The following is a personal interview by Esther Sassaman:
Bloggers are known for strong political opinions and too much openness about their love lives. A growing number have taken the expressive power of the blog into new realms. Many bloggers of all interests and political viewpoints have debunked inaccuracies portrayed by the mainstream media, maintained compendia on rapidly developing stories more quickly than big broadcasters, and established their own live news services in conflict zones. Jacob Applebaum is one of this last category, publishing photojournalism from Iraq, Houston, and New Orleans that has often surpassed the news value, narrative power, and beauty of photography produced by longstanding news service photographers. Appelbaum went to Iraq in April 2005 as a photographer and to visit friends, and visited Houston’s Astrodome after Katrina to help set up a low power FM radio network and wireless service [http://www.prometheusradio.org] for details. He is currently in the poor, black Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans, administering a data center at the behest of community organizer and former Black Panther Malik Rahim.
Jacob’s photographs have gained a new audience with the Houston Astrodome series [http://flickr.com/photos/ioerror/sets/905698/], which has become widely distributed. I reached him on Tuesday, the second day of his stay in Algiers. We talked about the situation in Algiers on Tuesday, but also about his personal motivations for coming to activism, and his background.
You can read the rest of the interview off site.
Tonight was probably one of the most depressing of all nights I’ve ever had in my entire life. It was the moment that all of the things I’ve experienced on my trip to the south came to their obvious conclusion. It was a moment that my disconnection connected. It was a moment that I looked into the face of something terrible and something terrible was staring back at me. I’ve been disconnected from the damage around me and in the face of torn down buildings, I’d photograph them. When faced with death, I’d document it. When faced with reconstruction efforts, I’d capture it.
My lens doesn’t provide me with a very good disconnection but it gives me some sort of hope. Hope that I can fix what I am literally focusing on. Bring attention, build awareness and people will contribute to the positive aspects they are able to help with, right? It’s one of my personal attempts to solve the caring problem, to make people actually attach to this event. At the same time, I’ve been telling myself that I cannot really think too deeply about the things I’m seeing. If I make a personal connection every time I take a photo, I would break down. I know my limits and I know that I have to stay slightly cold even if I’m wholeheartedly concerned. When I hear stories about photographers like James Nachtway or writers like Christian Parenti, I really wonder how they internally cope with the things they see. Those men are my heroes.
Everyone here has to gloss over the personal aspects of this pain or they will simply lose the ability to function. It’s why body clean up crews work in short shifts, no human can sustain the physical and mental trauma they are exposed to here. Two men from Canada told me about how sick it made them to see thousands of houses simply gone. Driving along the highway for hours and seeing only rubble of houses. People don’t find bodies there, they find piles of human remains. They literally became sick from the sights. It’s insanity. Think of the insanity of finding perfectly healthy people shot to death because they were trying to survive by taking food from empty stores. Think of how the police turned their guns on people and said: “No niggers on this side of the river” when people tried to cross bridges to escape the flooding. Think about the cruelty before the storm and how it continued during and how it still continues. Right now. I do spend time thinking about it and I’m disconnected from it. Just as I’m sure everyone becomes unless it was their personal experience. I get angry but my anger subsides into a quiet rage and I continue working with more motivation.
At least that’s what I was feeling like until yesterday evening. My repression was running high, my stress was pushed down. I had it all under control on a personal level. Then an old friend and co-worker Strick gave me some very sad news. A close and personal friend John Hall died battling cancer on September the 17th. John spent time writing about his illness on his weblog, overcode.yak.net/3. His last entry was so hopeful and it came from such a positive perspective. It breaks my heart that someone of such an amazing stature could die so young. A man dying from cancer in his early twenties. It’s injustice at the heart of it and it breaks my heart in the most unjust way. I’m so sad, I’m totally devastated and I’m not his girlfriend or his family. I’m just some friend who’s hurt to lose such an amazing person. It’s selfish but I miss him already. I know I’m not the only one, he was a much loved member of many communities.
When Strick told me he died, he so by way of instant message and I remember reading it, I remember breaking down and sobbing over my laptop. People that surrounded me started wondering why I was crying, they wondered what brought me to my emotional breaking point. The people in the community started to hold me and they asked why I was crying, why was I so upset? I pawed at my screen, I motioned to communicate the data on my screen. I’m sure they read it, I’m sure they got it but I just left my laptop and moved into the kitchen. I laid on the floor and a person in the dark came to comfort me. I don’t even remember who was wtih me. They held me while I cried and wailed for my friend. They held me and they had compassion for someone who met an untimely tragic end, someone they’d never met.
I pulled myself together and I tried to write something. I tried to calm myself. I attempted to create something with words that could do justice for a person who earned my respect to such a high point. I failed. I cannot possibly express my feelings, my respect or my admiration for John and do him any justice while writing, it’s simply not possible at this moment.
When it happened I’m not sure and yet there was a point where I lost it again. I went and drank the better part of three bottles of wine, nice sweet local wine. Local in proximity to the store it was foraged from. The local Whole Foods had to destroy their building so they gave away their wine to anyone around and some people gave it to us to have with dinner. After finishing the wine, I really felt relaxed enough to really let the things in my mind come out.
I came back to the media center and I found myself sobbing and eventually, I laid on the floor and I cried for a long time. I cried so hard that I started to feel sick, sick from the wine and sick from the events of the day. I had spent a large portion of the day being a driver for someone to go into the really devastated parts of New Orleans. These are the parts that CNN, FOX and ABC don’t ever bother with. They don’t care about the issues in these areas – they care about staying in the safe areas and talking about the military or about the rescues. Just read the account of an anonymous camera man to get an idea of what I mean. You see this when you’re driving around the city, you see the lack of real representation.
At some point, my mental, emotional and physical disconnection broke away. The pain I felt for John, I felt for every single house destroyed. I felt it for every burnt out car, every house with a DMORT code, for every house without a DMORT code, for flood waters destroying families by taking away lives both human and animal. I lost my shield against the world of inhumanity that I have been facing for nearly two weeks. I felt everything I’d seen as if it was a really personal experience and I felt like a sailor going overboard during a storm. I was tossed around in this emotional sea. What I feel is nothing compared to the collective pain of this area.
That’s when everything here really hit home. Everything I’ve seen and everything I’ve been lucky enough to miss.
To those that feel negativity towards me. To the people that have insulted me, spit on me, denied me and called me the insult of the day:
Thank you. Without your negative praise I wouldn’t be motivated to fight for things I consider to be just. Without you I would feel like my efforts aren’t of any significance. Please keep the death threats coming. Perhaps even a pot shot at my motorcycle while I’m driving it. I know I’m doing something right when I get under your skin enough to waste hours of your time reading things that make your blood boil. I’ll never stop. You have yourselves to thank. You should be proud of yourselves. All of you. You’re a bunch of world changing winners.
Yours with love and devotion to something better,