Ten years ago this week, the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina broke through the levees of New Orleans, ultimately taking more than 1,800 human lives. California-based photographer Lewis Watts, who had already been documenting New Orleans for over a decade at the time, arrived on the scene about six weeks after the storm hit. He spoke with those who remained, from a woman who had been forced to take an axe to her roof to escape the rising waters, to another who returned and found her father’s home razed to the ground.
Watts has continued to return to New Orleans over the last ten years, and he’s seen the city rally and rebuild. With each visit, he’s watched the flood lines fade to the point where they are now barely visible, if not entirely erased. The New Orleans that existed before the storm, Lewis suggests, might never be reborn, but memories have risen from the waters, the new colliding with the old to create a city that clings to its past while marching resolutely into its future.
Before the hurricane, what was the relationship between the people of New Orleans, their culture, and the water?
Well, it’s called the Crescent City because the river kind of bends right in the middle of the city, so it has fewer square blocks, like there are in New York. Nothing’s ever straight. This idea of myth really becomes real. I’ve been listening to music by people from New Orleans, and a lot of what they sing about is the physical and geographical qualities of the place, and how that influences how people act. I’m thinking about the Mississippi River — “Ol’ Man River” [a song from the musical ‘Show Boat,’ in which the continually flowing river serves as a kind of metaphor for persistent racial oppression]. The reality is, New Orleans is situated below sea level, so you have to walk up to see the Mississippi, and I think that has a kind of psychological influence.
Before the storm, I remember taking a hot shower and sweating at the same time, because the humidity is so strong, and you can kind of see that. The first thing I noticed when I got there is that there’s a patina to the surface of the buildings that has to do with that climate — you know, the air you can cut with your hand. There are some spaces that didn’t look any different after they flooded because there’s always kind of this presence of water — either in the air or physically, because it’s below sea level.
Did you arrive with a set concept for a shoot after Katrina?
I was going with an open set of eyes and heart, to just react to things. At that point, I had been going there for ten years, so I did know it at least well enough physically. I would go to places that I had photographed before to see how the storm had affected [them].
I arrived at maybe seven or eight at night, and the electricity wasn’t completely on, so the lights were kind of flickering, and then I noticed the damage, [which] looked one hundred times worse than all the photographs I’d been looking at in The New York Times. The damage was actually worse in reality than it was in pictures. I had a kind of existential crisis: like, if that’s true, then maybe I shouldn’t take pictures. That lasted about thirty seconds. And then I went and photographed.
The emotional impact of the damage hit me a lot harder than I was expecting. I photographed for about ten days very intently, and then I actually had to leave…I had to get out of there. I photographed what I saw, but I realized that was not really what had drawn me to New Orleans. It was the people, and nobody was there. At that point, only a few people had come back.
What was the hardest thing to photograph?
I came back about nine months later and was driving around, and I remember there were some ministers who were feeding people coming back, and someone waved us over to this little garage, and he said, “I want to show you something.”
We walked up this very unstable ramp — the stairs had been washed away — and up there were the dogs that had been tied to the second floor, the owners thinking, “We’ll just come back after the storm.” At that point, it flooded about twenty feet, so these dogs were chained to the wall and drowned, probably four or five of them, and basically nine months later, their bodies were still intact.
I went back a year later, when they were down to just skeletons. That was a lot to recover from. It was the closest I got to the human deaths that were also very near to where I was photographing.
How was the New Orleans you witnessed after the flood different from the one you knew before?
I think in many ways what was the same was this idea of the patina, the climate, and the environment, being a physical presence. It was that times a hundred.
There was a smell that I can’t describe, but that came back to me when I was looking at the episodes of “Treme” on HBO [which uses one of Watts’ images in the introduction]. I went maybe three or four times in the first couple years, and I would get sick each time, because I think it was really toxic. Everything had sort of been razed up from below the surface, so that was worrisome to me. It stopped after a couple of years.
Your work has centered in part on jazz and other artistic movements in New Orleans. Did you discover specific moments of healing through music and tradition in the wake of the catastrophe?
Many of the city powers-that-be wanted to make sure that a lot of the poor blacks did not return. They closed all the public housing. They closed the hospital. They wanted the culture to be kind of like Disney Land, where it was confined to the French Quarter — so I got to witness the cultural workers, the people in the social and pleasure clubs and the musicians and the Mardi Gras Indians in their efforts to make sure that tradition was not commodified and would continue to grow.
Mardi Gras 2006 was pretty amazing. It opened up to me an entire part of the culture of New Orleans that I had looked at the surface of, but I really had no idea, in terms of the tradition: the funeral tradition, which helped to develop the music, and the Mardi Gras Indians, who work on their suits all year and then come out for the first time on Mardi Gras. In some ways, the storm revitalized [the traditions of the black community in New Orleans].
It’s a trauma, and in some ways, I think there are cultural outlets for that. You hear it in the music and the way people respond to the music.
In what ways did the city’s musical and artistic heritage help these communities to rebuild?
I was just reading that tourism is higher than ever, and I think that’s good for the economy, although I’m not sure how far it “trickles down” to the poor people.
In many ways, it’s been revitalized, although I’ve heard some of the musicians say that because of gentrification, it’s getting more expensive to live there, and so a lot of them have to travel and be on the road in order to afford being able to live there. As a result, the connection with the kids has to be more formal, like some people are actually starting music programs. It used to be just by osmosis and tradition, but a lot of those musicians are gone on the road a lot of the time. The higher rents also prevent many of the former residents from returning, although some have consciously stayed in other places with better schools and employment.
Has the city’s relationship to water changed since the storm?
I think in some ways, you [find] a kind of fatalistic attitude [in New Orleans]. I hate to make an overgeneralization, but I think that the idea that it really is a place that encourages and nurtures creativity might come from the same thing.
Improvising and creativity is something that is just in the air, and I think that has something to do with the water. The nearest port is the Caribbean or Europe; before the Revolution there was supposedly a ferry that went between New Orleans and Havana two or three times a week, and I can imagine that the music on that ferry must have been pretty amazing.
I don’t think [the city’s relationship to water has changed]. You know, it’s hurricane season now, and everybody knows that it can all go away. That has an influence on your life vision and maybe even what you choose to do with your time.
The last picture in my book, “New Orleans Suite,” is of Ashton Ramsay, who’s an historian and an artist, and every Mardi Gras, he wears a different outfit that has some sort of reference to history or culture. The names that he has pinned to his jacket are the names of people and places that no longer exist.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.