Thursday, April 28, 2011

Kael Alford Speaks: Five Years of Earth Days

As I write this, I am reflecting on Earth Day, April 22. To me, celebrating our Mother Gaia only one day a year seems like short-changing her. To Kael Alford though, honoring Earth Day has been an almost daily homage for the past five years.

Many of you will know Kael, or know of her work as a distinguished photojournalist whose work has been published in the New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, and other leading news sources. She was a key artist of the four representated in the 2007 Unembedded exhibit at the Atlanta Photography Group gallery. Or you might know her from her former teaching position at SCAD.

Alternately you might have sat, glued to your seat, at the Atlanta Photography Group Speaking of Photography session the evening of April 21, Earth Day Eve. Chip Simone, in another of his “Conversation with …” series, talked with Kael for a fascinating 90 minutes.

Kael is no stranger to recognition. We will see later how the High Museum is honoring her as the next recipient of their “Picturing the South” commission series. In 2008 Harvard University, too, acknowledged her vision as a preeminent photojournalist when they offered her the prestigious yearlong Neiman Fellowship for Journalism. Likewise, only a few weeks ago, Kael received the highly sought Knight Luce Fellowship from the University of Southern California School of Communication and Journalism. The Atlanta photography community is indeed fortunate to be able to count Kael as a friend.

“It’s news”

We will get to Kael’s five years of Earth Days a bit later in this article. But first we will learn Kael’s perspective on the field of photojournalism.

A portion of the evening with Kael and Chip focused on Kael’s role in reporting with her camera on human side of conflicts in Bulgaria, Bosnia, and Iraq. Knowledge of this work is important for you to understand. Go to the Unembedded website to immerse yourself in the results of putting ones life at considerable risk as a photographer in a war zone.

The depth of the circumstances surrounding a conflict photojournalist was brought home to all of us during Kael’s talk when we learned that Chris Hondros, one of the photojournalists fatally wounded in Misrata Libya just a few hours before, was Kael’s good friend and compatriot. Likewise Kael had been scheduled to meet with Tim Hetherington, the other journalist casualty in Misrata, in several weeks. Conflict was brought home to us that evening in a very real, very tragic way.

Knowing of this tragedy made Chip’s initial question to Kael all the more poignant, “Why would anyone in their right mind go into photojournalism?”

Kael’s response was definitive. Explaining how she began to choose her life’s career, she said, “Photojournalism…was so immediate. It promised that I would get directly into the world and begin to document very big, important things.” Most who hear Kael’s story agree that her career goals are certainly being met in a highly influential way.

Many of us relate photojournalism to the Robert Capa-style coverage of war. Kael succinctly explained why we see so many photojournalistic depictions of conflict, “It’s news.”

That being said, Kael pointed out that international news is news in the United States primarily if U.S. foreign policy is involved. Conflicts that do not have a direct pipeline into U.S. interests often do not get the attention that they perhaps would merit on a purely humanitarian level.

Chip noted that recent photojournalism has a pictorial quality trending toward beauty rather than the raw nature of earlier work. He wondered if photojournalists think that this trend is perhaps dangerous in some way. Kael’s response was,
“Maybe…You can’t just put beautiful [war] photographs on the wall and ask people to come in, have a glass of wine, and send them away…Yes, I think it can be dangerous to show people beautiful pictures and not give them something else. But at the same time it is also dangerous, perhaps, to show them horrible pictures and turn them away.”
So, an effective photojournalist is always walking the fine line between showing the camera’s version of reality and showing something with the appeal to draw us in to see, hear, and feel the rest of the story.
“I always look for stories that are underreported, underrepresented. There is humanity in all sides of a story, so I am looking for that humanity and I am looking for stories that might violate our prejudices...I try to allow myself to feel where I am and then try to respond to that in my photographs that will reflect what I am experiencing as a human being, because I think that what I feel and what people around me feel are similar.”
Chip, offered, “You can’t be objective, can you?”
“I shouldn’t be...A good journalist will consider what is outside the frame. That’s our job. Our job is to know that story as well as we can, backwards and forwards, and give our readers a sense of that story as well as we have understood it.”

Speaking loudly by being quiet

Photojournalism is, according to Kael, “…events unfolding in front of the camera…Photojournalism usually isn’t very quiet. It tends to be loud.”

