Oil and Water: A Conversation with Kael Alford

Donna DeCesare speaks with Kael Alford about her evolution as a photojournalist and the connections between her efforts to document the oil-driven war in Iraq and the impact of unfolding natural disasters in the Gulf of Mexico on fragile Louisiana communities.

With the support of a commission from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, Kael Alford has spent the last five years documenting the erosion of wetlands on the Louisiana coast and a culture she’d previously known only through her grandmother’s stories. Her provocative and prescient intermingling of ecosystem fragility with the resilience of coastal tradition will be the subject of a book and a major exhibition at the High Museum of Art in 2012.

Kael Alford created a Dart Media Gallery entitled "Home on the Water," drawing from images she has gathered in the Gulf coast over the past five years.

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Donna DeCesare: How did you become a visual storyteller?

I started off as a writer. I have an undergraduate degree in English, but back then I never thought about being a journalist; I wanted to write fiction or poetry. As an undergrad, I also studied archeology and anthropology. Both interested me deeply. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do and so after my undergraduate studies I took some time off. Finally, I decided to go back to graduate school and by then I had decided that I wanted to be a journalist, but what I discovered in journalism school was that I hated the writing classes. The focus was on shortening the narrative, inverted pyramids and community beats. I wanted to write long-form pieces, to travel. I took a photography class and discovered that I liked the instant gratification and immediacy of that kind of reporting; I learned it quickly. I remember sitting in that dark room during the judging of Pictures of the Year Contest at the University of Missouri and seeing those powerful photographic essays and thinking, yes, this is what I want to do–travel to places to document powerful human stories.

What was your first overseas assignment?

I had been interested in Bosnia and wanted to see it for myself, to try to understand what was happening there. But I went to Bulgaria for my MA thesis. I focused on the Muslim minority community in Bulgaria. They have a similar history to the Bosnian Muslims, and so I tried to learn as much about the history of the whole region before traveling there in 1996-97. After getting my MA I stayed there and I taught between 1996-99 at the American University in Bulgaria. When the war in Kosovo started, I quit teaching. I covered that conflict and witnessed the tail end of the Bosnian war. The country was in a shambles and traumatized by a conflict whose deeper stories in many ways had not yet really begun to be told.

What is it about covering conflict that attracted you?

I think I was attracted to cover the situation because I could not imagine how neighbors who had co-existed peacefully for hundreds of years could so suddenly turn such violence on each other. I wanted to understand human nature and the mechanics of such violence. In college I'd read about Bosnia, but the stories never made any sense to me. Most daily news reporting never gets below the surface of headline events to explain the "why." I felt I had to go there to see it, to feel it and to try to understand it from within.

What motivated you to go to Iraq?

In some ways, with hindsight, I feel that everything I'd been covering and interested in was preparing me to cover the war in Iraq. I'd been covering the conflict in the Balkans, saw the limitations of international intervention, the devastation of ethnic cleansing. I had long been interested in Islam and in the Middle East. I travelled to Israel and to Palestine to work. Even before I became a photojournalist, when I studied archeology as an undergrad it was Middle Eastern archeology and the Fertile Crescent civilizations that most inspired me. I studied with an archeologist who excavated there.

By the time September 11 happened, I had been out of the US for more than five years and immersed in the cultures of Islam and the Middle East. It seemed clear to me that the region would become even more important to understand. When the US invaded Iraq, none of the arguments for doing so made sense to me. I was living in Europe and Europeans were also baffled. It seemed like such a terrible idea. Having seen war, I knew how uncontrollable such violence is. I was concerned about the Iraqis. I decided I wanted to focus on telling the story from the Iraqi perspective. I knew there would be plenty of US reporters embedded with the US military, telling that side of the story. But I felt sure that there would be strong resistance in Iraq. Iraq has a long history – as do other Middle Eastern societies – of fighting off invaders. I wanted to understand and cover the Iraqi response.

How long did you stay in Iraq and why did you leave?

I'd been going back and forth for a couple of years, documenting the Sunni and Shia insurgencies. In the beginning I was in Fallujah and Anbar, but as the resistance movement grew more fragmented and disillusioned and as the influence of groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq grew, it became harder to stay safe and continue to cover the resistance movements. It got very dangerous. Journalists were kidnapped from the hotel where I was staying; I felt I couldn't continue to visit the homes of my Iraqi friends. My presence could put them in jeopardy. I realized that I was less effective. So I left. But it was always a frustration that I couldn't do more in those early days before it became too great a risk to work there.

What did you hope to do with the work from Iraq? Do you feel you achieved your goal?

I had been living outside the US for almost a decade and coming home was both abrupt and complicated. I was very frustrated by the huge disconnect between the reporting on Iraq and what was really happening on the ground. I began trying to raise money to create an exhibition to make sure that what I had seen could reach and connect with American audiences – even if I had to do it myself."Unembedded," which was a collaboration by a group of independent photographers, was published to try to tell some of the incredible resistance stories we had documented but that the Pentagon routinely denied or mischaracterized.

The book and the exhibition, which toured around the country for two years, opened many eyes –including mine. I found that Americans – many smart, educated people – had so many questions about what was happening over there. I was angry about what was happening in Iraq but the media tide was turning. I was getting phone calls, the press was playing catch-up. So it was good to be here.

What was it like coming home?

I was outside the country for nine years, from 1996 to 2005. I had come to end of my ability to float between the conflicts that I had made the focus of my work and my life. I love Iraq and I wanted to go back, but at the same time I didn't want to keep covering war exclusively.

But at home, adjusting was difficult. It took me a long time to slow down the pace. I was used to such intensity, and here everything felt bland. I was also disillusioned and discouraged and exhausted by my attempt to tell the stories that were a little blip on media screen here. I landed in New York, and people talked about the war as if they knew all about it. But it had little impact on most people's everyday lives. As a result it was hard for me to connect to people.

