Interview With Allison Chipak: Photographing Katrina’s Destruction, Four Years Later
Travel Interviews: Michael Yessis asks Allison Chipak about her haunting images of New Orleans and the state of the city for travelers
08.27.09 | 10:25 AM ET
Allison Chipak and her husband, Kevin Fay, recently spent nine days in New Orleans—four of them traveling on their own, and five as volunteers with the St. Bernard Project. Their goal: to help rebuild homes that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina four years ago. Fay wrote about his experience in St. Bernard Parish; Chipak documented some of the destruction and decay that remains in a haunting slideshow.
To find out more about Chipak’s images and the state of New Orleans for travelers, I asked her a few questions via email.
What is it about the houses in these images that compelled you to shoot them?
Allison Chipak: I love to work in series, and ideally I would like to shoot all the houses that still need to be rebuilt. I actually did some rough math, and realized that if I were to work full-time, it would take me over a year. The complete sense of abandonment that one feels in certain areas of this city is extremely difficult to put into words. These houses feel so isolated and empty that I found them to be a powerful indicator of what obstacles their owners must have faced over the past four years in their struggle to return. I wonder how many of us are really prepared to face a catastrophic expense like completely rebuilding our home. I chose these houses but could just as easily have chosen a thousand others.
Why do you think so little rebuilding has been completed and so little awareness has been raised about this ongoing problem?
I can’t answer why. There are a lot of theories out there some based on facts and some on conjecture. I am not really qualified to make a judgment. What I can do as a photographer is to help raise awareness about the work that still needs to be done. There are twelve houses illustrated here but I shot well over 100 in just a few days and barely scratched the surface of what could be shown. There has been some great work accomplished by dedicated organizations and volunteers who are making progress every day. As well as local residents working hard to revive businesses, rebuild their own homes and return to normalcy. However, to those who assume that the problem is solved and New Orleans has been fixed, I can say that four years later, that is not the case.
What would you say to a traveler who’s thinking of visiting New Orleans?
First, I would say “Go.” There are many areas of the city that are in very good shape. There are currently 1,030 restaurants open in New Orleans (more than pre-Katrina). There are neighborhoods that the storm hardly touched, and there’s a ton to see and do all over town. I would also encourage people to help with the rebuilding effort. Volunteering affords you a connection to the city and its residents that’s very hard for the average traveler to find. Whether you work for a day or a week or more, you have the opportunity to do more than you probably think yourself capable of. And there’s still plenty of time to experience some of the best music and food in the world. You’ll also meet locals who are honestly happy to have you, whether you’re a tourist, a volunteer or both.