ARTIST STATEMENT FIFTH WARD I have photographed a small area, the 1800 Block of Jensen Dr., within Houston's Fifth Ward. The Fifth Ward was overlooked when, beginning in 1882, the residents twice threatened to secede from Houston because they lived on the other side . Musicians from the Ward include Arnett Cobb, Milton Larkin, and Illinois Jacquet. Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland served in Congress and George Foreman fought on the streets yet today, the other side has widened with 62% of the residents living and surviving below the poverty line. I want the area to be seen from the soul of its residents. I want the contrast between elderly women on their porches, churches clinging to life, addicts in vacant buildings, and neighbors visiting on a Saturday afternoon to be tangible to my audience. I want to convey the one common goal that all of these people are seeking-Survival! Survive one part of any day safely without a robbery, a break-in, hunger, or death. Survive another night without becoming a victim of the violence that surrounds the neighborhood. Survive by not being carried out to the coroner's van under a gray blanket. Survive to enjoy a few minutes within the shadow of prosperity and development while being passed over again and again. I have photographed children at a church within a few feet of a crack house, and elderly women on their porches within a few feet of prostitutes. Honesty, integrity, and innocence, surrounded by destruction, desolation and depression. Life is raw and somehow they avoid lurking disaster. They have allowed my camera to enter their lives and I have been in their homes, churches, crack houses, and grocery stores. I have seen their gusto and appetite for life amid the crime and poverty. I have been influenced by their despair and hope from the outside and I have seen their influence and strength through the lens of my camera. When I call upon my past experiences, I wonder how I would survive without hope and opportunity, and I wonder if this place will ever get any benefit from the prosperity that surrounds it or will it continue to be treated as the other side. Christine Harrison lived and died at 1803 Jensen Dr. I met her when I asked her to be the first subject on Jensen. She took a special interest in me and provided many details of life and conditions in her neighborhood. She gave me the introductions and protection that I needed in this otherwise tough and tumultuous area. When I went to see Christine in August 2002, after a few weeks away, I knew something was different when I saw the house. The neighbors came quickly when they saw my car and I was barely out of the door before they told me she had passed away two weeks prior. The details came in spurts from excited people, but I soon learned that she had left in an ambulance on a Saturday and had died the next Friday. No one paid for a burial and her body was cremated or as her neighbors said, she was burned up. I visited her house the next day and photographed the total confusion related to a house that's contents had been ransacked as if a pack of hungry dogs had attacked. Household items had been thrown about on her porch and out into the yard. Anything of value had been taken and the Posted Sign on the front porch reminds those that pass by that another resident will move in and the rent lady will be by next Saturday.
I have photographed women who live without a safety net. Each is independent, strong, and hard working. All have children, but no man or father figure in their home. Each stands on the precipice of life. Whether they are hours from medical care, without any support for children, wake early to open a business, fear leaving their home, or hold a raffle to sell a car, they are survivors. Life on the edge is not theirs . They live over the edge. One change and the priorities immediately have to shift. Survival can mean food, medical care, heat, fuel, school supplies, or else disaster. They make it every month. Some work, some are not able, but they all make it and survive.
I am photographing the Harris County Jail. Entering the jail brings forth many feelings but cold and lonely struck me as I passed the guard. I have witnessed the system, the families, the buildings, the guards, the inmates, and the courts. Every aspect of the operation is organized and impersonal, handling over 100,000 inmates annually with a daily population of approximately 8,000. I have shown how jail extends to the individual. When I began this project, I met the families that come to visit their loved ones. Many come every day, most several days a week. Mothers, fathers, children, wives, and girlfriends wait in lines for up to two hours for a fifteen minute visit through a bullet proof glass with poor acoustics and no personal contact. While the visitors gather on the first floor, the inmates remain alone in their cells of concrete and cinder block behind steel doors wearing orange clothing with with “Harris County Jail” stenciled on the back. In absolute boredom inmates draw and write on the walls of the cells. Much like cave drawings, the work on the walls of the cells tell stories of history and allow a look into the inmate’s soul. Jail is impersonal, uncomfortable, clean, organized, and efficient. Sterile walls, concrete floors, steel doors, thick bullet proof glass, small openings for food and hands, dim light, surveillance cameras, elevators with no buttons, commodes with no seats, stools with no backs, food served on disposable utensils, all kept clean and all the same every time. Movement in jail is single file, with no talking, and void of much expression. The inmates move with precision on their days in court. A day in court is the inmate’s chance to beat the system and walk out to freedom. Waiting for your turn in court is long and anxious. Prisoners wake at 3:30 AM and spend the morning walking, waiting, moving, waiting, moving, stopping, and then your time comes. In a few minutes the future is decided. Will the sentence be 5 years before you are free, 10 years, life, or will you go home now? In the end 80% are coming back.
The Astro Dome in Houston, Texas became the instant temporary home for thousands of New Oreleans survivors. I was only allowed 20 minutes to photograph inside the stadium. When I left, the number of people who appeared in shock at what they were experiencing overcame me. I saw individuals attempting to connect with neighbors, family and friends while fighting the exhaustion and loss that was too much for them to absorb in the few days since the flood took their homes and claimed the city of New Orleans.
On September 16, 2005, I drove to Waveland, in Hancock County, Mississippi to view the impact of Katrina's wrath firsthand. What I saw defied the reports and photographs that I had seen. For miles, city streets were consumed with mountains of debris. Homes and businesses were unidentifiable. Citizens were few and the curfew was in effect. The locations of cozy beach cottages, antebellum beachfront homes, galleries, county and city offices, businesses, and churches were now vacant lots, some covered in the remains of homes and others were clean as the contents were washed away by the storm surge. Identifying a road or landmark was impossible. There were no street signs and many of the homes that could be identified had been moved by the floodwaters so the surreal feeling of being lost in a bad dream was prevalent. Since my initial visit, I have continued to return to Hancock County, where I have spent time with the residents of three towns Pearlington, Bay Saint Louis, and Waveland listening to their recollection of the storm, and seeing and feeling the personal loss that has affected them all. Hurricane Camille in August 1969 was the biggest storm to date and was the “landmark” for survival. Everyone underestimated Katrina and the preparation reflected their inability to comprehend devastation that was much greater than Camille. There are many more stories and photographs to tell the story of Hurricane Katrina and the recovery and rebuilding. I continue to visit Mississippi and record the lives of my friends after their lives changed forever on August 29, 2005.
VOLUNTEERS They are students, church groups, investment bankers, families, friends, blended in an unlikely place to serve those who lost everything. They have names like Erica, Lynn, John, Keri, Ruth, Laura, Bekka, Ryn, Cindy, Wendy, Barbara, Melissa, Katie, Clayton, Rachel, Jean, and many more. They come and give their time and come again. College students and recent graduates like Erica at Habitat; Laura, Bekka, and Ryn at Lagniappe work for a summer or semester to coordinate the waves of volunters that come to build homes for those left out of the system. They are the heroes and I am honored to know them and introduce them to you.