Award-winning photojournalist Kael Alford will be featured in the High Museum’s upcoming Picturing New York—Picturing the South exhibition, which premieres in conjunction with a hardcover book release by Fall Line Press. The publication, Bottom of da Boot, explores a few small towns on Louisiana’s coast through images of weary natives and the desolate area their families have lived in for generations. Accompanying the series is an essay that details the multiple threats to their livelihoods and lifestyles. Provoked by the rapid erosion of the land, which was scarred by oil extraction, Alford engaged in a long-term project to capture a culture and a landscape that may soon be lost.
Most who inhabit the diminutive regions of Isle de Jean Charles and Pointe-aux-Chenes are a blend of French and Native American ethnicities. Alford recently discovered that she shares their heritage on her grandmother’s side, and her lineage can even be traced back to one of the founders. Like any small and isolated town, the locals are fiercely protective of the homes they have made for themselves. Despite the coastline’s disappearance and the resultant storm damage, many won’t move away unless the damage to their house is irreparable. An indefatigable faith in the home they have always known affords them the optimism to continue their daily routines, and draws Alford to document the fortitude found in Isle de Jean Charles and Pointe-aux-Chenes.
I asked both Alford and Fall Line Press publisher William Boling, via email, about their experiences working on this project and how the release of the book coincides with the High Museum commission.
BURNAWAY: On your website, you say that photographing the threatened environment along the coast made you feel useful, like you were consoling an old friend. Do you think the people who inhabit these areas perceived your work the same way, in general? What does highlighting their plight mean for them?
Kael: In the communities where these photographs were made, there is consensus that the badly eroded wetlands are a problem, and that the canals cut through the wetlands by oil and gas companies are the main culprit. People have watched this process unfold before their eyes and are aware of many of the reports and scientific discussions that support their observations. The older residents of the community speak about how the landscape was different before a few, key canals were cut by oil companies; there have been various movements in the past to keep oil prospectors out or to reclaim land seized by the state. I’m not the first journalist to cover this story, and yet there is a general suspicion of journalists in these communities—residents have seen so many well meaning reporters come and go, and very little has changed for them. I don’t have any illusions that my work will fix anyone’s problems, nor do they. My hope is to highlight what remains here, the fragile landscape and the pockets of culture that are unlike anywhere else in America. We have so few very unique places like these left, and the history here is complex—an American tapestry. I don’t know what my work means for them. I’m still not sure of all that it means to me. But I hope I have been respectful to people there and I am grateful that I’ve made some friends.
BA: Did your shared heritage with your subjects alter the emotional distance you would normally maintain, considering your photojournalistic background? Did the subjects acknowledge this heritage?
K:I don’t think that journalists necessarily must maintain an emotional distance. In fact, for many of the journalists I admire, their personal investment reinforces their reporting. Journalists must be sure we can work and function effectively and not collapse into despair of course, and our job entails being educators rather than lobbyists. I think we can be invested and still maintain open minds. We need to be empathetic and aware of the broader picture at the same time.
I think my personal connection to this place helped me feel it was okay to stick around for so long, even when journalistically, not much was happening there. It sounds contradictory but I think the personal aspect of this story allowed me to make that leap from focusing on very specific events and reaching for broader, more open-ended metaphors. The pitfall of journalism is that it can be bound to the timeliness of a story without addressing the back story or social or historical context. The longer I work as a journalist or documentarian, the more I am drawn to stories that touch on a number of broader themes.
Regarding your question about how people saw my own family’s relationship to the community—I would explain my relationship to common ancestors to the people I met, but it was never very impressive to them. (Many of the details of my ancestry I’ve only just learned in the last year or two). Most people there see me as an outsider. Only a handful of my living ancestors on my maternal side share local names, and most live outside of these specific communities where I was photographing. Although I do trace my lineage to some of the same few individuals who are seen as the founders of Pointe-aux-Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles—as I describe in the foreward to the book—that’s not very impressive in a community where people are related to those same ancestors on both sides of their family and in several different ways. I have been invited to come settle down in the community more than once—but that was only flirting!
