In 2005, Getty Images photographer Mario Tama thought he was on his way to cover the Burning Man festival in Nevada when Hurricane Katrina started approaching the Gulf Coast. His editor redirected him to New Orleans, where he stayed throughout the storm, slowly building a deep connection with the city and its people.
Tama documented the horror and destruction of New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, making heartbreaking images of struggle and survival. But his coverage didn't end there. He returned to New Orleans more than 15 times in the past five years to show the rebounding spirit of the Crescent City. His images are now collected in a new book — Coming Back: New Orleans Resurgent.
"I had been in love with the city before the storm — it's so dynamic, and I felt a strong attachment to it. I kept asking myself, 'What's going to happen to these people?' I couldn't get it out of my head," Tama said.
So he kept going back. Back to the neighborhoods where he had experienced the storm. Back to the people he had made a connection with. Back to the city where he knew the people's spirit would slowly re-emerge.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Ronisha Mathis, left, and Tessua Phillips are seen at the B.W. Cooper housing project in New Orleans in 2007.
Ronisha Mathis, left, and Tessua Phillips are seen at the B.W. Cooper housing project in New Orleans in 2007. Mario Tama/Getty Images
"A theme generally in my work, and throughout my career, even in the midst of the most dire circumstances, is that people still have hope,"Tama said. "I was looking to show some kind of light at the end of the tunnel."
While the book contains images from the immediate aftermath of the storm, its main focus is on the spirit and resilience of the residents. Images of joy, passion and the essence of New Orleans shine through.
Tama first experienced this resilience when he came upon a traditional second line parade nine months after the storm. There he found dancers, musicians and New Orleanians decked out in colorful regalia. "It was an incredibly beautiful procession through the once flooded street," Tama said. He knew then that the spirit of the city would return.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Members of the Original Big 7 Social and Pleasure Club hold a traditional second line parade in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans, in May 2009.
"Mario's pictures exude his passion, and his voice and spirit scream through his photographs," said book editor Lauren Steel, manager of photography for Reportage by Getty Images. The book is the first editorial book that Getty has produced based on the work of a current staff photographer.
Despite the joy conveyed in his images, Tama knows that New Orleans is still on the mend. "The spirit has returned, but the city is far from being recovered," he said. "There's a ton of work to be done, but the soul of New Orleans has definitely returned."
Tama's images can also be viewed at the Umbrage Gallery in Brooklyn through Sept. 14. All proceeds from the book will be donated to New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public schools.
See more photojournalism from the immediate aftermath of Katrina on The Picture Show.