Clinical social worker and photographer who explores spirituality and the sense of loss brought on by disasters such as Hurricane Katrina (2005) and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (2010)
Having completed degrees in social work she studied photography at Evanston Art Center, Columbia College Chicago, and the School of the Art Institute Chicago. Her first monograph “Look and Leave: Photographs and Stories from New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward” was published by the Center for American Places (2009). She was a winner in the Critical Mass Top 50, 2011 and was a PDN 2011 Curators Choice. Her photographs are held in a number of significant collections including the Museum of Fine Arts; Houston, Texas, New Orleans Museum of Art and the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Photographic History Collection). Recent series includes "The Burn" which focuses on controlled burns in Lake Forest, Illinois and run by the Lake Forest Open Lands Association. Her work is represented by the Corden Potts Gallery. Click this link to view her website.
This email was sent by Jane Fulton Alt after she first arrived in New Orleans to her close friends and family.
So here I am and wondering how and why I got here. went to the lower 9th district in New Orleans..the worst hit by the storm.
i felt like i was in a war zone.
some of the military here said it felt and looked just like what they experienced in iraq only worse because there is no way these residents could ever return... how to get your mind around it all. words fail me... it is grey, desolate, strange, with refrigerators sitting on the roof tops, houses that have turned on their sides, migrated across streets, cars trapped under homes..... There is a street intersection called Flood and Law.
I went on 4 bus rides through the devastation yesterday. The first was with the relief team I am on...they took us to the actual spot where the levee broke...for 3 whole blocks next to the levee nothing but an expanse of grey nothingness...The ground all over the area is grey, cracked, dry, mud...nothing is living with the exception of an occasional cat, dog or rooster. The rescue teams that are still going in are leaving big trays of dog and cat food for the remaining pets. There are still using the "cadaver canines" in their searches.
i felt sick to my stomach after the first viewing. As the day progressed, I went on 3 other trips with the former residents on a "look and leave" program. They return to a site (with porta potties, no tents o electricity). There is a red cross, salvation army, sisters of mercy mobile medical clinic and national guard presence. There are folding tables where the residents can sign in to go on a bus. Several relief workers go on the bus to "be there" for the residents. People traveled as far as Indiana to see their homes. For many, they have one day here as they have no place to spend the night in New Orleans...except in their cars. So this is their first viewing. It was like attending a funeral. This community was very tight with many families having lived there for 5 generations. I would hear about Aunt Bessie’s house, grandmas house, that was were my aunt lived, our church, the laundromat....where is the house that used to be here...many homes were lifted and moved whole blocks away before put to their final resting place. As the structures have dried out, they have become unstable with many collapsing from day to day. One woman I was sitting next to kept repeating how she thought she was in a nightmare and hoped she would wake up. She started singing to herself...the probable beginnings of many new spiritual/gospel songs to come. On seeing her family home she said "look how tall she is standing." The bus drivers try to accommodate each resident but there are some streets that are blocked with debris and displaced homes. There is a lot of confusion. The drivers want each resident to be able to see and photograph their homes but the police often trail the bus to be sure they stay on route (although yesterday was an exception because the police were too busy with Prince Charles's visit to the area). Anyway, because of the physical dangers, the residents are not supposed to get off the bus, much less walk up to their homes...this rule gets bent a lot depending on the driver.
By the end of the day, I had a headache. I found out at our team meeting that many of us had one. It is difficult to know if it was from eye strain or the air quality which is terrible. There is a lot of mold in the air which is another reason they want the residents to stay on the buses.I know I am rambling but please bear with me. I feel like I am in the eye of the storm although I know this area is very different than it was 2 months ago. So many stories...from a young man in the national guard who stayed in the Superdome, to the resident across the street who spent 4 nights living in terror as he heard the looters going from home to home with their guns...with no electricity or city noise, one could hear and feel everything acutely....he said he can deal with the disasters of nature but when humankind shows its brutal side it is beyond his scope of understanding.
so much for now...it is in the wee hours of the morning and I need to prepare for my second day here.
Help, courtesy © Jane Fulton Alt
Photographer Jane Fulton Alt says one of the things she learned from the people of New Orleans is that there is a whole range of human responses to tragedy. Hers was to step out into the dangerously polluted devastation of what was the Lower Ninth Ward and record what she found. The compelling photographs of "Look and Leave" are part of Fulton Alt's ongoing work to preserve the stories of those who lived through the tragedy and to help residents rebuild their lives. She saw — and stayed to help.
