"Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans"
In February of 2011 I ventured out into New Orleans, the city I had drawn in the spring of 2005, to do some reportage post-Hurricane Katrina. I decided to ride over to the ninth ward, that was flooded so terribly during the hurricane, and see what was going on six years later. The lower ninth ward, on the east side of the Clairborne Street bridge, was really hit hard. Floodwaters came in over the broken down levee and rose to the rooftops of the small houses that packed the neighborhood. Today, the neighborhood is still in a shambles. There are many, many empty lots where houses used to be, especially in the area close the levee, which is now a huge abandoned field. You can see the cement foundations of some of the former houses. The waters of the storm picked many of these houses up and carried them away. The thought of someone’s home being literally swept away is so sad, and the fact of the matter is that so many of these homes have not been re-built, years later. There are pieces of chain link fence standing everywhere, fencing in nothing.
The empty houses that are still standing seem to be alive, and I felt compelled to draw them. As I drew, the sound of the birds was overwhelming. It seems like nature is reclaiming this part of the city.
You will often see a lone figure walking down the street through the lots. Or you’ll see a mother with small children. What a hard place to raise kids. While drawing, I met a man named Cloud, an older African-American gentleman with piercing blue eyes, who spoke with me about his experience during the hurricane. Cloud’s car wouldn’t start that day, so he was stuck in the house. As the floodwaters rose, he went to the attic. Cloud remembers that the Army man in the helicopter wanted him to jump out into the water so they could save him. Cloud refused, because the water was full of alligators, and threw a bottle out into the rising flood to prove it. When the alligators attacked the bottle, the man agreed with Cloud, and put a hole in his roof, through which he was carried to safety.
The upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans didn’t receive as much of the massive flooding that the Lower Ninth ward did during Katrina, however, six years after the hurricane, many of the homes have open rooftops and serious damage. I was drawing one abandoned home when a utility man pulled up and marked an “xxx” with spray paint on the electrical box. This was an official notice that the electricity had been shut off to the property. Perhaps someone had hoped to renovate and just didn’t have the funds to complete the job.
The whole neighborhood had a deserted feeling, although in the upper ninth ward I would say that about half of the homes seemed occupied. But to see people going through a place where half of the homes are destroyed gives you a desolate feeling. When I think of the families who lived here and the rich history of this neighborhood, it makes me sad. Some say that this area should not be re-built, it is at such a low elevation, and New Orleans as a city is sinking. But how do you tell people that they can’t come home?
The work left to do is overwhelming, but there are a few dedicated organizations working to help. The Musician’s Village Project has built new homes for elderly Master Musicians to live in, preserving the musical ‘family’ that New Orleans has grown over the years. Visit the website, here, and you’ll read that a music center is on the way. The Make it Right Foundation is working to create green affordable housing for lower income residents of the lower Ninth Ward. Visit their website.
Please consider donating to these organizations, the Ninth Ward needs help. It is not only a neighborhood, but also a part of the collective cultural memory of the United States, and jazz music.
About Veronica Lawlor
Veronica Lawlor’s reportage drawings have led her around the world, including a major reportage of Italy and a portrait of Pope John Paul II. In 2002 she documented VaxGen’s quest to create an AIDS vaccine for the companies annual report. The only artist to draw, on the spot, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the drawings were exhibited at Montserrat College and the New York City Fire Museum and are now published in a book titled, September 11, 2001: Words and Pictures. She has also shown her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Puck Gallery, Gallery 1482, the Society of Illustrators, the Rx Club and the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration.
All images are copyright 2012 by Veronica Lawlor.
Veronica Lawlor Interview, New York
I met up with Veronica lawlor in New York to discuss her reportage work.
GE: Do you feel there is a lack of reportage commissions for illustrators?
VL: In the sense of telling a full story, I do yes. it's actually great to see what Oliver Kugler is doing for the Guardian as I wish there were more commissions like this. I receive reportage commissions for use in different areas but not often for instance being asked “I want you to cover this”
GE: Why do you think that is the case?
VL: Well I think reportage is somewhat a slower medium than picking up a photo from a news agency by far.
