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Aesthetics of Catastrophe

Aric Mayer

In late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina formed in the Atlantic, over the Bahamas, and crossed Florida as a category 1 storm. Once it entered the warm gulf waters, the storm whipped up into a category 5 monster, one of the five greatest storms ever recorded, and by Saturday, August 27, it appeared to be on a direct collision course with New Orleans. Early in the morning on Monday, August 29, the storm, now cooled down to category 3 status, veered east at the last moment, passing directly over eastern Plaquemines Parish, striking a glancing blow to New Orleans and then making landfall on the Mississippi and Alabama coastlines. As Katrina rotated counterclockwise, the winds came southwestward across twenty miles of open water on Lake Pontchartrain, pushing a huge storm surge up against the levee system of New Orleans and, through levee and canal wall breaches, directly into the city. St. Bernard Parish was completely inundated with an estimated three wave events that resulted in flood levels up to twenty-three feet deep. About 70 percent of New Orleans was flooded, and the damage to eastern Plaquemines Parish and the gulf coastline in places was almost complete.

From the moment on Saturday the 27th that it appeared inevitable that Katrina would strike New Orleans, I knew that I would be going into the catastrophe. I packed a kit that included all my necessary camera gear, dry bags, a water purifier, nutrition bars, all the basics that gave me the confidence that I could work there alone for up to a week without any outside help.

Six days later, on September 5, I entered New Orleans and began to create a body of photographs of the wreckage Katrina left behind. Ken Wells, a veteran editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and I had been discussing a two-week transverse crossing of the million acres of swamps in the Atchafalaya Basin to the west of New Orleans. Instead, we began to cover the breaking news coming out of the city. The Wall Street Journal hired me to be its main photographer there, and I immediately began shooting digital images for breaking news stories. Simultaneously, I began work on a large-scale body of medium-format landscapes. By the end of September, I had photographed in a broad arc across the city and out to the end of east Plaquemines Parish. I composed the images in a format specifically to be printed between thirty and sixty inches square, a scale at which the photographs start to interact with the viewer in a more powerful way than do the much smaller scale images that are routinely circulated in and through photojournalism. These photographs were exhibited in a solo exhibition at Gallery Bienvenu in New Orleans in August and September 2006 to commemorate the first anniversary of the storm. The exhibition was titled “Balance + Disorder: A Response to Hurricane Katrina and the Photographic Landscape.” My objective was (and continues to be) not only to present the images of the storm’s aftermath, but to critique our reception and expectations of them as well.

A key issue in the interaction between visual culture and the practice of democracy is the ways and the means by which our popular aesthetic forms frame, address, and resolve the expectations of the audience. It is a highly political exchange. The dynamics of this interaction, both its promises and its problems, is made vividly explicit in large-scale events that move the entire country into action or opinion. Hurricane Katrina is one of the most significant events of this kind in recent memory. By examining aesthetic positions available and deployed in depicting that catastrophe, we can see how the aesthetic positions themselves can at times work in opposition to the content of the work.

To put the national Hurricane Katrina experience in perspective, fewer than several hundred thousand people witnessed the storm in person. For the other 99.8 percent of Americans, the disaster was a media experience with lasting implications for the public opinion and action. The aftermath of Katrina and its media experience point to a series of visual limitations that traditional forms of documentary photography and photojournalism cannot surpass in their current forms.

In that first week after the storm, we frequently heard seasoned journalists on television and on the radio saying that they simply didn’t have the words or the pictures to carry the event. What exactly does this mean? For one of the few times in America’s recent history, the news was much worse in person than in the mainstream media.

Soon after entering the city, I recognized that the big untold story was New Orleans itself, a fabled American city lying mostly destroyed and empty. This story was not on the news — at least not in a form that registered close to the experience of being there. I arrived when the water was near its highest, and I had the sense of being at the crux of an event, one where the city and the natural forces were at a stalemate, and that the water would soon leave and the city would struggle to return. But for that extended moment, this was a very real “unreal” world in a curious kind of aesthetic balance. It was neither nature nor city, but some kind of hybrid world where the two were overlaid to create another world entirely. Yet that world, eerie and haunting, was not in the news.

