Fillip 12 — Fall 2010

When the Levees Break
Kristina Lee Podesva

After 9/11, Hurricane Katrina was the next incomprehensible disaster found writ large in pictures and in the papers. Both events leave behind a bruised and swollen legacy, filling up image banks with records that testify to not only the actuality of such catastrophes, but the frequency of their documentation. Retrospectively, this legacy tells us something about how we look at these events and what it means to see them in the way that we do. While the images play out on a public stage, they also affect us privately and profoundly. Susan Sontag’s inaugural experience of photographic horror—discovering images of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau in a Santa Monica bookstore when she was twelve—forever divided her life into two periods: the before and after (of knowing).1 Accounts of 9/11 and Katrina seem to split our experience along similar temporal and paradigmatic lines. 
Although 9/11, as event, has enacted tectonic-scale shifts in culture and politics, its pictures do not occupy a primary space. Rather, its video is what adheres to that singular, stubborn spot, which sets precedent apart from subsequent, playing over and over in a continuous cataclysmic loop. Images of Katrina, halting and silent, likewise spotlight a terrible, unrecognizable territory that divides contemporary experience into legible before and after(shocks). Echoing 9/11 and yet significantly departing from it, these images demand anew our attention and outrage. 

Records of both events, whether video or photographic, attest to the unbearable, but the destruction of the Twin Towers had been imagined before, cooked up and served hot in the cinema.2 By contrast, Katrina’s unfathomability stops us cold. Looking back over Katrina’s occurrence and aftermath, it is easy enough to trace some of its causes and effects. Still, no matter which logic we choose or conjure in an attempt to explain this episode within the annals of human history, its possibility remains unthinkable and shameful. The resulting analyses of what went wrong and who deserves blame are much too familiar—and, therefore, forgettable—compounding the disaster. Like you, probably, I am tired, exhausted even, by such forensic acrobatics, which constantly revisit the same old evidence and come to the same conclusions about the usual (and recidivist) suspects of racism and classism. These repeated structural offenses are stupefying, their patterns at once infuriating and paralyzing.

Nevertheless, faced with the specific redundancies of social disaster made manifest by the images and reality of Katrina, I am compelled to ask what can be learned that is different, productive, and meaningful from this catalogue of suffering. To return to Sontag, I think it is imperative that we look at these images in order to uncover “an ethics of seeing”3 for our time. Of course, the critical question then becomes, which images?

Today, it is through the digital lens that the professional and amateur photographer join the journalist and blogger alike to frame and capture the world around them, editioning, indexing, and broadcasting representations through potentially endless iterations and channels. While it is theoretically possible that Katrina has produced 
a range of perspectives, the truth is that the complicated digital structure, which finds constant expression and accumulation online in news sites, Twitter feeds, and social networks, among other platforms, allows for far less diversity. It is simply too difficult to access all relevant images among the amassing, if not overloading, cache of quotidiana, whose volume effectively discourages us from looking too deeply, too closely. But the spectrum of images is not lost in our failure to search for its depth and breadth alone. It is misplaced, in large part, by that system of distribution, which selectively closes the gaps between particular images and audiences. In this case, where the camera is a filter for reality, the Web browser is a filter for the lens and for multiple other technologies that facilitate ways of seeing and knowing in the age of information.

Thus, due to filtration, and arguably a kind of titration, we know Katrina primarily through an abbreviated set of image-based narratives established according to the standards and interests of photojournalism. This is the general outline. Beyond this schematic profile, the details remain, once again, prosaic and poor; i.e., even before looking at these photos, we can already anticipate the exploitation of human subjects, the prevailing scenes of devastation, the disproportionate portrayal of black bodies dead or desperate. This is not to say that these images do not convey a certain reality,4 but that as a whole they turn us away from its kaleidoscopic complexity and toward its distortions and reductions, which we settle on and accept despite aroused suspicions.5

And we should kno­w better. Thirty years ago Roland Barthes argued that photographic images could be transmitted only telegraphically, incompletely. They correspond with us by myth, he reasoned, with the intention of “reconciling the photograph with society.”6 The force with which these mythologies tranquilize social and cultural anxieties and naturalize the stereotypes and prejudices that result from those anxieties is alarming because it possesses an enormous authoritative power, demonstrated by what Barthes deems the photograph’s essence: “to ratify what it represents.”7 It follows that on such flimsy foundations of myth, only colossal errors in judgment and disposition can endure (and have done so, ergo, the persistence of racism, classism, and so forth).

