“With the oil spill you realize it is so vulnerable down there, it’s a way of life but it’s a part of our life. The gulf is a part of us. I’m in New York and I can’t help but just see water around me all day, and just think about as much oil as I saw in the gulf,” Michael Koehler tells me over the phone early last week. “I can’t see a difference between being here and there.”
Koehler’s photo exhibition started on October 6 at GalleryBar in New York City and will remain on view through October 27. The black and white photographs, some pictured above, are framed in driftwood brought back from the east river.
Koehler had just finished doing four months on the road working on a book about small towns with funny names when Hurricane Katrina hit. The following media blitz, swathed with photos of “the sunrise and the tree, the car and the tree, and the destruction” made Koehler think twice.
“I remember feeling like ‘where’s all the people in this place?’. A lot of them had been displaced, but it was so faceless really.” The feeling inspired him to want to do the work differently. Taking on volunteering to help distribute goods and build housing in the area around St Bernard Parish, Koehler slowly got closer to the water, and as a result, closer to the fishermen.
“The first trip I remember hearing a story about a fisherman who spent all morning long collecting bodies he found in Buras,” recalls Koehler. “Buras is about half of a mile wide, so over 30 feet of water, and after spending all morning collecting bodies on his boat he ran into a sheriff and the sheriff said you have to unload all those bodies that you have because there’s survivors out there. So they had to unload these bodies and then go pick people up and save lives. Hearing these stories along with the original ties to the land and the family, always make me think of these fisherman who were on the front line of the hurricane.”
In 2008 Koehler met a fisher named Ricky Robin, a 7th generation shrimper from St Bernard Parish who saved over 100 people after Katrina struck. Over time Koehler became friends with the fishermen, and he was surprised when he returned to discover that many of the small fishing villages were barely repaired in 2009, and that the small community of Buras didn’t even exist anymore.
“Everything gone, just didn’t come back. Everything got sucked up with the bigger towns.”
The area has found itself trapped between two catastrophes and a society that doesn’t respect its way of life – shrimp, after all, are now more often brought to America from over seas locations that farm shrimp, like Italy, China, and Nicaragua, rather than being caught locally in Louisiana.
Following Katrina, Koehler met many fishermen trying to preserve a way of life that’s existed since the beginning of America. Something arguably more American even than apple pie (since apples didn’t originally grow here, while fishing was a certain reality).
“I went out on this boat with this guy who lost his boat in Katrina, and he had a smaller aluminium boat but still could get as much shrimp with less gas. You go through the bayou into the gulf, and then storms would come into the gulf, and you have to then pick up where you are and go as fast as you can into the bayou to park and ride out the storm in the bayou. It’s this kind of dance of collecting shrimp with thousands and thousands of birds following you, porpoises swimming around you. It’s an unbelievable experience. And then the sky changes so unbelievably and the radio tells you to seek shelter, and you have to get back to the bayou. The bayou is this middle ground of wetland and partially land partially water, and it’s kind of like human protection.”
Book ended on the other side of Hurricane Katrina is this years devastating oil spill. A disaster so bad that it’s changed the will of many southern Louisiana natives.
“As I see it these are the people that were there before America was started and as the country grew it was coming through those ports and these people were really there, on the front lines. I went back down then in May in 2010 after the oil spill to reconnect with everyone and it was just a total different kind of disaster, but it was devastating nonetheless. It was changing people from thinking of staying where they’re at and passing down their way of life to trying to get enough BP money to move away, because it’s over.”
Back in New York, Koehler hopes that the exhibit will raise the awareness of the vulnerability of all our regions and the importance of protecting our ways of life because they can’t be repaid.
“You can’t be reimbursed from being forced from a way of life. You can’t get that year with your child fishing for the first time if the fishing is closed. You can’t get that back. I really hope it raises the awareness of the importance and fertility of this area of our country and the need to look at how we deal with energy and process and things and greed in this country. We need to actually start putting people before that.”