By Summer Wong
Black and white photos perfectly lining the white walls and hanging from suspension cables up on the ceiling. Bright lights shining directly on the photos in order to effectively accentuate every detail; the simple black framing of each photo evoking an organized simplicity.
This is what greeted me as I passed by the Viewpoint Gallery in the Student Center on my way to class last week. It was obviously some sort of exhibit. I saw students and faculty shuffling into the gallery, glancing at the photos with intrigue, concern and sadness. I took a swift glance at my watch — 1:40. I had only ten minutes to get to class, but curiosity got the best of me.
Entering the gallery, I had little idea what to expect, no clue what powerful messages would be depicted within those walls. When I saw the subject of the photos, my hands reflexively flew to my mouth, and a very sick feeling started to boil in my stomach. I saw destruction.
I learned that this exhibit commemorated the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Blood in the Water: A Katrina Remembrance is curated by UCI English professor Dr. Jonathan Alexander, who grew up in New Orleans, and photojournalist Jon Hughes. The pictures of Hurricane Katrina not only displayed the physical catastrophe of the storm, but there was also a heart-wrenching psychological devastation behind these pictures that made their impact so pervasive.
Trees and telephone poles were toppled over, endless amounts of debris were scattered here and there, dead bodies of animals were lying around and houses looked like they were bombed. However, what made these particular photos so powerful were the stories behind them and what they meant emotionally to the people of New Orleans.
There were two photographs that particularly stood out to me. In one photograph, there was a Christmas tree propped up in the midst of all the debris. Here was a devastated beach, and somebody had purposely placed this enormous Christmas tree as a symbol of hope.
“I was just visiting my mother last week in Mississippi,” remarked Professor Alexander. “My mother, believe it or not, saw this picture and told me she actually saw that Christmas tree every single day because she worked near that area. For all we know, this was a really important sign that’s still there to this day.”
Whoever it was, they put the tree up there as a reminder to persevere through tough times, and the fact that it’s still there means that it was a powerful symbol of hope.
Another photograph, taken in Lakeview, New Orleans, had a fallen tree and telephone pole, with a teddy bear literally spiked through the fallen wood where the telephone pole had fallen. Wood splinters were sticking out of the now ruined stuffed animal. I was shocked. Why would somebody do that?
“That’s what’s so remarkable about this photo,” said Alexander. “You look at it and think, ‘What exactly am I seeing’ and part of the experience of it is, you know it’s not right. It shouldn’t be like that. Maybe it’s a tree, but then you follow it out and then it’s a telephone pole. I’ve seen this picture a hundred times, and it’s so disconcerting because it’s obviously not supposed to be like that and somebody put this teddy bear right here. Why is that there?”
This exhibit was set up not only to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, but also to remind people that this was not an entirely natural catastrophe. The flooding occurred because of an unsubstantial levee system that was not updated sufficiently in order to prevent breaching, which was the main cause of the flooding waters. This was a failure on behalf of the people; thinking ahead and making the investments could have prevented a lot of damage and kept people safe. The flooding didn’t have to happen to the extent that it did.
For Jon Hugh, the main purpose of this exhibit was to capture Professor Alexander’s personal reactions to a place that was very familiar and dear to him.
“This exhibit is really about Jonathan, how he personally experienced things that he knew and what happened to them,” said Hugh. “And I think that is a very interesting human phenomenon — what happens when our sense of place and memory has been disrupted in a physical sense, and I think we got that in these photos.”