Photographs are always made for an intended audience of some kind, either real or imagined. Going into New Orleans, I carried with me the knowledge that I was entering someone else’s city and that I had a responsibility to do something there that might be of value long after the immediate crisis had stabilized. My goal was to create a large body of photographs that crossed the city, carrying the viewer directly into this apocalyptic landscape. Only here, instead of explosions and fire, the more usual metaphors of destruction, this was an apocalypse of water, which is a very different thing. Throughout Western history, water has been a symbol of the unconscious, of the indwelling unrecognized forces and agencies that operate beneath the surface of our conscious lives. This is a fitting metaphor, for we are still untangling and discovering the unseen political and social influences that contributed to the disaster.

Across the media landscape, the means of visually depicting the storm break down into two basic aesthetic positions. One is the traditional documentary realism, which works to focus on the humanitarian issues to evoke a kind of empathy in the viewer by depicting suffering and deprivation. The other depicts the landscape to point to the scale of the destruction in an effort to generate an experience of the breadth of the event.

In the first week after the storm, the strategy of evoking empathy was very effective for generating massive public interest in getting aid to the convention center and the Superdome, where conditions were terrible and rapidly deteriorating.

Pictures of suffering people, mostly black and poor, galvanized a national citizen effort to bring aid, while the governmental agencies seemed paralyzed. In this case, the empathy evoked in the audience was accompanied by a clear course of action: people needed food, water, and transport, and the audience acted to provide it. Citizens took matters into their own hands, and there are many stories of people driving hundreds or thousands of miles to participate in a spontaneous rescue and relief effort that was outside bureaucratic governance. But after that initial burst of enthusiasm, perhaps of limited efficacy, the audience response becomes more problematic.

The images of figures struggling in the floodwaters or abandoned without aid were deeply moving, but they spoke only to the immediate plight of those subjects, and to events now passed. Those images captured and conveyed very little of the massive impact of the natural forces that had hit New Orleans, the aftereffects of which were visible across the cityscape. While the documentary and photojournalist accounts were troubling to viewers, they were in fact more comforting than the reality of the city, which seemed to defy and elude the available means of media representation. To be sure, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to speak to the plight of a hundred thousand people in a photographic image. Photographs of people trend toward intimacy with the subject. The scale of the Katrina wreckage was mind-numbing. To focus on anything specific, especially on stranded and abandoned citizens, meant shrinking the size of the event and delimiting the viewing experience. Thus, documentary realism as an aesthetic strategy betrayed the size of the event, making it more intimate and contained. Once the immediate and pressing needs of the survivors of the storm were addressed, more complicated and troubling questions began to emerge. How could a rich and advanced a country like the United States leave its citizens in the center of a disaster for nearly a week without relief? This question and the many political, social, and racial issues that it raises are hardly addressed in any meaningful way in the photojournalist images, the primary source of visual understanding of Katrina for the nation.

One of the most significant intersections of politics and photography is in the relative ease with which photographs depict the symptoms of an event or issue without addressing the cause. In representing disaster, war, poverty, and human suffering, the causes of the events are frequently remote and invisible from the subjects/objects, and so they remain a topic for textual explication rather than existing within the image. How images perform alongside the text is frequently a determining factor in their political effectiveness. It is easy to evoke a sense of empathy in a photograph. We tend to feel compassion toward those who are suffering. However, it is difficult to effectively interrogate the causes of the suffering within that same photograph. The empathy in the viewer is real, but the meaning of it, malleable. If the causes are invisible, they can be assigned to whatever agency the audience imagines, whether real or not. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, people of all political persuasions quickly began seeking agencies to blame for the catastrophe. These ranged on a continuum from people on the far left calling it nothing less than ethnic cleansing to people on the far right calling it a clear example of the basic inabilities and inefficiencies in government and the need to privatize FEMA. This popular speculation can be directly linked at its source to a need in the audience to resolve the empathic response. Here, and in my photographic work, I am not interested in assessing the accuracy and viability of any of these politically charged interpretive positions. They could not all be true, but that is not much consolation. Katrina came and we failed. The images placed in circulation by the photojournalists and documentaries helped to constitute for a short duration a “sentimental nation” disinclined to grasp the scope of the event that had transpired.

There are also practical constraints in the business of media representation that complicate the task of ascribing political culpability. In the past decades, most major news organizations have become publicly traded companies ever more responsive to the profit motive. Their main sources of income are from readership and advertising. Readership is increased by subtly reinforcing the political and moral positions of the readers, and so there is significant financial incentive to assign blame away from the intended audience. In this way, empathy can result in a net aggregate sense of apathy. In the case of Katrina, the social issues are extremely complex, and it is not easy to assign verifiable blame. Placing culpability onto one’s political other relieves the audience of individual blame, but also relieves the audience of the need for individual responsibility and action.

