Snapshots of life after the storm

Youth photo project documents New Orleans students' resilience after Katrina

In the region


Kirsten Elstner had already been all over the country, running photography workshops for inner-city high school students, but she knew April's Photo Camp was going to be different even before it started.

The city was New Orleans.

Elstner, a 41-year-old Annapolis resident who directs the nonprofit photojournalism mentoring program VisionWorkshops, put together a team from National Geographic and New Orleans' Times-Picayune newpaper and made the trip to help 15 high school students document their experiences with Hurricane Katrina through photography and creative writing.

The students took 6,000 to 8,000 photographs in six hours, Elstner estimates. Fewer than 100 are now on display in the Chaney Gallery of the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis. The exhibit will continue through Sept. 8; a version will open in New Orleans Aug. 3.

"We used photography as an art therapy tool, and that's the first time we've done that," Elstner says. "I think it was probably the most powerful Photo Camp we've done."

The four-day workshop started April 1 and mixed photography and editing presentations with afternoon shoots - first in the historic French Quarter, then in the hurricane-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview areas. Students were also asked to take self-portraits and write about how Katrina affected them.

Of the 15 students, 14 attended Lusher Charter High School, an arts school in New Orleans. Ryan Schumacher, a 14-year-old at Lusher, heard about the program at school and quickly decided to apply. Ryan had always been interested in photography, but his family could never afford to buy him a camera, he says in a phone interview.

Ryan and his family rode out the hurricane over 100 miles away in Lafayette, Louisiana. Now back in New Orleans, Ryan still doesn't know if one of his friends survived.

During the camp, Ryan photographed destroyed houses, cars in trees and belongings that people left behind. One of his most memorable photos, featured in the Chaney Gallery, was of a statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, an American flag wrapped around both of them, in front of a wrecked house.

"It has all that devastated stuff in the background, and then there's the statue of Mary with the American flag around her, and it kind of has hope coming from that symbol," says Ryan, now a photographer at his school paper.

Hope is a common theme in the exhibit, as it was throughout the program, Elstner says, adding that she found the students' resilience inspiring.

"It was nice to see it through the eyes of idealistic young people," Elstner says. "It was sad, and it was devastating, but they were just trying to put their lives back together." Bayley Crow, a 16-year-old Lusher student, originally refused to leave New Orleans the weekend before Katrina hit because her band had a show to play. When the show was canceled, she reluctantly gave in.

"I was like, `OK, we can leave, but we have to come back soon,'" she says. "I really didn't think I was going to be away that long."

Bayley and her family went upstate for what they thought would be a few days. After the storm hit, they heard that their house was in good shape from a neighbor who had stayed behind. The next day, the levees broke.

Realizing she would be away from Lusher indefinitely, Bayley e-mailed several art schools and ended up in Miami, living with a family she had never met until she could move back to New Orleans.

"For a while, I just lived in self-pity, and was like, `Oh, I have it so bad," she says.

But Photo Camp changed all that.

"Afterwards, I was like, `OK, my house is underwater, but my life is still here, and my life is OK,'" Bayley says.

Her self-portrait, which she took in the mirror of a ruined house in the Lower Ninth Ward, is on display in the Chaney Gallery with excerpts from her creative writing next to it.

"We are this city's future, and we have to believe in it and bring it back to life," she writes. "There's no point in giving up when we can make a difference and make it better for ourselves. We just need to lend a helping hand."

Internationally known National Geographic photographer Sam Abell, who usually teaches at two of VisionWorkshops' four camps a year, decided to help with the New Orleans program for that same reason.

"Like all Americans, I was stricken by what happened in New Orleans and wanted to do something, and the best thing that I could do was Photo Camp," he says.

The point of the camp wasn't to teach the students photography, Abell says. The point was to expose them to photography and writing as tools with which to tell their stories.

Although Abell has been a high-level professional photographer in a competitive environment for 40 years, he says he took his most interesting picture - of his father as a lone figure watching a departing train in snowy Ohio - when he was no older than the Photo Camp students.

On the first day of camp, Abell asked the campers when they would take the most interesting photograph of their lives, and got blank stares, he says. But by the time camp was over, one student had taken one of the best pictures he had seen in a year - professional shots included. Abell ended camp by quoting from a speech he'd once heard.

"Try to think of your life as an adventure story," he said. "Not every chapter will end well, but at the end of each will be the words, `To be continued.'"

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