Part III of the interview with photographer Andy Levin.
Wayne: You attributed your interest in New Orleans to a previous visit when you worked on A Day in the Life of America. You now make it your home. What about the city resonated with you?
Andy: I was attracted to the indigenous African-American culture and the music. It’s a very visual place, as you know. There is beauty amid great suffering, and I find that inspiring. The music and food aren’t bad, too. I had lived in New York for over 30 years, and everything looked the same to me. Much of the city that I loved was gone, replaced by something that resembled Disneyland—and then 9/11 happened. So I moved although I still have a place across from Magnum on 25th, just down the block from where Gene Smith lived on 6th.
It was very odd. I was here for one year before the storm. I thought I would have ten years to work the city, and then we were blown away a little more than a year later. Many of the people that I photographed are no longer here. I am afraid some may never come back.
Wayne: How has living there made it both easier and more difficult to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? What kind of personal, emotional toll has the tragedy taken on you?
Andy: Unfortunately, a rather large one. It’s a feeling of great loss. This was a very special place, but it was a fragile, and often a brutally violent one. When the levee broke after Katrina, I photographed around the Bayou St. John where I lived, but after a day or so it was apparent that people needed help more than I needed to take photos. I pulled a canoe out of a neighbor’s yard and started helping my actor friend John Grimsley evacuate the elderly to the places where the helicopters could land. Of course, I was taking pictures all the time as I did this.
When rumors spread that boats taking survivors to hospitals had been fired on by roving gangs, I went into a neighbor’s house looking for a weapon but didn’t find one. I rowed my neighbors three miles in near 100-degree heat to within blocks of the Convention Center; we had to go around bloated corpses in the streets. My feet were blistered from being in the dirty floodwater, so I waited for Grimsley to bring them over there and come back. We had no idea what was going on in the Convention Center, and of course some great images were made there a few days later by Dallas newspaper photographers, local shooters from Baton Rouge, and New Yorkers like my friend Alan Chin.
The working press did a great job in New Orleans in the short term, and the photography was both heartbreaking and exemplary. Long term the press has been disappointing, but that’s another story, isn’t it?
Eventually, I was forced to leave New Orleans because the conditions were deteriorating, drove to NYC with my dog, and then returned with a press pass just before Hurricane Rita reflooded parts of the city, Two weeks later I was arrested for a for going into my neighbor’s house and was taken to Hunt State Penitentiary for a week. My picture appeared on the front page of the New York Times when I stood in handcuffs before a judge at Camp Amtrak, the railroad station converted into a temporary jail. Time Magazine had called Contact [Press Images] the evening before and wanted me to shoot for them that weekend.
In the end, I lost the place I was living in, my dog, and I still haven’t got back my camera equipment and computer, all of which was taken by the police as “evidence.” The case against me is still pending, along with 6,000 other cases that are backlogged in the courts here. It’s a scary situation.
For a while after I was busy with some assignments, and I did two large stories for Time that were well received. But now that things have slowed down, the reality of my situation is creeping back in. And my consciousness has changed as a result of the events here, especially my perception of the government. New Orleans will never be the same, that’s for certain. In some ways I don’t think America will ever be the same.
Wayne: In what ways, specifically, has the press disappointed you in their coverage of Katrina? What does this say to you about today’s photojournalists and photo editor?
Andy: Over at a ceremony at the Lower Ninth Ward the other day, the press photographers really created an event of their own and I think that when you have that many cameras things happen for the wrong reason. There is a lot of pressure on photographers to get “the shot,” as Alan Chin calls it, the shot being a preconceived notion of what is supposed to be happening, that will satisfy an editor back in New York. We need to bury “the shot” once and for all. “The shot” and “the story” are the anathema of meaningful journalism. Maybe I will organize a Jazz Funeral for both of them.
The press in general is reactive. Rather than really dig into the causes of a problem, they just report on what others say or do. The press should be all the government for its failures here, investigating instead of reporting. We need more investigative journalism.
Wayne: Why has your interest in digital photography waned?
Andy: I want to get back to that ‘50s thing. Black and white is a mindset, and it requires those canisters of film and going through the mechanical process.
Wayne: You have made an effort to explore forms like video, for instance, when you created your video essay “Aftermath,” about the attack on the World Trade Center . Why did you decide to work with video instead of working in stills? How well versed in other media do you think photographers should be?
Andy: The video was a one time thing for me. It was my way of working through the emotion of being a New Yorker in months after the attack, at a time when I was not interested in still images. I learned to edit using Final Cut Pro, and eventually put the piece together and got it shown nationally on the anniversary of the attack. I learned a lot about the power of words, and how words and images can work together to create something meaningful. It’s a personal decision as to how far one wants to go in that direction–but I am looking forward to a retro movement in photography, getting back to film and silver gelatin prints and to looking at photographs in galleries or books. It happened with music and vinyl and I think it will happen in photography too.