This is Not America

I love this Thomas Neff photograph, which showed up on a postcard from GirlZoot; it’s part of his collection of photographs and narratives entitled Holding Out and Hanging On: Surviving Hurricane Katrina. That being said, I’m not sure I understand or agree with the sentiment expressed here. An excerpt from Neff’s narrative:

To a few young individuals who remained in the Foubourg- Marigny, this rooftop slogan embodied the manifold dysfunction of local, state, and federal agencies during the rescue, relief, and recovery efforts in the weeks after the storm. The sentiment was spawned by the certainty that no one would come to their aid and that helping one another might be the only way to survive. They would ultimately assist two hundred members of a Lower Ninth Ward church who had escaped the floodwater by wading to the relative safety of a school on Mandeville Street, across from Caroline and Elisa’s home.

As the few helped the many, it soon became evident that a crisis was developing: the elderly parishioners had been forced to flee without their life-saving medications. The young rescuers had no idea how long it would be before prescriptions could be properly filled. They organized those with greatest need into lines, took careful notes on what each person needed, and then, using no lights so as to avoid detection by the ever-present helicopters, they waded to a drugstore nearby. There, they climbed through the already shattered doors and with flashlights and a copy of the “Orange Book” in hand, they methodically searched for brand-name medications or generic equivalents and filled the most crucial prescriptions.

Now, to me, a few rugged individuals not just surviving, but helping others along the way, is America. Whenever there’s a crisis or a disaster, anywhere in the world, Americans are the first to open their hearts and give their time, money, whatever is needed. That’s America.

Or, if your vision of America is sitting around in the dark until the government shows up to decide how much light you deserve, then maybe the photograph is correct.

3 Responses

  1. girlzoot says:

    When I read a lot of what was on the Neff site I think a great deal of what he encountered was that American spirit that you are talking about, that desperate need to help each and survive, but also a certain sense of frustration that no one was coming to help them.

    I think for me that was what I liked about the photo, the heroic stars on the vaguely flag like background kind of creating a visual that their land for a while was almost a different country to the America they were used to, and yet as people they persevered.

  2. Chris Overstreet says:

    Absolutely it was appreciated, and I agree with the Wonder Woman spirit. I was intentionally being obtuse in my post in order to make my point: that the woman pictured is America. It’s definitely art, and good art, if it inspires debate.

  3. Thomas Neff says:

    It pleases me no end that folks respond to this photograph, while raising questions of what it is to be American…..or not. Thanks for your comments.

    Much more if this work in on view at the Louisiana State Museum, through September 12, 2011

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