GENERATION GAP #7: Mario Tama’s New Orleans


Now that It is over—now that the circus has come and gone, its glaring lights, its grips and its roadies; now that the visiting dignitaries have made their dignified departures and the newspapers have returned to publishing news (or not, as the case may be); now that the arterial flow of the city is no longer blocked by disoriented journalists and camera vans clotting the streets; and now, finally, that we are able to stop explaining ourselves to the rest of the world as to why, exactly, we are still here—now, finally, at last, we can breathe.

Around here, the anniversary—also known as the Katrinaversary, or the Anti-versary—arrives each year like an unwelcome in-law, with the flurry of effort that goes into its arrival resulting each time in a swathe of observances, memorials, events, performances, films, and books. This year, however, was the big one, in some ways the most significant anniversary yet: with a new mayor, a recently-crowned championship football team, and a forthcoming census whose results will soon be cross-examined like a witness on trial, the K+5 observances made us feel like we here in New Orleans had finally entered a new era.

With it, though, comes an instinctive look back—how far have we come? What stories have we told, what places have we mourned, what friends and family have come home or passed on and what shoots of new growth have we seen? The past five years have without a doubt been a singular chapter in the history not just of this city but of this country, and illustrating that chapter has been a work undertaken by a number of remarkably talented photographers: among them, Polidori, Jordan, Spielman, Alt, and Neff. Their approaches have ranged from the immediate and intrusive—by his own admission, Polidori was combing the Lower Ninth Ward for images within weeks of the flood—to the intimate and loving: Spielman was asked to care for a local monastery by the nuns who had evacuated it, and documented the aftermath from within its walls. And now, with the publication of his five-year retrospective, enters Mario Tama.

Published by Umbrage Editions, Tama’s Coming Back: New Orleans Resurgent is a lush, richly detailed chronicle of the past five years of New Orleans’ rebuilding process, seen from both the highest vantage points and the humblest streets and alleys in the city. Tama, a Getty photojournalist who has covered such events as 9/11 and the recent earthquake in Port-au-Prince, is well acquainted with the role of witness to disaster. And he understands that one of the most effective compositions in disaster iconography, dating as far back as Mathew Brady, is also the simplest—an individual in a landscape—and here deploys it to repeated and powerful effect in his travels throughout the region. (The book’s title is only partly accurate; the geographical range of the book extends outside of New Orleans to nearby cities in Louisiana and Mississippi.)

Tama’s method, a form of long-term storytelling that other photojournalists, preying on disaster for its jarring, visceral surreality and then rushing off again to the next one, grants him entrée into stories that might not otherwise have been told. Disaster porn this is not: Tama’s slow, measured approach to his communities is the core strength on display in Coming Back, and consequently his portraits are the most compelling images in the book. Whether portraying them staring directly into the camera or composed within a wider context, Tama treats his subjects with an intuitive respect, saturating the photographs not just with color and texture but with a sense of their histories and their conflicts, their struggles and their joys. At their usual standard they are exceptional images; at their best, they become a form of wild, exuberant implication against a disaster that never should have happened.

But happened it did, and continues to do so even now, and Tama’s other strengths—his attention to detail and his technical skill—lead him to capture minute, fleeting moments that speak for the whole arc of the disaster. In one image, in a church where the floodwaters have recently drained, a chair hangs idly from a light fixture on the ceiling, and in another, mold blossoms inches away from a baby sleeping in a FEMA trailer, the dark patches stealing silently towards her foot. Elsewhere, details such as the morning light gracing the hands of a young girl at play in the BW Cooper housing project—razed two years ago, and now being rebuilt as a mixed-use community—transforms the documentary into the lyrical. And into something still more: not long ago I met a young man who still proudly claimed to be ‘from St Bernard’, a housing project also demolished in 2008, also being redeveloped— and thought, if Tama is documenting these disappearing neighborhoods, is he not a historian too?

Coming Back is not without blemish. The boosterish quotations sprinkled throughout the book detract from the depth of the work, and too many of Tama’s subjects are labeled only as ‘man’ or ‘woman’, ‘resident’ or ‘reveler.’ Why are some individuals named and others not? Several images are clichéd (exquisite as it is, do we really need another mud-caked Mardi Gras mask?) and others are forced, such as the image of an earlier anniversary service in which a line of marchers in the middle distance is framed by a pair of clasped hands in the foreground. As the rest of the book makes clear, Tama is capable of far more subtle and powerful work than saccharine it’s-going-to-be-okay images such as this one. In part because it’s not okay, that the damage to New Orleans’ physical, social, cultural, and economic fabrics has not been fully rewoven and the griefs incurred have not fully healed. Tama the photographer understands this; Tama the editor, however, seems not to.

But looking too closely at the structure of the book distracts from looking at its content, as seeing through Tama’s eyes instructs us in how to look all over again. Likewise, it distracts us from looking at the book’s context, which—Coming Back was an anniversary event, after all—invokes the other photographic initiatives launched, published, and exhibited to relive the storm. The Historic New Orleans Collection, for instance, hosted Katrina + 5: Documenting Disaster, an exhibition of before-and-after photographs from 2005 to 2010, and three other volumes of photography, the anthology Before (During) After (UNO Press), Richard Misrach’s Destroy This Memory (Aperture), and Dave Anderson’s One Block: A New Orleans Neighborhood Rebuilds (Aperture) were published just in time for the show. (Anderson follows Tama’s model of longue-durée storytelling on a micro-level scale, examining one city block in the Lower Ninth Ward.)

But one that stands out in particular was the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s Telling Their Stories: The Lingering Legacy of the Katrina Photographs. By now the rehearsal of these images feels almost rote—walking around the exhibition, which featured many of the iconic photographs of the storm (including one by Tama, also reproduced in the book), a friend of mine, a New Orleans native, turned to me and said, “Why do I feel like I’ve been looking at these for the past five years?” Simple: because we have. ‘Coming Back’: the phrase seems to apply to so much in this city: to its people, its stories, its images, and lately, to the disasters that frequent its coast. But what the circus misses each time It rolls into town is the fact that the real show takes place far beyond the confines of the tent, where the hard, slow work of rebuilding remains underway. Its flaws aside, Tama’s work in his book is a testament to that work. And so long as his witness doesn’t wear out, neither will his welcome.

Benjamin Morris's work has appeared in Dark Mountain, Horizon Review, and on BBC Radio. He recently wrote about Mario Tama's photography for The Rumpus. You can find Morris, who lives in New Orleans, on the side of the parade route. The purple beads are his favorite. More from this author →