William Widmer Captures Life in Post-Katrina New Orleans with 'My Mississippi'
William Widmer has been photographing levee breach sites and taking a broad look at what the Bayou and New Orleans neighborhoods look like ten years after the storm.
Photographer William Widmer calls New Orleans the "frontlines of climate change in America." Widmer moved South five years ago to document the way of life there before the land erodes and washes everything away. As a result, he spends a lot of time roaming the streets. He doesn't consider himself a storyteller so much as an observer, but what I love about his images are the narratives they evoke. The careful, knowing smile of a shirtless tattooed man, shelling crawfish and drinking Bud Light on a boat; a couple standing by their car, the man talking to someone outside of the frame, his arm proudly around a woman who stares at the camera, sullen and diffident. Whole lives are frozen there, and Widmer is able to make me feel like I know his subjects while also making me hungry to know more. The same goes for his images of landscapes, which are somehow post-apocalyptic, mundane, and beautiful all at once.
VICE spoke to Widmer about human ecology, vulnerability, and faith in honor of the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
inNew Orleans, 2010.
VICE: When did you first get into photography?
Will Widmer: I studied sociology and anthropology in undergrad, but decided I couldn't imagine myself just reading and writing all my life. I have a strong interest in people and places, and photography became a gateway to understanding that wasn't rooted in reading books. For me, photography is the ultimate excuse to go places I wouldn't otherwise go and speak with people I wouldn't otherwise speak with. Susan Meiselas said—and I'm paraphrasing—that photography can either be a degree of separation or connection, depending on how it's most needed. I love that push-pull.
How long have you been living in New Orleans?
I moved here in 2010, shortly after the BP oil spill, and five years after Katrina. Everything this summer has been about the ten-year anniversary of Katrina in one way or another, and I've been roaming these areas that are close to main levee breach sites, taking a broad look at what these neighborhoods look like ten years out. Katrina defines this place, for better or for worse.
Does being a photographer allow you to engage with/understand a place? Is that your intention?
My primary interest in this region is human ecology and peoples' relationships to the natural environment. That was one of the main components of me moving down here, actually: to work on issues in what I deem to be the frontlines of climate change for the United States. There's this huge, huge shift occurring along the Gulf Coast right now, we're losing land at a crazy catastrophic rate that nobody outside of Louisiana seems to know or care about. A lot of what I work on down here is showing these vulnerable coastal communities and their way of life, and the way things feel here now, because I feel that's what's at stake here. That's what I want to communicate.
Given the changing way that people read and respond to news and images, do you think being a photographer is the best way of effecting policy change? That saying that a picture speaks a thousand words is maybe cliché, but do you hope your images will enact change?
Of course I do, yes. It might be cliché, but it's part of what I want: I want to make succinct and powerful statements with an image that pulls people in, and makes them care. When my work is at its best, I feel like I'm advocating for this place and helping to articulate why it matters. We're in the Deep South and some of the country's most marginalized people live here, in vulnerable coastal eco-systems, and they don't really have a voice. When I do my best work I feel like it's able to speak toward this universal human experience, though it's very deeply rooted in this place.
I love your diptychs, and how the pairings give each individual image more strength. My favorite is the guy on the lamp paired with Jesus on the cross. Did you take the photo of the guy in the lamp because you thought it looked like a crucifix?
No, I wish I could say that!
No, no, I think it's better that it came afterward.
I like diptychs because they abstract the narrative, and allow the images to play off one another. They're a bit more open-ended, and maybe a bit more universal. I really like negative space in the photo of the guy on the lamppost, and that picture is one of the first I made in New Orleans that I was really excited about. It's from a second line parade, which are these roving parades or parties that are accompanied by brass bands, and people just go nuts, climbing on rooftops and dancing in the streets.
Living and working here, I've come to appreciate the way that organized faith and Catholicism play out, which is very different than it is anywhere else I've ever been. The pairing of this guy on the lamppost and Jesus on the cross in the church just made total sense—they're saying similar things. Parades are spiritual things here, and second lines take place every Sunday. A lot of people say that that's their church. So narratively, it's an interesting juxtaposition.
It seems like you focus on story and narrative in your work, is this something that drives you?
There's a vulnerability to the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi Delta, and capturing that environmental change is what motivates me as a social photographer. Once I went to art school I started to care more about form and the visual aspects of photography, but yeah, my pictures are always socially motivated. It's a balance, and my most successful images have a bit of both.
Following up on what you were talking about with religion: faith is clearly a strong force in your work, and where you live. What do you think has the strongest power in the Bayou: nature, or God?
I think that they're very, very closely related for a lot of people that live down here, whether that's in Mississippi, which has some of the deepest pockets of poverty and disenfranchisement that I've ever seen in this country, or whether that's in coastal Louisiana. There's a photograph I took on a shrimp boat out there, of a Catholic mass held on the boat before they went out shrimping. The priests and deacons are at the front of the lead boat, all decorated with flags and forming a procession on the water, and they're sprinkling all the shrimp trawlers as they go down the Bayou to wish everyone a safe and bountiful shrimping season. So when you talk about land, and you talk about God or faith, for a lot of people here, they're synonymous.
Does the work that you do, and the magic that comes with it, come from the moment of photographing or the time you spend working on the photographs afterward, like arranging the diptychs and editing?
Normally when I'm making pictures I'm very much in the moment, and consumed by the immediate narrative of each picture. And then it's sort of reimagining it afterward, and like you said, giving it more strength by putting it with other pictures that might allow it to speak more broadly than it did on its own, giving each one more life outside of its initial context.
What do you think will happen with the environment in the South?
Sea-level rise is not helping here, but the real issue that we're up against is land loss and coastal erosion that's due largely to oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, and the environmental engineering that's gone into the Mississippi river. So we have a particular problem here in that it's largely man-made. The Eastern Seaboard and Miami are more concerned with sea levels, but it's mostly human engineering that's fucked us over down here, and that's fascinating because there are tangible causes. Like, there are barges going back and forth through the wetlands 24 hours a day and creating these wakes that knock down the fragile grasses, and you can show that as a photographer. It's hard to show what factors contribute to problems like melting ice caps, but here it's possible. And laying out the problem means that we might be able to create solutions on a statewide or national level.
A day at the Tabasco Headquarters in Louisiana, 2013. Bottom: Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, 2014.
Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, 2014.
New Orleans, LA - Family photos framed in a collage in the hallway of Edward Buckner's house on Elysian Fields Avenue. Mr. Buckner is the president of the Original Big Seven Social Aid & Pleasure club, one of numerous second line clubs in the 7th Ward of New Orleans.
All photographs by William Widmer