On the morning of day three of the riots a disturbing scene played itself out on TV. One of the local news shows was showing a helicopter aerial of the local highways and commenting – incessantly -- about how free they were of traffic congestion.
It was a beautiful shot, actually – almost meditative, like watching a fish tank.
They patched in an audio signal of another broadcaster who was roaming through the Crenshaw district – the neighborhood in South Central LA where most of the damage had been done (in equal parts by folks driving *into* the city from the outskirts, I should add. I saw many of them on their way out, loaded down with television sets and other big box booty).
While the Zen-like aerial shot of the highways continued to run on screen, cutting back periodically to the anchors in the studio, the fellow in the Crenshaw district talked about the difficult conditions in that neighborhood – how it was without water and electricity, how telephone service was cut off, and how many of the businesses were still smoldering.
He sounded terribly earnest and concerned about what was going on. And the folks in the studio sounded terribly earnest and concerned about what was going on.
And then our man on the ground said: “Excuse me a minute.”
There was an animated conversation off-mic – also very earnest, but hard to hear – and then he returned to the microphone, sounding exasperated now, and saying: “Sorry about that. A man just stopped me – his wife is having a baby – they can’t get her to the hospital and they can’t call for an ambulance – I don’t know what he thought I could do for him.”
My jaw dropped. Something strange surged up in my belly. It was bile.
The anchors back at the studio shrugged it off with a sort of “geez – how strange – like you could do anything for him” – one gal actually said, in one of those faux-joke voices: “what – did he think you were a doctor?!?!” – and then got back to being earnest and compassionate about the good people of the Crenshaw.
I started screaming incoherently at the TV. I don’t remember what I said – but what I was thinking was: Well, let’s see f*cker – you’re a newsman in LA – do you have a CELLPHONE on you? Let alone A BROADCAST SIGNAL?!?!?! Think MAYBE you could broadcast a location and get an ambulance dispatched to help this guy out?
Holy f*cking crap.
And all the while the free-flowing, almost poetic highways and byways of the LA highway system filled my screen.
That same strange feeling surged up in my belly when Katrina blew threw the Southern US last year, and the images and the stories started coming through on the wires.
So many people stranded, so many people in desperate straits, so many people needing help – and so many people DOING NOTHING ABOUT IT. (That would include me, safe in my home way up North.)
So why am I dredging this up now? Well, there’s the anniversary of the event of course. And there’s also an extraordinary exhibition of photography that just opened in New Orleans, that captures the feeling I had that day in LA, watching the Zen-like stream of images on my set, while something so disturbing played itself out just off camera.
I’ve written about Aric Mayer’s images before – I’m a big fan, not only because Aric is a dear friend who’s company and far ranging conversations I never grow tired of – but also because his images of Katrina’s aftermath – which are breathtakingly beautiful – awaken that deep, disturbing feeling that something is not right here.
Aric tells the story true. And we need some more of that. Especially during days like these.
You can see many of the works that are hanging in New Orleans at Aric’s site, aricmayerstudios.com.
And if you’re going to be in New Orleans, you might want to stop by to the see the show.
Balance + Disorder:
A Response to Hurricane Katrina and the Photographic Landscape
Photographs by Aric Mayer
518 Julia St
New Orleans, LA
August 5th-September 30th, 2006