Wednesday, July 2, 2008

On The Corner of Lafayette, State of Louisiana....

(to see a complete collection:  African American Trail

Two weeks ago, on a rainy and cold December day in Philadelphia, I received a call from Glenda McKinley English of GMC Advertising, asking if I could come to Louisiana for a six-day photo shoot the next week. Since several large productions that we were involved with were entering their holiday break period, my schedule was open and the warm weather and adventure beckoned me.

This assignment was outside of my usual lifestyle productions. With only the help of a wonderful account executive named Randy Reves and two bags of camera gear I set out to create a collection of images for the Louisiana Department of Tourism. Because of the tight schedule I only had one hour in each location to create a story. One hour to discover the visual poem that would describe each locations reason for being. One hour to create a photograph that would beckon somebody off their comfortable sofa and motivate them to drive across Louisiana to discover their past. One hour to create a photograph that in a millisecond captures a viewer’s imagination and calls to them, to take a longer look.

When we arrived at each location the first question I had to ask was what was the significance of this place, why was it on the tour? Next I would have to find a visual way to answer that question. I would explore each location from as many angles as possible in order to find the poetry inside its story. Most of these sites were in buildings that were never designed to be museums. Several sites were in small homes, one was in an auditorium, and another museum was retrofitted into a bank building. These buildings presented a challenge to the curators and to me since they were not designed for visual presentations. The name of the game for me became distillation.

One such fine place was in Donalsville, Louisiana. Here there is a small home that a several retired African American Women have turned into a museum that celebrates their community’s heritage from Africa, to slavery, from reconstruction, to segregation, and on to the civil rights movement. This gem was one of 32 Heritage sites spread over 1,400 miles that we photographed during this photo safari marathon week.

Louisiana is a very flat with lots of water in the southern half. The terrain does not vary that much from mile to mile along the interstates or even along the two lane blacktops that link small town to rural hamlet. I spent a great deal of time trying to find views of 200-year-old buildings without showing the 21’s century paraphernalia that engulfs these historic structures. I have often felt that you could travel to all fifty states and take the same photograph; it would be of the strip mall along the highway. While Louisiana offered its share of 21-century visual blandness it also offered many sites that were unique, historic and beautiful.

After 5 days of driving and carrying equipment around, I woke up with a splitting headache in the middle of the night in New Orleans. I had left my Advil in Randy’s car so I ventured out along Bourbon Street searching for an open store. The street was still buzzing with its middle of the night partiers, drunks, crazies and middle age voyeurs when I saw the guy with the sign that advertised “BIG ASSED BEERS!” next to the guy with the “Cross” and the promise of holy salvation. I knew then that all would be well with this world.

Louisiana is a poor state and since hurricane Katrina many of the sites we visited are struggling with the issue of financing their preservation and restoration. Yet even without finical resources the people who run these historic sites are doing an amazing job of preservation and education. Their dedication was truly the most inspiring aspect of this journey.


Zave Smith

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