Despite the best efforts of the mainstream media to set the primer coat of meaning and interpretation on the reception of disastrous events,8 their prematurely rendered impressions invite repeated renovation. Taking such an opportunity, I would like to open a discussion of a small subset of Katrina images, which stand apart from the remaining mass, to stimulate reflections on what this subset can tell us not only about the event itself, but its larger context, especially regarding the nature of (and struggle over) publicness within neoliberalization.9 Although the photographs under review run the gamut formally, each possesses at least one compositional feature in common: the proximity of hurricane survivors to a particular, spectacular architecture—the stadium. 

A partial and subjective inventory of 
images taken between August and September 
2005 of the New Orleans Superdome

Exterior shots of the New Orleans Superdome during Hurricane Katrina frequently position the stadium centrally. An assemblage of segmented concrete, its monumental, domed, squeezed-at-the-centre, cylindrical form resembles a hovering spaceship or an ominous, mutant cooling tower from an abandoned nuclear plant. Its presence eerily casts an unheimlich pall over the various scenes to which it is witness, among them: people in parking lots wading through waist-deep water; masses gathered in lines or other indistinct formations; groups arranged (or corralled, depending on version or viewpoint) along fences that separate them from guards wearing fatigues and carrying rifles; a yellow school bus ringed by sardine-can-dense crowds; heaps of garbage peaked with plastic bottles, sagging cardboard boxes, and empty, overturned Styrofoam containers and plastic bins. 

Inside, the stadium: is variously articulated—in panels of faded AstroTurf that surface the playing field floor, in silent scoreboards and billboards, in rectangles and parallelograms formed by empty (as well as occupied) aisles and rows of arena seats. There are people there, too, shown mostly en masse, their numbers suggesting an amalgamation of bodies rather than people, although sometimes individual contours come into focus amidst cots, mats, sleeping bags, blankets, towels, pillows, litter, and all manner of the unidentifiable. The emotional expressions on faces, when discernible, evidence exhaustion, preoccupation, desperation, and ennui. Within these images, people drag carts and bags crammed with emergency cargo, and with these images they are “dragged into history.”10

Victims of the hurricane simultaneously serve as victims of photography, cameras, and photographers.11 Their double-duty victimhood has its purpose, made intelligible but no less palatable by Martha Rosler in her essay “In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography),” in which she elucidates the following: In the liberal documentary, poverty and oppression are almost invariably equated with misfortunes caused by natural disasters: Causality is vague, blame is not assigned, fate cannot be overcome.12 Thus, inevitable misery befalls les misérables, whose afflictions materialize without warning, cause, or known perpetrators. There is no one ever to blame in these scenes, only perverse productions to behold. 

And what about the refugee, the third, unanticipated role in this unfolding drama of victimization? After all, didn’t Katrina transform the Superdome13 into an encampment? From professional sports and concert venue to an officially named “refuge of last resort,” the multi-purpose stadium saw the conversion of its arena into an arena-camp, concurrently transforming 20,000 evacuees into refugees as conditions and the fact of displacement hardened in the week after the hurricane touched down and broke the levees that had once protected the city from flooding.14 As the waters began to encircle the stadium, the Superdome and its stranded inhabitants became a civic and architectural “island,”15 effectively cut off from the rest of American and world society—that is, until the quick re-establishment of news wires and satellite uplinks, which initiated one-way transmissions out of the Superdome and into an array of elsewheres.

While these transmissions did centre-stage the overwhelming material and emotional damage wrought by Katrina at the Superdome, they also incidentally pointed to an equivalence within that space—between sites of spectatorship and spectacle. As occupants of both the stadium’s seats and football field—or “main event” space—evacuees ruptured the prescribed “sight-specificity” of stadium architecture by looking not in one direction (i.e., toward the field or stage), but at one another and all around, suggesting a spectator-spectacle merger. Of course, Jean Baudrillard long ago anticipated the fusion of such affiliates,16 so this is not necessarily remarkable unto itself. What does warrant further attention, however, is whether or not these images signify something other than a collapse of the border between the spectacle17 and its audiences.