As a social worker, Fulton Alt accompanied residents back to the Lower Ninth Ward, sealed off in the aftermath of the hurricane, to see their homes. The stories they told her of their experiences during the hurricane and its aftermath were unforgettable. There was the ragged, troubled woman who shouted obscenities and said that she had seen her mother drown. There was the woman who, trapped in her attic, could hear neighbors pounding on their attic walls, could hear them drowning.
Fulton Alt explored the Lower Ninth at dusk to document evidence of people's lives after hearing their stories all day, as well as at dawn. Her efforts were part of the "Look and Leave" program organized by the city of New Orleans and the American Red Cross. Fulton Alt's exhibition at the DePaul University Art Museum, Look and Leave: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina, was recognized as one of the top five photography museum shows in Chicago in 2006. She's publishing those photos in an upcoming book, Look and Leave: Photographs and Stories from New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward, proceeds from which will help to raise funds for New Orleans charities. (For more details, see "What Jane Fulton Alt is Doing to Help," below.)
"When it's all said and done," she says, "it doesn't matter how much money you make, where you live, where you work, what you do — it matters how well you love, how well we take care of each other."
Purple Glasses, courtesy © Jane Fulton Alt
This project grew out of having witnessed the aftermath of an unprecedented and devastating natural disaster. As a clinical social worker I spent two weeks providing care and comfort to the survivors of Katrina, a deadly hurricane that passed through the south in August of 2005. I was stationed in New Orleans and worked with a pppprogram called "Look and Leave." The residents who had been dispersed to 48 states were "invited" back to view their homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood that suffered not only the hurricane, but two breaks in a levee that drowned the community. I accompanied the residents back into their homes for the first time since they fled.
I have been in mourning ever since. The stories I heard had one thing in common: they were all heartbreaking.
These images are my attempt to describe what I saw. I hope these images will ensure that the survivors and the ever changing landscape of the Lower Ninth Ward will not be forgotten.
There was a little girl on the bus and as they were driving through the neighborhood, she started singing "This Little Light of Mine, I'm Gonna Let it Shine." Everybody on the bus knew it and within about ten minutes everybody on the bus was singing the song.
Genesis, courtesy © Jane Fulton Alt
You'd have this family that were living maybe half a mile away and have terrible coughs. There were all kinds of upper respiratory problems and you knew that it was from the environment.
There was one woman, she'd sent her kids on ahead and she was stuck in her attic. She said that she could hear people pounding on their attics; she could hear people going under the water, the gurgling. She saw alligators, fish and snakes in the water. She said it was just terrifying but she did manage to survive somehow.
It was hot and muggy. You would breathe in the air and you'd get in your mouth sort of this metallic taste that you couldn't get rid of. By the end of the day, you'd kind of have this coating of stuff on you.
Andry Street, courtesy © Jane Fulton Alt
That's a wedding photograph — a portrait of the wedding party. I had an exhibit in Chicago and everyone thought the pictures were black and white. They figured I just shot black and white but I didn't. They were all color pictures.
Mostly you felt helpless and angry and sad, but also invigorated by some of the stories from these people, the resilience. You get the whole gamut of human behavior and human response.
Blue Cup, courtesy © Jane Fulton Alt
I just listened. There's not much you can say. I think it really helped. Everybody has to tell their stories, even the woman that I rented the car from at the airport. We all said that we went to the same car rental place and she told her story to each and everyone one of us. When you're traumatized like that you just have to keep talking about it.
Stop, courtesy © Jane Fulton Alt
There was a national guardsman who was singing. He was a gospel singer and he told us that he would be singing in the Superdome, at the top of his lungs, trying to sing these gospels to calm himself down and calm everybody else down. And when he was on[our] site, he did a beautiful rendition of "Amazing Grace." It was great. Everybody loved it — the residents, the mental health workers ...
Jesus Car, courtesy © Jane Fulton Alt
It was like being in a war zone. The first time I went through the neighborhoods, I just felt so physically sick to my stomach, I thought I was going to throw up. It was so horrible — the air is toxic, everything.
Everything was dead. There was nothing alive. Everything was coated with ash. I think one of my most vivid moments was when I left the Lower Ninth and we had dinner in the French Quarter one night and walked by this tree — maybe a jasmine tree. I have never smelled something so lush, so out of this world. Oh my god, it was fresh, it was alive. Having been where there was nothing living and then the juxtaposition of this jasmine plant. I'll never forget how wonderful that smell was.
No Entry, courtesy © Jane Fulton Alt
I think, for the first time, the pictures found me. I didn't go looking for the pictures. On the last night before we all went back to our respective homes, we talked about how we are the ambassadors for the people that we served and that we needed to keep their stories alive, and their needs in focus. That was our job when we returned home. Having these pictures just makes it a whole lot easier to do that.
