The state of Louisiana is shrinking, the land along its southern fringes disappearing for reasons both natural and not. This coastal loss has been decades and more in the making, but in recent years a spate of one-bad-storm-after-another plus a massive oil spill have called global attention to the increasingly dire situation. Those who study the problem believe that it is just about, if not already, beyond remedy.
Nobody knows this as intimately as the people in the photographs that follow. These several generations are the last holdouts of Isle de Jean Charles and Pointe-aux-Chenes, two tiny communities in Terrebonne Parish on the fraying edges of Louisiana’s receding coastline. Of uniquely mixed (and contested) ethnic heritage—Native American, French, African American—and fiercely attached to the place their ancestors have called home for so long, these Louisianans are under siege by environmental, economic, political, and cultural forces. Hoisting their homes ever higher above the encroaching water, they are clinging to what little solid ground is left, to their singular way of life, and to their very idea of who they are.
Documentary photographer Kael Alford was fresh off a years-long stint covering armed conflict in the Middle East when she was led to these out-of-the-way enclaves by an assignment to report the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—and a desire to trace her family roots. As Alford gathered images of families doggedly living their lives amid waves of crisis and recovery, she found the emotional terrain strangely familiar after her years of photographing the devastation of war overseas and the perseverance of those on the home front. But she was nonetheless stunned to encounter the utterly foreign within her own country, in her own grandmother’s birthplace. As she writes in her commentary that follows this portfolio, “Nothing about the landscape looked like any America I knew.”
Alford’s eye helps us to see the beauty of this still-lush but now-degraded region, and to fathom the connections that tie these people to this place no matter the compromises the landscape endures or requires, no matter how last-ditch or lost-cause the situation may be. State and federal officials have told the residents of Isle de Jean Charles, the more immediately vulnerable of the two communities, that relocation is not just their best but their only option. Sooner or later, images like these, along with the stories and memories those who live here hand down, will likely be among the last relics of this part of the Louisiana coast.
Working on a commission from the High Museum in Atlanta, Alford amassed a trove of images during six years of work, and thirty-five of her photographs—including most of the fourteen that appear in this issue—will be on display at the High from 9 June through 2 September 2012 as part of the museum’s “Picturing the South” exhibition; the release of a book of Alford’s Louisiana work will coincide with the opening.
Born in 1971 in Middletown, New York, Alford began her career as a documentary photographer and journalist in 1996, covering conflict, culture, and politics in the Balkans and the Middle East for European and American magazines and newspapers. Some of her Iraq War photographs were included in Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2005) and, along with those of Thorne Anderson, in “Eye Level in Iraq,” a feature in our Spring 2007 issue.
Alford earned an MA from the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Journalism and was a 2009 Neiman Fellow at Harvard University. She is represented by Panos Pictures in London and lives in Dallas, Texas.
Copyright © 2012 by Kael Alford. All images are digital color photographs.