I would like to turn now to another set of exceptional stadium images for clues. Invariably black and white, this series of photographs shows young soldiers (identifiable by their helmets, uniforms, and machine guns) appearing to guard a soccer pitch from a group of men who stand or sit, scattered among the surrounding arena’s rows and rows of bench seating. Wool sweaters, button-down shirts, and corduroy blazers clad most of these men. While it is difficult to read the affective register of this group with certainty, it does not seem as if any one man, or the entire collection for that matter, could threaten the soldiers or pitch. Without weapons themselves, these men would have had little chance of mounting an attack even if they wished to do so. Moreover, their body language communicates symptoms not of aggression, but of confusion and preoccupation—brows furrowed, heads scratched, hands pocketed, lips pursed, arms folded. Their gazes are isotropic, going everywhere, failing to take singular focus or shape. They appear to be, much like their stadium counterparts at the Superdome, waiting....

In fact, these soldiers were not so much guarding the soccer field as they were following orders, assuming panoptic positions to surveil those gathered in the bleachers, a forced assembly of political prisoners detained at Santiago’s National Stadium (Estadio Nacional). Taken in the wake of the coup d’état that ousted and assassinated the democratically elected President Salvador Allende and installed General Augosto Pinochet to power on September 11, 1973, these detainees first began internment on September 12, the day after the coup.18 For nearly two months following, Pinochet’s junta brought in over ten thousand people, imprisoning them within the Estadio and its adjacent grounds. With little food or water and in unsanitary living conditions, these detainees suffered uncommonly, and their brutal, and sometimes fatal, interrogations, designed to root out sympathies for Allende’s presidency and socialist politics, added specific terror to a general misery in an act of ultimate dehumanization—the conversion of fellow citizens into objects of ideology. 

For David Harvey, the coup in Chile prefaced the “first experiment with neoliberal state formation”19 in world history, putting to test the theory of neoliberalism, which advocates for “political economic practices” that privilege “individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.”20 The theory casts the state in a very specific and limited role, as guarantor of “the quality and integrity of money,” which has carte blanche only in regard to the deployment of the “military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and...the proper functioning of markets.”21 “But beyond these tasks the state should not venture,”22 Harvey’s (very abridged) theory goes.

The Chile example illustrates that neoliberalism is not just a theory, but an existing process, otherwise known as neoliberalization.23 In the UK and the US, the theory and process have moved from the ideological periphery to the mainstream under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair, and Bill Clinton, to name a few chief conduits and culprits. In effect, this process has slowly but surely eaten away at the state’s fiscal ability to provide public services to its citizens and has tampered with the state’s political rhetoric (e.g., the discourse of politicians), which expresses support for services that secure private interests in property and free markets, but shrinks away from supporting public services that fall outside the domain of neoliberal values.

If we take up again those images of people waiting inside the Superdome and the Estadio, 
we might ask: What are they waiting for? Are they, like Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for someone and something specific, and receive nothing and no one? Allow me to entertain the idea that these images indicate, or rather testify to, the distorted ambitions as well as the appalling consequences of neoliberalization vis-à-vis publicness, by which I mean a relationship in, or crucial struggle over, space and social and political life, whose actions are “relatively public” rather than “relatively private.”24 Since no space, neither physical nor metaphorical, has perfectly explicit or static boundaries, any notion of a public or private sphere—Jurgen Habermas’s notwithstanding—necessitates ongoing and contingent reappraisals. With all this in mind, I am no longer able to look at images of the Superdome during Katrina and primarily see a spectacle of suffering, nor do I focus on the media’s exploitation of that imagery, nor do I fixate on the equivalence drawn between spectators and spectacle shown in this extensive documentation. Rather, these images now tell of a revelation or confirmation of the logical and gruesome outcomes of neoliberalization.25

Like the Superdome, the National Stadium—by virtue of its use rather than its architectural design—saw the transformation of an arena into an arena-camp, but far from a “refuge of last resort,” the junta instead activated the Estadio as a space of incarceration, execution, rape, and torture, forcefully symbolizing and monumentalizing the state’s repressive power and its obliteration of democratic politics. Much like the Superdome, the Estadio’s initial period of “alternative occupation” took place sub rosa—a period in which detainees, not unlike Katrina’s evacuees, were segregated and dressed up as deviants of so-called society. What the images of the prisoners and soldiers show in the Estadio is not the literal use of violence against neoliberalism’s naysayers, but the absurdity of a concept in which (potential) dissent or a (potential) desire for publicness receives an audience of soldiers, and that (political) silence keeps one in the spectacular waiting room of torture chambers and other beastly spaces.