BA: In an interview with dartcenter.org, you said that, “People in the communities I’m documenting insist they will hold on and survive, but experts say many of the places people currently live are doomed.” How has the knowledge that many of your subjects are holding onto an impossible hope affected the way you portray them?
K: I like your question about hope. I heard something recently about a scientific study of the human brain that examined the human capacity for optimism in the face of adversity.
The study contributed to the growing body of neurological and social science evidence that suggests humans are hardwired for optimism even when we know the odds and evidence are stacked against us. That is one of the most frightening and beautiful things about human beings. I have seen this mechanism in cities at war and in my own neighborhood and it’s either inspiring or deeply troubling, depending on the circumstances. I think this touches on what I love about these places I’ve been photographing in Louisiana. The land is so obviously sinking and eroding into the sea, and yet people are going about their daily lives loving each other, raising children, growing gardens, and fighting to remain rooted to the way of life they’ve known even when their own eyes tell them it’s eroding, literally, from beneath their feet.
Of course many families have moved away and the communities are shrinking in population; but people tend to leave only after their house has been flooded or severely damaged and they just can’t manage the repairs any more. Those who can rebuild tend to stay. I must also say that a lot of the people here are wedded to the life they know there due to finances or education—they make their living fishing, working on oilrigs, or as boat captains. They own homes here; finding a sustainable life elsewhere wouldn’t be very easy, not to mention their strong sense of historical and cultural heritage that binds them to this place.
But for me the scenes and people in these communities also resonate with what we are facing together as a species—and speak to our undying optimism in the face of overwhelming evidence of global crises, even in the face of our own individual mortality. With our growing awareness of the challenges facing the planet and humanity—collapsing ecosystems, overpopulation, impending food shortages, etcetera—it seems that we are all holding out impossible hopes in the face of growing adversity. There is a dark side to this optimism: rather than huddle around the obstacles that appear stacked against our species and planet’s long term survival—those with means to innovate would rather go on developing new video games and couture fashion, expanding prison systems, and new ways to extract ever-scarcer fossil fuels for a short term profit.
How many of us stop littering or discarding unwanted fish on the road instead of throwing them back in the water, or use cloth shopping bags instead of plastic, or drive more fuel efficient vehicles, or protest factories that pollute our waterways? When I study these weather-beaten, industry-abused communities, I get glimpses of the past, present, and future of the United States and our collective humanity. I hope that perspective is somewhere in the images.
BA: Why did you want to publish this series in the form of a hardcover book rather than the paperback quarterlies Fall Line has been producing?
William: Kael’s work is an extended photo essay that was already very well formed and structured for a larger presentation. The accompanying essays and extra material we’ve included in the book seemed to be better suited for the kind of home that a book affords. The Free Fall quarterlies that we do are meant to be experienced in a serial fashion over time and offer, hopefully, a more open, playful format for a photographer to explore how her images play together as printed matter.
BA: Was the decision to publish two smaller companion books to Bottom of da Boot made after the original book started coming together? What is the advantage of releasing companion publications rather than incorporating them into one book?
W: Interestingly the idea just emerged from conversations with Kael and as we worked to bring this first volume into shape. There was ongoing work she was committed to doing there that would clearly take tangents and touch on issues beyond the scope of her commission with the High and this book.
The companion publications will include work done over time and will hopefully support other exhibitions that will feature these new images.
BA: Kael’s series is featured in the High Museum’s Picturing New York—Picturing the South exhibition. From a publishing standpoint, was it significant in your decision to work with Kael that the photos focus on a region in the South?
W: No and yes. We would have wanted to work with Kael and this project regardless. But, since our roots are in the South, having Fall Line’s first book coming from this place is lagniappe. Other projects in the pipeline, and some that are coming out around the same time as Kael’s release, including a documentary with Martin Parr, involve national and international artists, as well as places beyond the south.
Kael Alford’s new book, Bottom of da Boot is now available through Fall Line Press. The exhibition, Picturing New York—Picturing the South opens at the High Museum of Art on Saturday, June 9, 2012, and runs through September 2, 2012.