Slideshow: Will Steacy’s “The Human Stain”

on Wednesday, Apr. 20th

It’s been nearly six weeks since the tsunami struck northern Japan. Six weeks since a torrent of water toppled boats, floated cars, transported buildings and ended the lives of thousands of people.

Videos of the flood and photos of  the aftermath have made the rounds, and we’ve all been mouth agape at the scope of the tragedy. Yet despite the impact of all that reporting and eye-witness accounts, I admit that I sometimes struggle to connect to the tragedy on human terms. No matter how many before-and-after satellite images I see, I find myself wanting a more tangible measure of scope and scale of human loss in Japan.

Ironically it wasn’t until I reexamined Will Steacy’s photo project The Human Stain, which documents the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that I felt most connected to what people in the flood zones of northern Japan are going through.

For The Human Stain, Steacy re-photographed found photos that were  marked and transformed by Katrina’s toxic floodwaters after the storm surge busted levies in and around New Orleans. The family snapshots, each altered in their own distinct way, are reminders of the lives that were altered along with them. I find myself creating stories for the people in the images, what were they doing when the pictures were taken, and how were they affected by the hurricane? Are they still alive?

As news from Japan has largely shifted to the unfolding crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, I wanted to interview Steacy about The Human Stain to remind myself and others about what happened six weeks ago in Japan, and to remind myself about what happens when waters sweeps away life as we know it.  My interview with Steacy is below, and a slideshow follows. I’ll also be featuring more of Will Steacy’s work over the coming weeks.

Brett Myers:  As a photographer, I’d imagine you probably had a really visceral reaction to seeing destroyed family photos all over the place. How did this project come about?

Will Steacy:  While walking through the streets I discovered flood damaged family photographs amongst all of the debris.  The little faces in these pictures peering up at me stopped me dead in my tracks every time.  This was as close as I could get to the actual people.  I began photographing these altered snapshots as a way to connect with and honor the residents whose city and neighborhoods I was in, whose houses and belongings I was photographing.

BAM:  There was so much great photography documenting the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Did your concept for this project come about as a solution to telling the story in a different way?

WS:  In terms of the images that were made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I think we ended up seeing a formulaic scenario take place in which photographers, myself included, who lived in another city would fly into NOLA and shoot the devastation for a couple weeks and then return home to their respective cities and lives and after a while, we kept seeing the same images in various forms.  I remember there was this particular car under a house in the Lower 9 that was shot by 3 photographers from 3 different angles, and they were all great photographs, but at least for me, I felt like there was much more to this story.

The first trip I made to NOLA was 6 six weeks after the flood, all of the media had disappeared, and the city for the most part was empty as residents were slowly returning home.  I spent hours walking through neighborhoods without coming across a single person.  Yet everyone’s personal possessions and lives were strewn about in the streets.  Nearly all of the images in The Human Stain were made in that first trip and came out of an overwhelming desire to want to connect with the people whose lives and possessions that were lying in the street.  As an outsider, I felt as though I needed a way to tell the story of the people who weren’t there.  And as an outsider that is a bold aspiration, but somehow it all made sense with the flood damaged photographs.  By re-photograping resident’s photographs, I found a way to honor their lives through their memories before the flood as the tangible object itself had been victim to the flood waters.  Using traditional imagery found in the Americana snapshot, and our culture’s fondness and attachment to memories, I hope to instill empathy and a better understanding of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on lives as viewers may be reminded of their own memories and lives as they look at someone else’s.  Photography allows us access into another world.  Here, photography is put in reverse, instead of recording and preserving memories, these images explore memories being erased and lives changed forever.

BAM:  What are some of your favorite images from this series and why?

WS:  The image that I call pink face really bugs me out.  The way the emulsion reacted to the toxic waters and the pink discoloration that occurred formed a line around the faces in such a way that it looks likes water as one person is sinking and the other is just above the water line.  This image is really scary to me and has a ghostlike quality which I think is in many of the images from this series, but in the face on the left, which has been abstracted and eroded by the chemical waters, in some ways looks like a skull.  It is very eerie.

I also love the one of the older woman holding up the image of the bare chested dude who looks like he should be on the cover of a romance novel.  There is humor and character here, I cant help but to laugh to myself every time I see this.  NOLA is unlike any other city in America and its residents are unlike anyone else, they are filled with love and generosity and the city is filled with characters and I think this image speaks to that.

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