Editor’s note: This is the third post in a series highlighting photographers commissioned by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta for its “Picturing the South” collection. New work from Martin Parr, Shane Lavalette and Kael Alford will be exhibited at the museum beginning in June.
Given an assignment to document the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the Louisiana coastline, photographer Kael Alford turned it into a five-year endeavor to reconnect with a portion of her heritage.
With the assistance of a commission from the High Museum in Atlanta, Alford explored the birthplace of her maternal grandmother that is still home of the Native American families from which Alford descended.
Hit hard by Katrina and again by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the marshlands of Louisiana are in trouble. The coastline is eroding, threatening the ecosystem as well as a way of life.
Through her work, Alford strives to show the human side of the problem. Bill Boling, the publisher of her upcoming book from the project, “Bottom of 'da Boot,” says Alford has “this unflinching eye that is also a loving eye and able to see the beauty and dignity of the people that are facing these challenges.”
Boling sees Alford’s work as both journalistic and artistic, which allows her to tell the story of Louisiana with depth.
“It tells a broader, deeper story about what’s happening to these people but also what’s happening to our coastline,” Boling said. "I mean, this is really a microcosm for a bigger issue.”
Before Louisiana, Alford spent an extended amount of time covering wars, including as an independent journalist in Iraq who didn’t embed with the Army. Boling attributes her ability to connect to people to this experience.
“She’s able to (capture photographs) in a way that shows the dignity of the people,” he explained. “She’s able to show the challenges they’re facing. And I think that probably comes from her seeing humans in war settings and very difficult situations.”
Alford also has a personal connection to Louisiana and the people who lived there. Her maternal grandmother was born in the area, linking Alford and the current residents by a bond of blood, a connection that – coupled with five years of repeat visits – allowed her to connect with her subjects.
“Even though these aren’t people she grew up with or she doesn’t know them as immediate family members, she knows that she’s from this tribe, so to speak. So there’s that poignancy of that personal connection. Kael is showing us this impact through the lens of the human beings, their homes,” Boling said.
Boling feels that Alford’s work can inspire people to take action to help those struggling with the erosion of Louisiana’s coast.
“I think that (Alford) would want you to feel that these are our neighbors,” he said. “That we as their neighbors ought to want to help out. I think that you can’t look at all these pictures without saying, ‘Wow, this is really an amazing place. These people are very special, and we should try to do something to help them if we can.’ That’s what I feel when I look at them.”
– Cody McCloy, CNN