In "Home on the Water" you describe your most recent body of work as a way of coming home. What do you mean?

When I got a magazine assignment covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it gave me a way to connect. It was the bridge I was looking for. I had found it hard to feel compassion for America. I'd been so angry at the ignorance or cynicism about Iraq. America felt distant to me, but then I discovered Louisiana, which is like a foreign country to many Americans. New Orleans in that moment was like the places I'd been – the airport was closed, the place was a physical wreck, the people were uprooted and I had a personal connection to Louisiana through my grandmother. I felt comfortable and purposeful again.

Covering war and covering natural disasters differ in some ways. War is clearly a man-made tragedy and a choice (at least for the initial aggressor.) In a natural disaster, there can be a sense that it is beyond the realm of human responsibility. Do you find differences or similarities covering such tragedies?

I was glad to have a break from covering conflict and war, in part because I felt it wasn't healthy for me to keep such an exclusive focus on mankind's destructiveness. Yet the more I've examined issues on the Gulf coast, the more I have realized that there is also a human factor in what we call "natural disasters." The impact the storms have is partly man-made, an effect of global warming and the erosion resulting from the dredging of canals by the oil and gas industries and by engineers who redirected the Mississippi to control flooding. The more I learned about the sedimentation patterns and levee construction and about what we sacrifice to get the oil and gas resources we need, the more the drama is clearly one about human choices.

Among the images in this slideshow, there is a photograph of a mural of Saddam Hussein being toppled. In Iraq, I photographed the scene that mural depicts. When I saw the mural south of Houma, Louisiana I thought it's the same forces at work in this story. It's about oil. It's about the extraction of natural resources and the impact that has on the environment and the people. It hit me like a revelation.

Katrina may have been an act of God on one level, but scientists know that the hurricane's impact was especially devastating because of the erosion of wetlands. Wetlands are like a giant sponge. Wind blows the water inland and the wetlands absorb it. Without them there is nothing to buffer the surge of water and wind anymore. So that is why storms are getting so much worse than they were 50 years ago. Yes, the levees broke; but scientists say that the wetland problem is the greater issue and it is permanently changing the coast. The drama of the latest storm and the destruction and death get the news coverage, but the bigger picture is the long-term impact. No one can survive on the Gulf coast if we don't do something about wetland erosion.

You have been documenting communities on the Gulf coast for five years now. How will you know when the project ends?

Before the BP oil spill, I was satisfied that I was close to having a solid body of work ready for publication and exhibition. My commission from the High Museum in Atlanta to document this story was wrapping up. But the oil spill adds a new layer of complexity to the story, and the Museum has generously provided some additional funding. The exhibition is scheduled for 2012, and I think I need another year to be done. At the same time, I feel that even then it is a story I am likely to continue to revisit over time.

The communities I'm documenting will not be there forever. Scientists say they have a limited lifespan and I know that sometime in my lifetime they will disappear.

People in the communities I'm documenting insist they will hold on and survive, but experts say many of the places people currently live are doomed. So I'm creating a record of the changes, the incremental and cumulative losses over time and a way of life that will disappear. The story is a specific story about these communities but it also a universal story. Because a similar story is occurring in many coastal areas around the world.

What are your plans for this project? What do you hope that people who see it will take away?

I learned a lot from doing the "Unembedded" project. People connect with issues on a personal level when they can see what someone has witnessed and documented. My goal is to slow people down in order to help them see the consequences of the environmental changes taking place. Eventually, rising sea levels are going to affect people on the California coast and in New York City, which is an island. The US has over 10,000 miles of coastline. Many communities will face similar challenges. I plan to take the book and traveling exhibition to many communities, including the ones I've documented.

What can the work do for the specific communities you have depicted?

Many of the communities I've been documenting are Native American. Part of my goal is to celebrate the fact that they have survived thus far. They understand that their culture is being celebrated in the High Museum project and that beyond the risks of the moment that they are becoming visible. I don't know that there is any hope to "save" these specific communities. But visibility may help them and some groups are hiring lawyers. They may be able to access some legal compensation for their loss. I am working on a plan to bring people from the community to the opening at the High Museum, and I want to bring the exhibition to Houma, Louisiana, or someplace where more folks from the communities I've documented can see the work.

Has the oil spill changed the project or your sense of urgency and feelings for the communities?

The project is not only about the present and recent past – life and death through storms or survival day-to-day post oil spill. It poses a bigger question than the immediate individual survival question and that is what makes it compelling for me. The scale is geological; the pace is slower. The questions are about tragedy and loss and poverty and health care and being vulnerable or marginalized. But these people are also incredibly resilient. How many people do you know who have rebuilt their own house with their own hands 10 times? People in these communities have done that and they will continue to do so until there is no land to build on. The people who stay are truly remarkable, but they need the land and they need the sea. Their home is on the water. And this latest disaster with the oil spill is a more direct threat to that. If they can't fish, it is like cutting one of their legs out from under them. It would only take one bad storm, one change of current to push the oil inland to the shrimp and oyster breeding areas. For the first time, I've heard some of the toughest folks say, "We may be forced to leave."

Any idea what is next after this project?

Well, there will still be a lot of outreach with this project even when I finish the shooting. But I know I'm going back to Iraq in the spring of 2011 to teach a workshop for Iraqi photographers. I plan to stay an additional month – to go back and do follow up on some of the same people and places I photographed back in 2003-2004. My approach to photography has changed so much since then. It will be a new challenge to bring what I've learned back.

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To watch Kael Alford's moving short film, "Home on the Water," which documents the erosion of wetlands on the Louisiana coast, visit the Dart Media Gallery.