Some things must be seen to be felt.
Bette Kauffman, associate professor of communication at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, decided to convey impressions of a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans in her photo exhibit, “Waterline,” to great success.
The exhibit, which opened Sunday, Aug. 26 in New Orleans in the Joe W. Brown Memorial Chapel of Grace Episcopal Church (3700 Canal St., New Orleans), will run an entire extra month due to popular demand, closing on Friday, Nov. 30.
"The purpose of ‘Waterline’ is both to raise awareness of the devastation of New Orleans by Katrina, and to offer those who lost so much and are struggling to rebuild their own lives and the life of the city an opportunity to deal with some of the trauma and emotional aftermath. It has succeeded beyond my expectations. I am gratified and humbled by the response."
Kauffmann selected 8 x 12 photographs from approximately 575 exposures made during five trips to New Orleans April 1 through June 10, 2006. The photographs are mounted on white foam core and installed edge to edge so that the waterline on each one aligns; this helps to recreate to the extent possible the equalizing and emotional power and effect of the actual flood line.
The Rev. Walter J. Baer of Grace Episcopal Church praised Kauffman’s work and the impact it’s had on visitors. “It’s a real privilege to have it here. That waterline is just so obvious in her exhibit. It’s brilliant and connected with a lot of people. I’m just glad we’ll continue to have it, and we’ll miss it when it goes.”
Susan Danielson, a member of the vestry and one of the organizers for the opening reception, agreed. “I thought that it was the most effective visual representation of the enormity of the damage done, short of getting in your car and riding around the city. I don’t think I’ve seen anything that evokes it better than that.”
Kauffman said, “The response of the people who have come to see the exhibit has been very emotional and heartfelt—the exhibit captures and encourages the struggle of people who are coming back from that devastation.”
Attendees recorded responses to the photos on the foam above and below the images. Danielson approved of this format. “I also like the fact that it’s interactive. The fact that people can write what they feel is very important. I really think that it needs to go other places. I think that this exhibit is done in such a way that it can travel and convey this important message.”
Thanks to the extension, Kauffman will be able to gather more Katrina stories from both survivors and those who have never actually lived in the city, but who had their lives affected by that natural disaster. There is potential for her work to become both a book and a traveling exhibit.
About the photographer:
Kauffman received her bachelor’s degree in journalism (’80) from the University of Iowa and her master’s degree (’82) and Ph.D. (’92) in communications from the University of Pennsylvania. Her professional experience includes still photography, videography, journalism, and public relations. Her honors thesis used photography to study cross-cultural uses of public space, her master’s thesis examined children’s ability to interpret and analyze news and advertising photographs, and her doctoral dissertation was an ethnographic study of women artists.
A sample of visitors’ responses to the “Waterline” exhibit:
Several hundred visitors visited the “Waterline” photo installation, and, moved, left their comments to the artist and posterity. The following are a few excerpts:
“Most moving and revealing for the next generations.”
“Excellent photography! The waterline theme really ties the city together. Thank you!”
“A powerful way to turn pain into beauty.”
“Please share with the world. So many people believe New Orleans is back to normal.”
“Moving and poignant act of memorial.”
“Very moving—it captures in images what is often difficult to express in words.”
“Profound, spiritual, sad!”
“I love it—just love it!”
“Amazing light on the issue! Thank you for letting us see it.”
And many, many a “Thank you!”