TOPICS > World

Photographer: New Orleans’ Deep Roots Bolstered Katrina Recovery

August 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
Loading the player...
Photographer Mario Tama of Getty Images shares some images he has captured of New Orleans and its residents in the five years since he first documented Hurricane Katrina's profound effects on the city.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina. As that anniversary arrives this week, we’ll report on air and on line on how the city and the region are faring, for better and for worse.

We begin our coverage tonight with some images of the city then and now. They come from Getty Images photographer Mario Tama, who has collected many of his photos in a new book titled “Coming Back: New Orleans Resurgent.”

MARIO TAMA, photographer: My name is Mario Tama. I’m a photographer with Getty Images. I’ve been photographing New Orleans ever since Hurricane Katrina, and I’ve returned approximately 15 times since the storm to document the aftermath and the recovery.

I’ve been drawn to New Orleans for a number of reasons. One of the first reasons is I’ve traveled to a lot of countries and seen a lot of terrible things — Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan. But as an American citizen, to witness my own fellow citizens being abandoned in my own country was something that was probably more shocking than anything I’ve seen. I made a deep connection with the people. I rode on the boats with them. I saw them in the Superdome. I saw them in the convention center. And I just felt an incredible connection and desire to make sure that they weren’t forgotten.

And once I started figuring out that they were coming back, I just wanted to come back along with them and follow their progress and see that they weren’t forgotten.

Hazard Gillette (ph) and his wife, Rita (ph), are a couple that have been an amazing inspiration to me. They rode out the storm here in the Lower 9th ward and they refused to leave when everyone else was evacuated after the storm. And they basically have never left since then. They have an incredible faith and spirit. And usually, when I go show up to meet them, they’ll play some hymns and they’ll read some pieces from the Bible or from memory. And they’ll just talk about how their faith and spirit has carried them through this and it will continue to carry them through in the future.

It was about nine months after Katrina, and I was searching for signs of resurgence and pre-Katrina life in New Orleans. And a woman I had met suggested that I check out a second line parade over on Frenchman Street. And in the distance, I heard this beat and this rhythm, and this beautiful moving procession of people just started pounding up towards us. And all of a sudden, people seemed to come out of nowhere. And within a couple of minutes, it was this, like, flowing congregation, this beautiful street party. And to see this happening in the middle of a formally flooded neighborhood, it was really at that moment that I felt like New Orleans was coming back.

In the first few second line parades that I photographed, there weren’t that many people. There would maybe be 100 or 200 people. Now, in this photograph in 2009, obviously, a lot more residents had returned to the city and this parade consisted of easily thousands of people. It felt like some kind of street ballet and it was just very intense. And I didn’t want to get in their way, but at the same time, I really wanted to capture the moment. So I just tried to get as close as I can and snap a few pictures and then get out of the way and let them go on down the street.

On the fifth-year anniversary of Katrina, I’m hopeful for the city of New Orleans. A lot of the city has been rebuilt. However, they’ve got a very long way to go. The levees still don’t provide a proper defense. There’s still a lot of the people that have been displaced, especially a lot of the poorer residents, who simply can’t afford to come back. Obviously, with the oil spill as another blow here, there’s a long way to go. And New Orleans has always historically had problems, so it’s never going to be an ideal, perfect place. And the people who live here kind of accept it for its faults and love it for its faults, really.

Katrina has absolutely left its mark on me. The people, the resilience of this city has been something that’s been incredibly inspirational to me. I’ve seen people with absolutely nothing and people with their homes wiped away, and they just were so incredibly determined to come back to their home, to come back to their roots.

And it’s really taught me a lot about being connected with your area and with your community and with your family. These kinds of roots are what really brought this city back, probably more than anything else. It’s not something that I experience very much living in New York, for instance. So I feel really blessed to have been able to experience what a unique, incredible culture New Orleans has to offer.

GWEN IFILL: Getty Images will donate all royalties from the sales of Tama’s book to the non-profit organization New Schools for New Orleans.