Photographer Captures Life After Hurricane Katrina

Since Hurricane Katrina devastated communities along the Gulf Coast, many of those disaster images remain forever etched in Americans’ minds. Shawn Escoffery, a city planner and photographer, discusses how he has used his camera to capture life after the storm.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

All week we've been taking a look at the Gulf Coast communities affected by Hurricane Katrina, which came ashore five years ago this coming Sunday. In the wake of the storm, many were stunned by the images of destruction and the suffering of families and people in need.

Documenting the progress of recovery became an important way for people outside of the region to connect with the disaster. Shawn Escoffrey has made that his calling. He's a city planner by trade, but he's also a New Orleans-based photographer.

Shawn, welcome to the program.

Mr. SHAWN ESCOFFREY (City Planner, Photographer): Thank you. Thank you for having me.

KEYES: So, working as a city planner, how did you end up in New Orleans?

Mr. ESCOFFREY: Well, prior to the storm I had the privilege of working down in New Orleans as a part of a consulting team with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. I instantly fell in love with the culture, the people and definitely the food and music. After the storm, you know, after watching the devastation on TV, you know, I felt helpless. And as a city planner I knew that I could do something there and sort of play my part in helping rebuild.

KEYES: We were all overwhelmed by the 24/7 coverage and the images, but your prints are pretty visceral. I'm looking at one of your photos right now. It's called "Waves." It's a house that looks like the structure is rippling like water.

Mr. ESCOFFREY: Yeah. And that's exactly what came to my mind when I saw that. And I instantly had to take my camera up and document it, you know, just a water-soaked house can take the shapes of waves.

KEYES: I remember another image of yours that I think is called "Half." It's a very long house and the center of it looks like a giant foot came down on it.

Mr. ESCOFFREY: That's actually from the destruction of a barge that floated around the Lower Ninth Ward after the levees broke there.

KEYES: When did you take those pictures? What did it feel like?

Mr. ESCOFFREY: It was a ghost town when I was there. That was probably about eight months after the storm. The Lower Ninth Ward was primarily a ghost town. Every once in awhile you'd see a sign of life, someone, you know, in their homes trying to take things out and starting to gut their houses.

KEYES: And just for people that don't know the city, remind us where the Lower Ninth Ward is.

Mr. ESCOFFREY: It is technically towards the east side of the city, the opposite of Industrial Canal, a major shipping canal.

KEYES: And was one of the worst places hit.

Mr. ESCOFFREY: It was. There was extreme levee failure. Had about anywhere between 10 to 20 feet of water in most of the Lower Ninth Ward.

KEYES: Let me move on to some of your other wonderful photographs. I know that one of your favorite subjects are the Mardi Gras Indians. Talk to us a little bit about them and why they fascinate you so.

Mr. ESCOFFREY: It is absolutely my favorite subject to photograph.

KEYES: It's the colors, right?

Mr. ESCOFFREY: The colors, the craftsmanship of the suits, the beads, their dancing, their tambourines, their sounds and songs. It is so unique and so uniquely New Orleans, it's something that the average person has probably never experienced before. You know, I fell in love with it because it was such a unique cultural aspect that paid tribute to sort of ancestral relations from Africa Western Africa.

And then also paying homage and respect to Native Americans who many have sort of taken in some runaway slaves during the times of slavery. And it's something that is organic in how it grew and how it continues to grow.

KEYES: I really enjoyed one of your images called "Sky Blue Indian." It's that bright fall blue sky that picks up exactly the blue in the outfit.

Mr. ESCOFFREY: When I saw that particular chief walking down Cleveland Avenue and that bright blue, you know, I knew I had to shoot sort of low to make him look larger than life and then to also capture the brilliant sky in the background. I just thought those colors really, really worked together.

KEYES: I also need to ask you, you have some pictures of fishermen and oystermen along the Gulf, which are also very striking. The one of the captain, the gentleman that's behind the helm and the sun and the sun is rising or setting, I'm actually not sure which it is.

Mr. ESCOFFREY: It's rising.

KEYES: It's rising right through the window behind him. And the men with their hands scarred from the oysters, what was it like working with them?

Mr. ESCOFFREY: Well, you know, I spent a day on an oyster boat and it's a tough day. We were out about 5:30 in the morning. You saw the sun rising in the background and the captain, George Williams(ph), he is everything that you would expect a black fisherman to look like just in terms of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Explain what you mean.

Mr. ESCOFFREY: Just in terms of, you know, weathered skin, this sort of stoic look about him. This look of intensity that never left his face, you know. He was always focused. When he was steering the ship and looking off, it was as if he was looking off to the future or what the future wouldn't hold. Whether it was, you know, that day's catch. He was just a perfect, I guess, specimen of what I pictured a fisherman to look like from the peppered beard to that expression on his face.

KEYES: I wonder whether you think the suffering that people went through after Katrina is at all similar to what the fishermen and other people, business people, people that live there are going through in the wake of the oil spill. Did you take the fisherman photos before or after that happened?

Mr. ESCOFFREY: It was probably the second or third week after the oil spill. So, you know, the suffering was being felt while I was there. And the conversations I had with everyone onboard the ship, it was just, you know, there was a degree of uncertainty. They were uncertain if they'd be able to fish those waters again.

And for the captain there was this sort of notion of a lost generation of fishermen, you know. It was already a dying breed and a catastrophe like this had the potential to completely wipe out this population from fishing or from oystering.

KEYES: Shawn, let me just ask you one last question. If you can kind of blend the vision of your city planner eyes and your photographer eyes, what do you see in New Orleans over the next five years?

Mr. ESCOFFREY: Over the next five years, a city that is on the mend, but that's going to come back stronger. Every second line, every Indian, you know, that masks each year, you know, it speaks to the rebirth of the city. We're no longer in the recovery mode. We're now moving forward and building for the future. It's about what this city can become as opposed to just the devastation of Katrina.

Now it's about, we want to bring more people who haven't had the opportunity to come back. We want to make sure that they can come back and that there are jobs here. That there are new schools for their kids to go to school. That the streets are safer. And, you know, we just want a better New Orleans.

KEYES: Shawn Escoffrey works as a New Orleans-based photographer and a city planner. He joined us from our New York bureau. And if you're curious, you can see some of his photographs on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on TELL ME MORE on the programs page. Shawn, thanks so much for joining us and sharing your vision.

Mr. ESCOFFREY: Thank you.

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