On the visual front, advertising acts as an aesthetic regulator. Images that disrupt the effectiveness of the advertising message tend to be dropped from circulation.

This is enforced by the free market relationship between media companies and advertisers themselves. Editors and publishers are constantly aware of the clear economic penalties for upsetting their advertisers.

The alternative aesthetic position, to which I subscribe, for representing the aftermath of Katrina was seen in efforts to present the destroyed city itself. Once stranded residents, already labeled refugees in the media, had been removed to safety, the city quickly became a sealed-off area governed by martial law. More than seventy thousand soldiers, police, and law enforcement officers came to establish order over the estimated five thousand residents that remained. The undamaged central portions of New Orleans became a sort of barracks for this martial force and the headquarters for the media that had set up to cover the disaster.

But away from Canal Street and the Central Business District, the city sat all but completely empty.

Hurricane Katrina as a storm and the empty city that it left behind together constitute an aesthetic event, and any attempt to represent it must address that dimension. In terms of Kantian aesthetics, the sublime originates in an event so massive that it is beyond comprehension. The experience of the storm pushes one toward an aesthetic recognition of a natural reality that is incomprehensible and also incommunicable. The forces of wind and flood wrought such incredible destruction that the familiar tropes of documentary photography render them tame. In this case, the sublime is a useful aesthetic function, for it points to a reality that is beyond description.

In the postindustrial West, as we have become more comfortable in our physical safety and security from the larger events in nature, our understanding of the sublime has diminished. We are distanced from nature, and it is out of this distance that the genre of landscape emerges. For the very idea of the landscape to exist, there must be a separation from the land, a sense that the land is scenic, a retreat, a space behind the spaces that we inhabit — and a clear need for photographs of nature. Interestingly, Kant proposes his idea of the sublime at the height of the industrial revolution. The West is stepping back from nature. Suddenly there is an aesthetic distance from the land, and reason triumphs.

By contrast, in Africa the very idea of landscape is an impossibility. Culturally, the land takes over man. It does not retreat before the human gaze; it does not let you admire it in the safety of aesthetic distance. The land is the vessel of culture — it is animated with the souls of the departed and is a material manifestation of an invisible world that is equally real and powerful. Not surprisingly, Kenyans, for instance, have a remarkably different relationship to the earth than do those in the West. In Swahili, the word for land is Nchi and the word for citizen is Mwananchi, which can be translated as “a person who belongs to the land.” Here the concept of ownership is reversed: the land is the one who has ownership, and natural disasters have been traditionally viewed as the vagaries of fate. They are neither good nor evil; they are simply there.

In my photographs of the aftermath of Katrina, I have sought to close some of the distance between the idealized representations of nature in the West, with its beauty and allure, and the corresponding horrific and repelling documentary representations of natural disaster. This is an effort to dispel the binary of good nature versus bad nature and to give the viewer no easy out. To be sure, the postindustrial expectations of the landscape are present: it is beautiful and grand. At the same time, the qualities of disaster are present, too: the city, destroyed, stands empty and desolate, an instant ruin as if time had suddenly stopped.

By neither relieving nor assigning moral culpability, these landscapes are intentionally ambiguous. They are at once beautiful and disturbing. To an audience that is used to having its moral positions clarified and repeated by the media it consumes, this experience of ambiguity in the face of a national catastrophe can be uncomfortable. The ambiguity operates against the backdrop of the political, moral, and social issues that Katrina evokes. If FEMA had been more effective in its response and not crippled by cronyism and ineptitude, if Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Chief Eddie Compass had more successfully evacuated the city, as was their assigned responsibility, if Governor Kathleen Blanco had communicated more accurately with the federal government, if the majority of those left behind in the wreckage to suffer for a week had not been predominantly poor African Americans — if any of these political and social events had been different, then these empty landscapes might operate in a different moral atmosphere. Perhaps we would be proud that our nation was able to respond so quickly and so fairly to the plight of its own citizens. But we are not.

My hope in presenting this collection of Katrina images is to create a semblance of aesthetic friction, a lack of resolve, a sense of ambiguity, and unclear direction. Perhaps the ensuing aesthetic space can fuel further inquiry rather than relieve the audience of distress.



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Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at

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