Filming the other filmers and (gasp!) Anderson Cooper
By Andrei Codrescu
About six months ago I went to St. Bernard Parish with my cameraman Jason to get my own share of disaster photography for the documentary that Im making, which is different from the documentary everybody else made or is making. Every fifth person in New Orleans is either making or helping make a documentary. We are like the Amazon tribes whose families were said to consist of a mother, father, children and one anthropologist.
We chose, for our first foray, a beached shrimp boat in St. Bernard Parish that was carried several blocks inland by the storm surge before it slammed into a house and rested there to provide a backdrop for the news. On the lawn of the house there was a broken plastic Santa shadowed by the huge boat, and a bunch of soggy schoolbooks. I bent down to examine a notebook that was having its pages riffled by the wind, and saw that it was a first-graders exercise book and the page I was looking at had on it, written in a childs hand, a poem entitled I Love Santa. I kid you not. It got to me. I read the poem out loud and a tear I hadnt counted on sprung down my cheek. I hope that Jason got a closeup.
When I stood up, two women wearing shirts that said, Make Levees not War, were coming toward me, and we struck up a conversation. They told me that they had houses on that street and that this was the first time that theyd come back from Dallas after the storm. I asked them how badly their houses fared, and they told me that they hadnt gone to their houses yet, theyd come to see the shrimp boat first because theyd seen it on the national news. One of them said that she was afraid to see what remained of the house where shed raised her kids, and her friend had tears in her eyes. I was in the middle of asking another question, when my interview exclaimed: Now, there is a real celebrity! She tore off the lapel mike and headed for Anderson Cooper, who had appeared suddenly with his own cameraman.
Anderson thought that he might use the shrimp boat as background to anchor the next days news. I asked him, while he signed autographs for the residents, how he could keep from becoming part of the story. He shrugged. Of course, we filmed the whole thing.
Those were the last days of the photogenic disaster when no matter what you pointed your camera at you were bound to hit pay dirt. On August 18, just shy of the one-year anniversary, somebody burned down the shrimp boat. Around the same time, two bulldozers belonging to a company building a monument to the victims of the Ninth Ward were stolen from the site.
The two crimes against image- and symbol-making were psychically related. One year after Katrina, we are no longer photogenic. The cameras focus on narrow slices of rebuilding, which is all that fits within the lens. If youve been looking at the city for a year, things look better. Most of the flooded cars packed in the neutral grounds and under freeway overpasses are gone. There is no debris in places most visible to motorists. There are trailers and gutted houses in every wasted neighborhood. If you look only at the swarms of life in isolated spots you might feel optimism, but if you look at whats around these spots you might feel dread instead. Yes, there is a recovery going on, but there is also a pervasive depression. The media isnt equipped to deal with both hope and despair; it can only show and tell one story at a time. The gray zone where we live is beyond its power.
In New Orleans nothing is what it seems. People believe things they dont say and say things they dont believe. To the media, we are recovering. To ourselves we are sinking. Our heavily mediated and heavily medicated city is generating paradoxes, not certainties. About the time the shrimp boat burned and the monument-building machines were ripped off, there was a picture in the newspaper of a young woman from Los Angeles playing songs on a guitar to St. Bernard residents waiting in line at a parish office. The singer looked superoptimistic and the women looked amused and disbelieving, but at least they beat the August 29 deadline/anniversary for permits to rebuild.