GE: Steven Heller in a conversation I had with him recently said that illustration is more expensive than photography (in terms of using image banks)
VL: Because of services such as AP it's a lot easier to write an article and pull in photos from these different sources in terms of expense than send an illustrator. I'd love to have Ronald Searles job and have ‘look’ magazine send me all over the world to do these different stories, but obviously there is an expense attached to that. Budgets now are not what they once were.
GE: Is it more of a fashion thing, for example, you once had the new journalism, illustrators such as Rob Weaver were sent by magazines such as sports illustrated and others to create visual essays.
VL: Yes there was a lot more of it commissioned and it will probably come back. There's like a wave that happens, drawing itself seems to becoming back in fashion and it seems the next logical step. I do think it will, as I think it's a much more personal approach, so I think there will be much more demand for this as time goes by especially as the world becomes much more homogenised.
GE: The photograph is often seen as more objective. in terms of drawn visual essay, can you be objective when reporting on something like a war?
VL: To a degree you can set yourself up to say, I'm going to hold my opinion. But with drawing your opinion comes out with your line. It's very difficult to hold your opinion entirely. There are degrees, but there are times when you say, I'm going to get entirely into this and let my opinions be known and be totally subjective and do it in that way. Or I'm going to pull back, and just document things and be neutral.
GE: The interesting area is where there is an element of subjectivity where the illustrator has an opinion.
VL: I think you have to be in the middle of it, you can't just drop in take a few photos and pull out, I think the illustrator has to have an opinion and that's why potentially you would send an illustrator as opposed to pulling photos off a wire service. You can be objective, but if It's an editorial commission and you're being commissioned, you can either go with the editorial position of the magazine, but if you're working on your own project then you should report on what you experience, so then yes you should be subjective because that's the interest of it.
GE: That leads me to my next question. Do you think that's the way forward with illustrators doing their own self-initiated projects which they then sell to magazines?
VL: Yes I think that is the way photo essays were sold. It's important to do that anyway regardless of whether it's sold to a magazine or not, it keeps you sharp as an artist and as a writer, as many reportage artists are writers as well. Its like everything else, if you don't practice you just sort of fade out. I think it's the way to go but it's not the only way to go. From a purely commercial standpoint it's not the only way to earn a living as a reportage illustrator but it's definitely the way to go.
GE: You teach and run an art school, Dalvero Academy. Do you think students have lost some of the grounding in drawing and the more traditional academic drawing base has been lost from art schools?
VL: I can't really say no because I teach drawing in my classes, I think it's important but I feel it's becoming less as a part of the foundation in art schools partly because of the computer and digital media.
The thing about drawing regardless of reportage illustration, for any artist, its a way of accessing non verbal language that we can use. Drawing is the lifeline of that and for young artists drawing is a lifeline to find what they do. If you take that away, if they are smart and talented they may find work, but they lose a bit of who they really are as an artist aesthetically. In terms of design, every time you make a drawing on paper you are making a decision, and all those decisions make you what you are as an artist. I think there is a danger of losing that from the education of an artist. I'm talking about conceptual artists as well .
GE: Do you think students look towards much more stylised visual languages?
VL: I've been teaching for about 15 years and I think students look for a visual style first because we all do and we want it now. I can't remember who said it, but they said if you find a style it's not yours, you can't find a style it needs to find you and the way it can find you is through drawing. Students are now exposed to so much imagery it becomes so easy to pick up on that. Especially if they work on a computer, they can just drag it in, alter it a little bit. The problem with Google images is, millions of people have seen the first 10 images, they rely on that too much. Don't want to sound cranky but they really do.
GE: How do you see your work developing in the future
VL: I definitely see myself getting more into self-directed projects. I'm happy doing the commissions, keep them coming. I enjoy them, but for my development as an artist, self directed projects is where it's going.
GE: Do you think that reportage work can be interpretive or should it be primary, on the spot and presented as it is.
VL: I think interpretive work if it’s based on ones experiences doesn’t have to be pure drawing on the spot. I’m not a purest in that way, everyone works differently, so if that’s what works for you I’d call it reportage. Its an experience, it’s documenting an experience.
Thanks to Veronica who was very welcoming and generous with her time.