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New Orleanians Turn Cameras on Their Changing Community

Nat Geo and New Orleanians Photograph the Lower Ninth Ward

It was early August, and I was in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans with the rest of the National Geographic Your Shot team. We were projecting the best images taken by participants of our two-day photo workshop. Our hope was to give the community the tools to tell their own stories.

Standing in the darkened room, watching photos flicker across the white-washed wall, I started to feel pride. The room was full of it–the participants, their friends and family, the workshop team, the neighborhood folks who wandered in–everyone was proud of themselves, and each other. They had captured a little slice of the Ninth Ward as it stands today. And they were excited to document this moment in time for their community. They were the keepers of their culture.

[Go behind the scenes of the New Orleans National Geographic Your Shot workshop in the video above.]

Four photographers and five photo editors (including myself) who led the workshop each chose an image from the weekend that resonated with us. We share our reflections below.

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Photograph by Nia Gates

Robert Green lost his mother and granddaughter to the floodwaters after the Industrial Canal levee failed and his house was ripped from its foundation. His home in the Lower Ninth is a memorial to his family, both alive and dead. To me, this photo represents all that was lost and all that he has to live for. It represents the progress that has been made and all that still needs to be accomplished.

Nia probably was not thinking about these layers when she clicked the shutter. She documented her community as she saw it. There is power in that, and like the other participants in the workshop, she now has that power in her hands.—Monica Corcoran, photo editor

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Photograph by Kalob Scott

This is a portrait of Andrew Sawyer, better known in the Lower Ninth Ward as Michael Knight. Michael Knight is a hero to many of us in the Lower Ninth. He is someone who made a conscious decision to stay in the community to help rescue neighbors during Hurricane Katrina. He said he knew that some people didn’t have the means to leave and might need help.

Michael Knight is an unselfish man with a big heart. Along with Freddy Hicks, he saved over 500 people in the Lower Ninth Ward. It’s great to see that one of our students saw him and thought him interesting enough to take his picture. The image is well composed and captures his spirit.— Chandra McCormick, photo instructor

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Photograph by Jhana Amore

I really like the feeling of this portrait of these sisters, arm in arm. The posture of the girls is so natural, so relaxed. I also like the fact that only one of the girls is looking into the camera, with the other looking down. The background really adds to the feeling—it looks like they are standing in one of the open lots of the area, with a rebuilt home behind that.—Tyrone Turner, photo instructor

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Photograph by Imani Pittman

Resilience is what I see in this photo. This moment captured by Imani is the visual I want to remember after Katrina. I don’t want to focus on the photos of overgrown lots and empty streets that we’ve become desensitized to. This workshop taught me that New Orleans is the people. They treated us as they would their neighbors and family. The Lower Ninth Ward is a culture unto itself; the people and our workshop participants [are] as genuine as they come, with an abounding strength at their core. They were honest about what they’ve been through and the realities they face. A lot has changed, and a lot hasn’t, some good, some bad. But that will never hold them back. They are fighters.—Jeanne Modderman, photo editor

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Photograph by Prince John Amore

This image was taken during an extracurricular walk at dawn on the levee. The subject is Princess and her youngest daughter Yaya standing in the sunrise. The light is beautiful, the composition is simple yet effective. But to me the best part is that it was taken by Prince John, her son. One of the assignments we gave the workshop participants was to photograph their own lives—to document and create from what they know best. Prince John was looking at everything so hard, scrutinizing even. He was finding abstractions and still lifes during the first afternoon, really concentrating on forms. That was great. And then something clicked and he turned to the familiar and found power there. The slight curve of his mother’s body, his sister’s little tuck into her shoulder—all gestures he’s probably been around a hundred times, but this time he saw it as a moment of beauty and love that needed to be recorded.—Susan Sterner, photo instructor

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Photograph by Freddye Hill

This barber shop was a cool oasis from the excruciating heat of an August afternoon in New Orleans. I was with Freddye Hill, who was one of the most curious participants in the photo workshop. She has lived a full life, serving as a dean of college and a professor at various universities. It was exciting to see someone with so much experience take on a new medium with a tenacity that I’m sure has served her well throughout her life. Watching her interact with the men in the barber shop, hearing her ask deep questions that led to real conversation, inspired me. She learned so much about the mens’ lives, about their friendship and their struggles. I know that two days is a short time to teach someone photography, but when they have grit like Freddye, you leave a workshop with a lot of hope.—Becky Harlan, photo editor

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Photograph by Kim Kaiser II

Sure, this is a nice photograph. But what I love about this frame is not from a photographic deconstruction of the image, i.e. composition, moment, etc. Rather I loved witnessing how proud Kim (the photographer) was to learn that his photograph was selected and featured on the @natgeoyourshot Instagram feed. I cannot even imagine how he must have felt—an aspiring photographer still in high school—to have his photograph featured by National Geographic. His mom was equally proud; she reposted the photo to her Instagram feed. At the slideshow presentation, he stood behind his mom, and when his photos came up, they were both so happy. Together. That connection between a mom and son is so beautiful. And even if Kim decides not to become a photographer and pursue another career path, I love believing that he now recognizes that anything is possible. That any dream is within reach.—David Y. Lee, photo instructor

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Photograph by Prince John Amore

I was standing next to Prince John when he made this image. We were walking down the street and noticed this boy biking by. Two blocks later he turned around and biked back up and around the corner. He repeated the loop at least three times as we walked down the block. He was flying by. I wanted to make a photo. I spent a long time trying to plan and line things up, waiting for him to enter my frame. I missed the shot every time. Prince John took two frames of the scene the second time the boy passed. He captured it all—the lines of the street propel the boy forward, his body language lets you know he is moving fast, his outfit lets you know it is hot. In the background you see a woman moving things from her car. Her new yellow home still sits next to empty lots and deserted houses. The neighborhood is moving, changing, and growing. The loose lines and space around the boy give the story room to grow. This photo showed me the essence of our time in New Orleans.—Marie McGrory, photo editor

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Photograph by Imani Pittman

Robert Green lost his granddaughter and mother during Hurricane Katrina, as well as his house. He now lives in what is referred to as a “Brad Pitt home.” They are called that because the houses were built with donations from the actor.

I could tell when I saw this image that Imani had been listening to her teacher Tyrone Turner’s instructions about taking your time with a portrait. If someone gives you an opportunity to take their photograph you should have some patience and be aware of your surroundings. I’m a fan of this image because of the perspective it was taken from, using a low angle to give Green a very stoic look, as well as the placement of photos and portraits surrounding him. His pose fits in perfectly with the Obama portrait, especially since Imani captured him looking off into the distance. One of my favorite parts of this workshop was watching students learn from the photographers and then take the lessons they were taught and put them into practice.—Matt Adams, photo editor

Hear a poetic interpretation on the changing nature of New Orlean’s Lower Ninth Ward by Your Shot workshop participant Nia Gates on National Geographic News.

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