These are from a website of photographs of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, Louisiana. They were all taken in January 2006, five months after Hurricane Katrina:
And then I saw this one:
And I knew it was different.
The caption for this photograph is simple. It reads:
“Mardi Gras beads on an iron fence at Deslonde(?) Street in Lower Ninth Ward in fog at morning. New Orleans, Louisiana, January 30, 2006.”
What is so moving about this photograph? The first image shows the absolute destruction. The second is terribly sad–a heap of children’s bikes and slumped beads and poppets. The third is mind-numbing in its bluntness–the matter-of-fact message scrawled in blue spray paint: “possible body.”
But there is something different about the fourth picture. It shows the devastation and the beads again, but this time they do not fit together as they should. The background is chaotic and mangled. Yet, the beads are perfectly straight, hanging calmly from a single point on the fence. They are not tangled, nor are they haphazardly thrown on the wrought iron rod. They are neatly wrapped around and balanced–green, gold, silver.
When I look at these beads, I do not see an accident or a consequence of the storm. I see a deliberate act. I see the work of a person bringing order to chaos–of a person re-familiarizing a desolate and unrecognizable landscape. Perhaps the beads were found on the ground, picked up, and hung on the fence. Perhaps they were around the person’s neck and were left there on Mardi Gras. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is the result of this action. It is a re-claiming of space. These beads, however small and simple, are a spontaneous shrine.
I initially thought that a makeshift memorial for an event as catastrophic as Hurricane Katrina would be impossible. How does one spontaneously memorialize mass death, extreme suffering, unfathomable trauma, the absolute destruction of an entire city? A massive shrine might be appropriate–a mountain of flowers and candles and photographs of all the dead, perhaps. But when the city is gone, where does one put the shrine? In the middle of the destruction? In the midst of chaos, a chaotic heap of objects does not stand out–it only adds confusion to the already cluttered landscape.
The Lower Ninth ward was de-humanized. It is inhospitable. It is obvious from the other photographs that people cannot live in that. In this once populated landscape, now devoid of human life, the greatest statement can be made by the simplest act. An act of compassion toward the space through an attempt to bring familiarity back to the space is enough to mark that space from all that surrounds it. The strands of beads stand against the mark of “possible body.” They say clearly “people were here.” They are meant to be seen and meant to be noticed by others who venture into this place. Especially in a place where the tradition of Mardi Gras is strong, the beads are instant symbols of the way things should be–of the way things were. The photographer noticed the beads–or perhaps even placed them, and then took a picture of them. The message is passed along.
Three strands of Mardi Gras beads remind the lookers that people lived there once and that people are there again. They invite us to look, to remember, and to begin to take back this devastated space.