“A lot of our work was inundated by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. In the beginning we were literally throwing [work] away because all we saw was big bins of this nasty water. The ones that we kept, we put in a freezer; we thought that that would stop the deterioration. And so when we started working with them again, I can’t even explain what happened, but the transformation of the slides and the negatives was just… beautiful.”
New Orleans photographers Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun have spent more than four decades, both individually and as partners, documenting their city – their focus the preservation of Louisiana culture and traditions, as well as the memories of people, friends and neighbours who make up their local community in the Ninth Ward. They have pictured the traditions of Black church services and religious rituals, jazz funerals, community rites and parades; and documented the diminishing work of manual labourers in sugarcane fields, sweet-potato harvesters and dockworkers and longshoremen of New Orleans’s waterfront. In 2004 McCormick and Calhoun extended this series on work and workers to document the conditions of inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola (an hour’s drive north of state capital Baton Rouge, and as the photographers have previously written about it, a former ‘slave- breeding plantation named for the African nation from which “the most profitable” slaves, according to slave owners, were kidnapped’).
In 2005 Hurricane Katrina reached New Orleans. By the time the levees failed at the Ninth Ward, McCormick and Calhoun, along with most of their neighbourhood, had already been forced to evacuate. The ward was destroyed, with some parts of the district under six metres of floodwater. Before fleeing, the photographers had attempted to store their life’s work – rolls of exposed but undeveloped film, prints, negatives – in plastic bins, only to return to find their negatives water-logged and, it was feared, ruined. Damaged became the first title they gave this series, five years later, when upon pulling the negatives from their frozen storage and discovering (through scanning) that the partial deterioration had abstracted the images with leaked colours and cracks to the Kodachrome film, McCormick and Calhoun decided to experiment with printing the photos. ‘The original images were full of joyful people, rhythms, movement, sound and celebrations, which is still ever present,’ the photographers write. ‘You can hear the music and see these images bursting with as much energy, spirit and vibrations as the vibrant colors and symbols they hold.’ The series is now known as Right to Return.
Fifteen years later, and still undergoing the slow project of rebuilding its community, the Ninth Ward faces another crisis; this time, the globally shared COVID-19 pandemic. McCormick and Calhoun’s documentation of the last year reflects – in a similar sense to the survival and transformation of the negatives that make up Right to Return – the ways in which their community has dealt with the traumas of the pandemic, social unrest and the ever present threat of the region’s hurricane season: to find the resilience that allows them to look beyond the damage.
Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun founded the L9 Center for the Arts in 2007 and continue to run arts programmes and photography workshops for young people in the Lower Ninth Ward. They were awarded the 2021 Southern Prize and State Fellowship.