But Please, No Photos of Dead People
University of Southern California
The terrifying and shameful images of Katrina and its aftermath are rapidly being replaced by authorized versions that sanitize, allocate blame, and create false heroes. This essay memorializes the victims by retrieving one almost lost image that truly commemorates the human suffering and criminal neglect that contributed to this enduring stain on a nations conscience.
Key words: New Orleans; Hurricane Katrina; memory, malign neglect
How will Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath be remembered? People have imperfect and highly selective ways of remembering, and Katrina may be one of those experiences that exceed our capacity to absorb comfortably. We tend to find refuge by reducing peak experiences, whether catastrophic or triumphant, to something more manageable, usually a single iconic image: the grotesquely hooded torture victim at Abu Ghraib, or exulting citizens atop the crumbling Berlin Wall; a naked girl fleeing from napalm in Vietnam, or a human footprint on the surface of the moon.
The power of the visual is perfectly understood by a U.S. federal government that has attempted to control the firestorm of criticism of its post-Katrina recovery effort by cautioning national media not to publish photographs of dead bodies found in New Orleans. This same government had already banned the publication of photographs of the soldiers and civilians returning dead from the war in Iraq. Fearful and resentful of this burgeoning policy of deliberate distortion and censorship, I began searching for one image that instantly lodged in my mind during the first days of Katrinas destruction.
It was not easy to find. For instance, one Yahoo!-sponsored site devoted to Top Stories Photos: Hurricane Katrina contained 626 images on September 21, 2005. Not one was of a dead body. But there were 55 shots of George W. Bush and 28 of other White House luminaries, including even a file photo of Donald Rumsfeld, presumably added to lend gravitas to a manifestly failing domestic campaign.
Eventually I found the image I sought. It portrayed one definitely dead woman floating facedown in the floodwaters of New Orleans. To her right, a live woman on the dry land of a bridge pays little attention to the quiet corpse, distracted by her own urgent survival needs. The computer image I had located was no bigger than a postage stamp, and it quickly disintegrated as I tried to enlarge it. I have decided not publish it here in deference to the federal governments edict.
As the unimaginable chaos unleashed by the storm was revealed, the lies and evasions began, and a quotation surfaced in my memory from W. G. Sebalds (2004) On the Natural History of Destruction: There was a tacit agreement, equally binding on everyone, that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described (p. 10).
Sebald (2004) was referring to the German peoples failure to confront their complicity in the horrors of World War II. Needless to say, I understand that his complaint cannot be equated with Katrina, but yet we were knowingly, criminally underprepared to confront an entirely predictable weather event. And now, surprised ignorance is the best response our leaders seem to muster when confronted by the material and moral consequences of their negligence.
After Katrina, a flood of political recrimination and finger pointing began early and continues unabated. The long-simmering anger directed toward the presidency of George W. Bush quickly attained a scalding temperature, and public confidence in his leadership and performance as president was severely eroded. Although several years remain in the Bush administration, journalist Bob Herbert (2005) has already suggested that it is in danger of being judged by history as one of the worst of all time (p. A31).
Meanwhile, the rest of the world, friend and foe alike, watched in utter disbelief. Public order in a major city of the worlds major superpower disintegrated overnight as ordinary citizens were left to fend for themselves in the floodwaters. The national governmentso quick to criticize perceived failings in other nations and to threaten bellicose interventionpainfully revealed an inability, even unwillingness, to help its own citizens in distress.
Katrina at home and Iraq abroad may yet prove to be defining moments for the way the rest of the world regards the United States. When a superpower can no longer capably manage events either domestic or international, whispers about decline are soon recast as palpable facts in the annals of world history.
The remaining 3 years of the Bush presidency will determine the geopolitical status and role of the United States for the foreseeable future. But now is not the time to intellectualize about Katrina, not while grief and anger are so raw. Permit me simply to preserve the memory of Floating Woman, not in the form of a forbidden photograph but instead as a silhouette typical of those traced around corpses at the scene of a crime. Let her afterimage forever commemorate the staggering human ineptitude that contributed to the making of this awful disaster and that perpetuates suffering in its
R e m e m b e r i n g K a t r i n a
Herbert, B. (2005, September 22). Voters remorse on Bush. The New York Times, p. A31.
Sebald, W. G. (2004). On the natural history of destruction. New York: Modern Library.
Michael Dear is a professor and chair of the Department of Geography at the University of
Southern California. His principal current research interests focus on contemporary urbanism
along the United StatesMexico borderlands.