A conversation with photographer Jennifer Shaw
In the wee hours of August 28, 2005, artist and Milwaukee native Jennifer Shaw found herself speeding down the freeway, husband, two dogs, two cats, clothes and a few important documents in tow. As Hurricane Katrina swelled over the gulf of Mexico, they made the choice to evacuate their home in the Uptown section of New Orleans. Shaw was nine months pregnant and due to give birth in a matter of days.
Shaw grew up on the East Side of Milwaukee before heading east to study photgraphy at the Rhode Island School of Design. Upon graduating, she moved to New Orleans in 1994, where she is a fine art photography and teaches at the Louise S. McGhee School. She’ll bring Hurricane Story, a toy camera photo narrative documenting her travels and subsequent return to a battered New Orleans to Boswell Books this Thursday.
“We’d been watching the news and preparing and getting the house boarded up,” Shaw says of the days before Katrina hit. They fled to Andalusia, Alabama (about 250 miles from New Orleans), where a group of friends had rented out a block of motel rooms. The plan was to settle there for a few days so that Shaw and her husband could find a midwife to assist with the natural birth they’d planned.
On the morning of August 29, just hours after arriving in Andalusia, Shaw’s water broke. The soon-to-be family set out on a four-hour drive to Athens, AL, where a healthy baby boy was born.
Meanwhile, New Orleans was being swept away by 125 mph winds as the eye of the storm passed over the coast. Reports of the devastation were constantly streaming in. While they were glued to the news upon arriving in Andalusia, once her water broke, Shaw says that she and her husband made it a point to steer clear of the television news.
“We needed some time alone to cherish this new life and be glad that we made it safely,” says Shaw.
The day after their son was born, Shaw turned on the t.v. Conditions worsened along the Gulf Coast, and it was clear that the new family wouldn’t be going home anytime soon. Within a week they were back on the road, traveling up to New England and then heading west to Milwaukee and Door County, meanwhile trying to reconnect with other evacuees. Among the chaos and constant traveling, Shaw says it was difficult to maintain sanity.
“We tried to pretend that we were on a road trip adventure…telling ourselves that we were just on vacation and that everything was fine.”
Two months and thousands of miles later, they got the okay to return to New Orleans. When they did, the city they called home was nearly unrecognizable.
“It was completely surreal — so changed, so vacant, so quiet. People were scattered everywhere,” says Shaw, whose home had sustained some damage, but luckily no flooding. It was months before she visited the disaster zone, due to air contamination and obvious health hazards for her and her infant child.
In June of 2006, almost a year after the levees broke, Shaw began working on Hurricane Story.
Over the book’s 52 pages, single images are accompanied by short, poignant snippets of prose that offer a glimpse into Shaw’s uncertain journey. Using toys and found objects, she recreates vignettes of the turbulent birth of their first son, the heartbreaking news updates as Katrina hit, and the community they found along the road. Upon re-entering New Orleans, Shaw’s photographs show a city decimated, left hanging in an ominous silence. As time passes and people made their way back, the images hint at the city’s rebirth and renewal.
“I realized that the old adage ‘a picture is worth 1000 words’ wasn’t enough,” Shaw says of the book’s narrative style. “The pictures inform words, and the words inform the pictures and fill in more of the emotional content.”
The story itself is surreal even six years later, albeit one that is slowly being forgotten. Using a lo-fi Holga camera with minimal settings and effects, Shaw captures the chaotic series of events, imbuing each image with a dynamic sense of urgency and raw emotion that pulls the reader/viewer back to the fateful summer of 2005.
From start to finish, the project represents three years, 112 rolls of film, and the indelible imprint of such a journey.
“It was hugely cathartic to be able to process the experience through a creative art project. The time that I was working on [Hurricane Story] was still an uncertain time in New Orleans,” says Shaw. “The opportunity to list out those experiences and fears on toys and dioramas was amazing and fun and life affirming.”
Jennifer Shaw will present images and words from Hurricane Story at Boswell Books (2559 N. Downer Ave.) Thursday, July 14 at 7 p.m. For more information, click here.