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An Extraordinary Photographic Collection of Survival: One Sign at a Time

by John Jodzio

“- the messages in Signs of Life are sacred and profane, defiant and defeated, heartbreaking and humorous, frightening and encouraging. They remind us that everyone has a story to tell.”
- Forward by Josh Neufeld, Signs of Life: Surviving Katrina

Signs of Life: Surviving Katrina is a collection of post Katrina photographs that focus on the hand painted signs created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. With a quest to do something more to help the victims of Katrina, the collaborative efforts of two New York based photographers resulted in a fascinating collection of images documenting the pain, frustration, paranoia and humor of those communities most affected by one of the worst natural disasters in history.

Lori Baker was a volunteer in Biloxi, MS during the first month following Katrina. Rather than feeling powerless and watching the drama unfold, she decided to do something about the situation. Being a volunteer had a profound impact on her life and she shared her experiences with her friends via photographs she took while in Mississippi.

Eight months later, Eric Harvey Brown was on tour in the south photographing two bands, when he decided to check out the city of New Orleans. The news media regarding clean up efforts had died down and he didn’t know what to expect. What Eric had found, to his amazement, was that eight months later, the city was still in shambles. A complete desolate community of crushed houses and vacant buildings, overturned cars, overgrown playgrounds and deserted highways. Eric, like Lori, decided to share his experience in New Orleans through photographs he posted on flickr.com.

I had a chance to speak with Lori and Eric about the project and how they came up with the idea for the book.

John Jodzio [JJ].Did you two know each other before you got started on Signs of Life. If not, how did you two get together to do this project?

Lori Baker [LB]. Yes, Eric and I are both members of flickr.com -- an online photo sharing community. We'd known each other for a few years prior to working on this project. One of our Flickr commentators suggested that photo’s of the signs would be a great book. We agreed and started working on the project in June, hoping we'd get it done in time for Hurricane Katrina's one year anniversary

JJ. Being photographers and working as rescue volunteers in New Orleans post-Katrina, the surrounding areas must have had a huge visual impact on you and your work. Could you say a few words about your experience there, visually and esthetically?

Eric Brown [EB]. I was in New Orleans 8 months after Katrina struck. I was totally shocked that it still looked like a war zone! By 'war zone' I mean, very few people, spray-painted words and symbols everywhere, overturned and abandoned cars strewn around, overgrown playgrounds, destroyed, partially destroyed, and vacant buildings. It was like nothing I'd seen before with my own eyes.

LB. I arrived in Biloxi two weeks after the hurricane had hit, and it was still total chaos down there. Nothing I'd seen on TV, or read online, or in the newspapers really quite prepared me for what I saw. It was hard to take it all in, all at once. Because it was right after the hurricane, and because I was down there to volunteer -- I ended up not taking as many photos as I wanted to. It felt invasive. People's private lives were so visible and exposed, I mean -- houses were literally torn in half, and the contents strewn across their lawn, embedded in their lawns and under mud. I felt odd taking photos initially, but towards the end of my stay, I got more accustomed to it and began to get bolder. Now, of course, I wish I'd taken many more - to document it more thoroughly.

JJ. How did you both go about finding and selecting the photographs for the book?

EB. Finding: we emailed and talked to all our friends, spammed all kinds of blogs, photo blogs and news agencies. Any website we could find having to with the hurricanes or anything having to do with any of the regions effected by the hurricanes.

Selecting: we received over 500 images from over 80 people. Some we edited out from the screen (100% of the images were emailed, and only one photographer, to my knowledge, came from a film camera). The rest of them we printed out small on the computer and judged on content and esthetics. Then we ordered and reordered them.

JJ. You both selected photographs specifically without people. Why was that?

EB. We wanted to emphasize the effects- the communication of people, not people themselves. We thought photos with people would distract from the signs themselves.

LB. Most photos that were submitted were photos of just the signs, without people in them. In the end, it seemed best to let the signs speak for themselves, to let the viewers imagine who wrote the words. There are hints of people, shadows and personal effects that are like clues. But the signs are so powerful, they stand-alone.

JJ. What did you both like/enjoy most about doing this project?

EB. I loved that 2 people thought of an idea, found a way to make it work, and did it. DIY is good.

LB. It was GREAT working with Eric, having a partner to bounce ideas off of and to keep the momentum going forward. It was also wonderful hearing the photographer’s stories, and (virtually) meeting so many new people. But the most rewarding aspect is creating a little piece of art that is unselfish -- that is meant to provoke thought, laughter, sadness -- and that is to generate money for the organizations and people who are still down there working hard to make things right again. What a long hard task they have in front of them.

The book, Signs of Life: Surviving Katrina, and more information about the project is currently available at www.signsoflifebook.com.

Profits from sales of Signs of Life: Surviving Katrina go to two organizations still working in the Gulf region: Common Ground Relief and Hands On Network. The exhibited images will also be for sale and profits donated to the same organizations.

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