An Archive of Jacob Appelbaum’s Post-Katrina weblog

Hitting home

Posted in algiers,Katrina,media,neworleans,photos,rant by jacob on September 19, 2005

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, 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.


18 Responses to 'Hitting home'

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  1. Andres said,

    The saddest part on this tragedy it´s the feeling of being left alone. Those survivors are thirsty for humanity, to break down it´s normal, to broke the glass and develop a personal tie it´s normal, but keep doing what you do there , it´s an example to everyone all around the world. And the best help you´re providing it´s to be present and say with your work, I´m here, let´s broke this loneliness others had build up without permission.

    Keep the good work. God bless everyone.

  2. scarletc said,

    I’m on the other side of the planet, looking on in horror. The most horrific thing for me and the people I know, is knowing that your government knew. They knew that it could happen, and they knew that with Katrina it probably would happen. And they did nothing. Bush might go and mouth platitudes now but I hope and pray that your country sees him, his cabal and his prioreties for what they are.

    The tragedy that is the aftermath of Katrina should NEVER have happened.

  3. gaby said,

    Thank you for writing your experience with the disconnection aspect of witnessing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I am saddened for the loss of your friend. To read your experience when these two things collided for you is personal and disturbing/moving — but it is also what I think many of us are looking for, that connection. You feel disconnected behind your lens, and those of us witnessing events from halfway across the country or around the world feel it that much more.
    Thanks for sharing your connection.

  4. Megan said,

    I’m very sorry for the loss of your friend, and I’m sorry you had to deal with it while in the midst of an already terrible situation. I’ve been appreciating your pictures and your words. The camera is useful in keeping an emotional distance between yourself and tragic situations, but eventually the reality always hits you. I think it’s important, no matter how painful it is, because the alternative would be numbness. The connection will subside, but will still linger enough so that your compassion will unmistakeably be present in your pictures. Make sure you take care of yourself.

  5. said,

    New Orleans

    While many are talking and blogging about it, some actually went there to help. If you noticed Jake’s blog on my blogroll you might’ve been following him the last few weeks. If not, have a look at his blog and his photo’s: victims in…

  6. Joe said,


  7. Titel said,

    Be strong. Be a professional. Be my eyes (and the eyes of other 93 Bloglines subscribers to your blog) and tell stories from your own perspective. Your contribution to the rescue actions is showing first-hand the devastation, the pain, the efforts.

    At least that’s what my left-side brain hemisphere was thinking when reading the first part of your message.Then, the second part fired up some synapses in the right hemisphere, and the reply became blurred by emotions and empathy.

    I only get snapshots of the overwhelming pain and despair you’ve been facing. But I have the choice to see the images and open my heart to them or just close the window; you don’t. Close your eyes and you can still hear the pain. Stick fingers in your ears and crawl under a desk, but you still know it’s there, feet away from you, all around. You can smell it in every breath, it’s stuck in every pore of your skin, it follows you around when you have a cup of clean water and remember the hundreds who didn’t have that luxury. It’s a little, persistant voice in your head when you get online and talk with dear ones, or pull their photos out of your wallet, while others have nobody else left. It’s only a matter of time before pain cringes to your heart and breaks your “sanity” down, flooded in tears.

    So I ask, why block out the pain in the first place? To have years flash by in a false sense of security and sanity, becoming alienated from everyone else’s feelings? Why ignore the pain and destruction surrounding us, and be completely unprepared for events that will certainly take place in our circles of friends and families when our carefully-built safety and overly-rational thinking will be shattered in a second? How can we fully appreciate joy, if we have not faced the dark end of the scale?

    Be my eyes and heart, Jacob. Screw the factual, good story pulled out of context, bird’s eye view journalism of CNN and others. Fill my screen with photos that not only tell a story to my brain, but also supercharge my soul with emotions. Get back on your feet, take a deep breath, absorb the feeling and live the moment, and hundreds of anonymous people like me will be there with you, through you. Let me learn what pain and despair are, let me train my emotions and remember to be humble, respectful, empathic, thoughtful, caring, loving, helpful, empowered. Let me break distances, time and impersonality to be close to someone I never knew about. And when you take a photo, tell those people that you’re not just a photographer documenting their misery, but with each click you bring thousands of eyes, thoughts and prayers back to them.

    God bless!

  8. I had no idea you knew Strick. I went to school with him.

  9. Kathryn said,

    Be glad you can cry.

  10. […] This entry will make you feel something. […]

  11. Chris said,

    hugs, Jacob. hugs.
    You are a bright light, keep shining.

  12. […] Today I received an invitation to open a weblog on, which is nice, but, let’s face it, superfluous. Regardlesss of that, the stats on the home page of led me to Jacob Appelbaum’s weblog, who linked to the weblog of the late John Reeves Hall, who died a couple of days ago. […]

  13. But you keep on abusin i. Kristel Lesly.

  14. Didn’t get to bed last nigh. Hortense Zvonimira.

  15. they only wanna do you dir. Ondrej Manisha.

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  17. Huda Swithun said,

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  18. No Name said,

    The most horrific thing for me and the people I know, is knowing that your government knew. They knew that it could happen, and they knew that with Katrina it probably would happen. And they did nothing. Bush might go and mouth platitudes now but I hope and pray that your country sees him, his cabal and his prioreties for what they are.

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