Kael, understandably weary of living loudly with man’s inhumanity to man for years at a time, has for the past five years changed the focus of her photojournalistic work to man’s inhumanity to nature. We will now focus on Kael’s current project rather than her well documented conflict photography.

Drawn to New Orleans to cover post-Katrina events, Kael took a day off from her journalism to see, for the first time, the homeland of her Native American grandmother on the very edge of the Gulf Coast. What she found in the two communities of her ancestors, Isle Jean Charles and Pointe Aux Chenes, has become her quiet focal point for the past five years.

Copyright Kael Alford, 2007 (1)
What drew Kael in to such an extent to change her life for half a decade? See for yourself.

Here is one of Kael’s photographs of the coast. Seems idyllic, doesn’t it?

Now observe two other images below, not by Kael, but from orbiting satellites.

The left hand satellite photograph, from 1990, shows the southern end of Pointe Aux Chenes, on the Gulf south of New Orleans. This is the jumping off point for the shrimp boats that have traditionally provided the livelihood for Kael’s relatives. The shrimpers leave from a marina on the upper right side of the image. Note the small spit of land at the tip of the arrow.

Pointe Aux Chenes, 1990, 2007 (2)
Now glance over to the right hand image, of the same area in 2007, at the same position and the same scale. The arrow is in the same position, but now points to open water of the instead of land as in the 1990 image. The comet tail shape at the tip of the arrow is a boat, leaving its wake where there once was land 17 years earlier.

What has happened in only 17 years? The change has been the rapid subsidence and erosion of the Gulf Coast. Beginning in the 1930s, the practicalities of oil and gas production in the exceedingly abundant coastal fields have not been kind to Mother Earth. To allow easy access to the near-shore wells, canals were cut into the salt marshes that line the coast. The canals have allowed both the fresh water emptying into the Gulf from the Mississippi and the seawater from the frequent storms and hurricanes to gradually gnaw away at the tenuous hold that the marsh grasses have on the land.

Copyright Kael Alford, 2010 (1)
Much of the petroleum from early drilling existed directly beneath the marshes. Pumping the oil and gas resulted in the subsidence of the landmass. The combined effects of ground subsidence, erosion from the canals, and damage from hurricanes have had the net effect of the Gulf shore moving continuously northward, submerging land that was formally used for agriculture and residence.

The effect of the changing sea on a small slice of humanity is what has drawn Kael to coastal Louisiana. Her images are still of war, but of the quiet war of two small communities of Native Americans against the relentless onslaught of the ocean caused by our reliance on petroleum products for energy. What has been Indian Land for centuries is rapidly becoming the land of the fishes.

Kael’s project has been to document the vestiges of a vanishing culture that is, literally, in her own blood and to bring public awareness to the plight of those that are being displaced by man-made activities.

There is plenty to say surrounding the plight of the Gulf Coast and of the Native Americans who live on its edge. There is, too, a volume of descriptive words that documents how Kael is immersed in her current Louisiana project. My words though cannot hope to give justice to Kael’s developing story of the struggle against sea and bureaucracy. Kael's final phase of her odyssey to the Gulf is to capture the residents' own words to give an enduring substance to their story. I therefore will allow Kael to speak of her quest in her own words. Please give yourself five minutes and go here to hear Kael tell you about what she has found at the edge of the Gulf.

Several years ago when Julian Cox, then the Curator of Photography at the High Museum, heard Kael’s story about the Gulf subsidence and saw her initial images, he arranged for Kael to be the next recipient of the museum’s “Picturing the South” series of commissions. Kael and the High’s new Curator of Photography, Brett Abbott, are currently exploring the details of a forthcoming exhibit of Kael’s commission work scheduled for July of 2012.

Whether you are observing Kael’s loud Iraq images or her quiet Louisiana studies, you are likely to have gained a new respect for the social messages, the craft, and the art of photojournalism. We will see you are Kael’s High exhibit next year, and don’t forget to celebrate Earth Day with Kael tomorrow, next week, next month, and again and again until we get it right.

Text other than direct quotations copyright 2011 by Richard Ediger. 
  1. Source:
  2. Source: Google Earth. Annotation by Richard Ediger. The 2007 image was originally in color but was rendered in black and white to match the tonality and contrast of the 1990 image.

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