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936. Dorothea Lange.


Mississippi Delta Negro* children.
July 1936. Dorothea Lange.
Label titles are by Dorothea Lange

I'm still too blisteringly angry to blog about Katrina, but this is photography related, so let me rant. The Wall Street Journal today (2005.05.07 pB1) has an article titled "Americans who fled drought in the 1930s found little sympathy" about the Okies and Arkies who left the dustbowls of the Great Plains. The last paragraph of the article reads:
The Resettlement Administration, under the leadership of Rexford Tugwell, did something else for the Dust Bowl refugees. It hired photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and Walker Evans to produce a pictorial record of the Depression's effect on the rural poor. In a 1965 interview, Mr. Tugwell explained why: "Because this was so dramatic, and because it meant misery and tragedy for so many families, and because we hoped it would never happen again, at least not in the same way, we thought we ought to have a record of it for future generations ... and also to show people who weren't involved in it how extremely serious it was."

Scroll forward to September 7th, 2005. The National Press Photographers Association had filed an official complaint based on reports (such as this one by Reuters and the Washington Post) that photographers have been systematically prevented by DHS and FEMA from taking photographs in New Orleans and other refugee sites -- even after securing permission from the people they are shooting:

NPPA Opposes Any Suggestion Of Photography Restrictions In Hurricane Katrina's Aftermath


NEW ORLEANS, LA (September 7, 2005) The National Press Photographers Association opposes any attempt whatsoever to prohibit or restrict photography and videotaping of any events, including the recovery of bodies, following Hurricane Katrina.

Photography, both still and video, is an essential form of speech and a fundamental part of the Constitutional right to freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

It is entirely inappropriate for a federal agency to make demands on what journalists can and cannot shoot and publish, NPPA president Alicia Wagner Calzada said today from the scene of the hurricanes aftermath in New Orleans. Calzada is a staff photojournalist for Rumbo in San Antonio, TX, and is on assignment covering Katrinas aftermath, which now includes the effort to recover bodies from homes, buildings, and outdoor areas as flood waters are pumped out of the damaged region.

How have we gone from a government that was so ashamed of how it handled the 1930s Depression that it commissioned photographers to forever sear those images into our collective memories, to one in 2005 that is so ashamed of its response that it wants to forever prevent those images from ever being made?


And some other thoughts from our friends at the Wall Street Journal:

For further reading, see my friend Gen Kanai's blog.


Update: 2005.09.10

The ban on photography in New Orleans has been rescinded, according to CNN:

U.S. won't ban media from New Orleans searches

CNN filed suit for right to cover search for bodies of Katrina victims

HOUSTON, Texas (CNN) -- Rather than fight a lawsuit by CNN, the federal government abandoned its effort Saturday to prevent the media from reporting on the recovery of the dead in New Orleans.

Joint Task Force Katrina "has no plans to bar, impede or prevent news media from their news gathering and reporting activities in connection with the deceased Hurricane Katrina victim recovery efforts," said Col. Christian E. deGraff, representing the task force.

U.S. District Court Judge Keith Ellison issued a temporary restraining order Friday against a "zero access" policy announced earlier in the day by Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who is overseeing the federal relief effort in the city, and Terry Ebbert, the city's homeland security director.

In explaining the ban, Ebbert said, "we don't think that's proper" to let members of the media view the bodies.

Army Lt. Col. Richard Steele, a member of Honore's staff, told CNN Saturday night that Honore was partly misunderstood. Steele said Honore meant that no media would be allowed to be imbedded with teams recovering bodies. However, recovery groups would not prevent reporters from doing their jobs, he added.

"He did not say we're going to ban anybody. We're not going to restrict them from any public areas whatsoever," Steele said. "We don't have any legal recourse to do any kind of law enforcement or anything like that in our role. So the only thing we do is we can control who goes with us; on our aircraft and on our trucks and in our boats, if that applies."

However, reports from various blogs seems to indicate that citizen journalists are still encountering very hostile reactions from police and national guard troops in New Orleans as well as the other refugee sites.

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9 Comments

Thanks for posting this. I hadn't made the connection between Lange's work and its relevance today to Katrina's victims. So sad.

George W Bush is no Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I think the FSA work was not comparable to New Orleans situation.
1. The FSA photographers were not taking up space in rescue vehicles trying to save lives.
2. The FSA photographers were not providing headline news but historical context.
3. The Federal government had no role in causing the dust bowl conditions except possibly in not pushing better agricultural practices.
4. The FSA was somewhat of a makework operation for photographers, similar to WPA projects for artists.

Please get your facts straight:

1 "Space" was never stated as the reason by the government that media were being barred from the rescue boats. They stated quite clearly that it was because they did not want photographs of the dead being taken -- depsite reportage in the NYTimes that national guard troops are taking trophy snapshots of the dead for their own personal enjoyment.

2. Today's news is tomorrow's history. It was certainly the case that FSA reportage was viewed as current events at the time. And the photographs taken now will be viewed as historical context in 50 years.

3. It seems as though you arguing that the government *was* responsble for causing Hurricane Katrina as a metereological event, whereas it wasn't responsible for the dust bowl? You might want to edit your post for clarity.

4. This is a moot point.

Actually, Stobb's 3rd point was perhaps inadvertently on the mark. The failure of governments to address environmental issues such as wetlands management, and to adequately implement augmentation measure such as adequate levees, contributed to the increased damage.

I have heard the response that "no one could adequately prepare for a once in 500-year event." I don't buy it. The Dutch (with a much smaller population base) are pepared for a once-in-10,000-years storm surge.

1. FSA photography was done to promote government programs, so they were interested in showing hardship in order to legitimize the New Deal.

2. The number of the members from the responding agencies guilty of various abuses suggests that they would be least interested in being on camera. California Highway Patrol, for example, got caught on video abusing their authority. THe fallout from that is still happening.

Phooey. History is history, and the camera is a witness. Imagine telling Capa he couldn't go. Security and rescue forces did the right thing in rescinding the photo ban. No photographer wants to get in the way of saving lives and protecting property. She just wants to get the picture, that's her job.

Hi, back again. My overall point in my previous comment was that while apples and oranges may both be spherical fruit with seeds comparisons shouldn't be pushed too far.
1.From something I read somewhere one of the concerns was that newspeople might get in the way of search and rescue. This may not be correct
2.I don't believe any FSA pictures were made for next day publication but for record purposes.
3.My point was that government had more responsibility for the mess in this hurricane situation than in the dustbowl situation.
4.Newpapers are a commercial enterpriseand newspeople are under more pressure to produce results for a deadline which may cloud their judgement at times.

I came across this photo the other day: At the time of the Louisville Flood (1937) by Margaret Bourke-White

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This page contains a single entry by Karen Nakamura published on September 7, 2005 9:01 PM.

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