Not As Seen On TV, courtesy © Jane Fulton Alt
What Jane Fulton Alt is Doing to Help:
• She is currently working on a book titled Look and Leave: Photographs and Stories from New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward, which will be published by The Center for American Places, to be released in August of 2009. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to charity. For more information, view her Web site.
• She has been getting her images and her story out to the public through interviews, exhibitions, and a You Tube multimedia presentation.
• She organized and hosted a fundraising Mardi Gras party that raised $32,000 for a new health clinic in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Listen to Jane describe this fundraising effort, in her own words.
• Alt returns to New Orleans every few months to continue documenting the changing landscape and to stay in touch with the community.
Chandelier, courtesy © Jane Fulton Alt
Words of Praise for Jane Fulton Alt:
"In Look and Leave, Jane Fulton Alt turns the human heart into a shutter lens. Her photographs and stories of the men, women, and families brought into New Orleans's Ninth Ward for a last look at the ruin and spoil of their homes is a pointed, quiet celebration of worthy lives, unbowed by devastation. These pictures will stay inside your heart, and remind you how photographs can be, as a little girl sings through her surgical mask, 'This little light of mine.'" -Scott Simon, National Public Radio
Pink House on Truck, courtesy © Jane Fulton Alt
"The most photogenic disaster in American history since the Civil War (© Matthew Brady) was met by photographers with an averted gaze, precisely because it was so photogenic. Alt realized, however, that photogeny is destiny, and she photographed the catastrophe the way it called for: photogenically. Brilliant head-on gazes at what was crying out there gave her camera a direct pass into the underworld of tragic beauty that was the storm. These pictures are the Destroyer's official portraits." -Andrei Codrescu, the author of "The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess."
"Once you call New Orleans home, she never leaves your soul. Her flavors, textures, sights, sounds and most importantly, her people live and breathe in the heart of every person lucky enough to know that special magic. Jane Fulton Alt's photos and stories remind us all to rebuild and rejoice." -Chef Emeril Lagasse
Wedding Party Portrait, courtesy © Jane Fulton Alt
How You Can Help:
The following is a selection of charities that need your help to rebuild New Orleans:
Common Ground - Common Ground's is providing short-term relief for victims of hurricane disasters in the Gulf Coast region, and long-term supporting rebuilding the communities affected in the New Orleans area.
Common Ground Health Clinic - The Common Ground Health Clinic is a non-profit organization that provides free quality health care to the greater New Orleans community, and develops and provides programs to address community health care needs through collaborative partnerships.
Habitat for Humanity - Habitat for Humanity's objective in New Orleans is to build houses in partnership with sponsors, volunteers, communities, and homeowner families. Its mission is to empower families to transform their own lives and to eliminate poverty housing in the New Orleans area while serving as a catalyst to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action.
Make It Right - Founded by Brad Pitt, the mission of Make It Right is to stimulate redevelopment of the Lower Ninth Ward by building a neighborhood comprising safe and healthy homes, with an emphasis on quality design, while preserving the spirit of the community's culture. The goal is to accomplish this quickly so that the first residents can begin returning to their homes as soon as possible.
"Examining Hurricane Katrina from Every Angle" - MSNBC, May 2006. An excerpt from The Great Deluge, written by Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Tulane University. The book recounts Hurricane Katrina from every point of view.
Links for More Information on Hurricane Katrina
"Behind the Facade, a City Left to Rot"- The Guardian, August 2006. An account of the early despondency, ten months after Katrina.
"Right to Return: New Home Movies from the Lower Ninth Ward" - PBS, May 2007. In this video series, host Tavis Smiley accompanies Oscar-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme to visit some of the courageous people who chose to return to New Orleans and rebuild their lives.
"Pitt's Star Power Fuels New Orleans Rebuilding" - NPR, December 2007. Coverage of Brad Pitt's Make It Right project.
Polaroid, courtesy © Jane Fulton Alt
Read Survivors' Stories:
"New Orleans: Survivor Stories"- City Pages, September 2005. Twenty-two pages of detailed first-hand accounts from people trapped in the city after Katrina — what they did, what they saw, how they stayed alive.
Hurricane Digital Memory Bank - The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank uses electronic media to collect, preserve, and present the stories and digital record of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Hurricane Katrina Archive - A comprehensive archive from the New Orleans Times Picayune, which maintained its operations from within New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, often providing stories and information long before the mainstream networks.