Based on the images of the Superdome and the Estadio discussed thus far, we can trace some of the extreme effects of neoliberalization, which oscillate somewhere between forced imprisonment and wretched abandonment. In them we can also recognize individuals waiting, as passive players rather than interactive extras (à la Baudrillard), for a publicness that will never come. They are the S.O.S. signals of a society whose publicness is under siege. We are thus compelled to trade in this evidence against neoliberalization for something better. When the levees break, we must do something, anything at all, to “hold the terrible silence at bay.”26

  1. See Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), 20.

  2. By way of example, both the films Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998) depicted the destruction of the Twin Towers.
  3. Sontag, On Photography, 5.

  4. All photographs, as Roland Barthes characterizes them, are noemes, which bear witness to an event “that-has-been,” presuming they have not been doctored, which is today a legitimate concern because of potential digital manipulation. See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 77.

  5. Here, I do not mean to discount the existing analytical work regarding images of Katrina, but to advocate, moving forward, for an examination that does not simply confirm the structural problems of racism and classism that underlie the disaster. For a study of how media images of Katrina privilege racist and classist stereotypes, see Eric S. Jenkins, “Seeing Katrina: Perspectives of Judgement in a Cultural  /  Natural Disaster,” Visual Communication Quarterly 14, no. 2 (2007), 90–107, and Shannon Kahle, Nan Yu, and Erin Whiteside, “Another Disaster: An Examination of Portrayals of Race in Hurricane Katrina Coverage,” Visual Communication Quarterly 14, no. 2 (2007), 75–89.

  6. Barthes, Camera Lucida, 28.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Daniel C. Hallin argues that the role of the journalist is not to reveal information, but “to serve as an advocate or celebrant of consensus values.” See Daniel C. Hallin, The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 117.

  9. I will further define what I mean by both publicness and neoliberalization after discussing the images, but for more on publicness within this issue, refer to the texts by Sven Lütticken and Sean Dockray. For more on neoliberalism, see Jeff Derksen’s insightful contribution.

  10. I take this quotation from an essay by Martha Rosler regarding the treatment of human subjects within the tradition of American documentary photography. See Martha Rosler, “In, Around, And Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography),” in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001 (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2004), 187.

  11. Martha Rosler writes, Let us consider the Bowery again, the site of victim photography in which the victims, insofar as they are now victims of the camera—that is, of the photographer…, ibid., 178.

  12. Ibid., 179.

  13. And weeks later, Houston’s Reliant Astrodome also housed Katrina’s remaining evacuees.

  14. For a sense of those abominable conditions, see Spike Lee’s documentary on Hurricane Katrina When the Levees Broke, DVD (New York: HBO Documentary Films, 2006).

  15. Charlie Hailey describes this initial isolation of the stadium: The floodwaters transformed the Superdome’s site into an island, the arena’s design sealed the interior conditions from easy visualization…., in his book Camps (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2009), 363.

  16. Jean Baudrillard theorized that reality and we, ourselves, were all constituents of the spectacle when he writes: We are no longer alienated and passive spectators but interactive extras [figurants interactifs]; we are the meek lyophilized members of this huge “reality show.” See an online version of Baudrillard’s 1996 “Disneyworld Company” at

  17. For different takes on the spectacle, see the essays by Julian Myers and Eric Kluitenberg in this issue.

  18. For more on the Estadio Nacional as a detention and torture centre in the aftermath of the coup, see the documentary Estadio Nacional National Stadium, DVD, Carmen Luz Parot (New York: Latin American Video Archives, 2001).

  19. See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 7–8. Harvey explains how once Pinochet terrorized the Chilean people, silenced dissent, and dismantled the nationalized programs and collective forms of labour organization implemented by Allende’s government, he tasked economists, steeped in the neoliberal philosophy of Milton Friedman, with restructuring the Chilean economy, which bottomed out a mere nine years later in the 1982 debt crisis of Latin America, testifying to neoliberalism’s economic impotence. 

  20. Ibid., 2.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Ibid. 

  23. Ibid., 156. 

  24. I quote here from D. Mitchell and L. A. Staeheli’s “Public Space” discussion of Nancy Fraser’s “concept of subaltern counterpublic spheres,” which holds that [t]here is no bright line between public and private. Rather, the boundary between the two is always socially constructed under specific conditions, and therefore a site of significant struggle. In this regard it is useful to understand actions as relatively public or relatively private…, 513. International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, eds. Nigel Thrift and Rob Kitchin, 511–16, Elsevier Science,

  25. I am also reminded of the value in David Harvey’s project: The more neoliberalism is recognized as a failed utopian rhetoric masking a successful project for the restoration of ruling-class power, the more the basis is laid for a resurgence of mass movements voicing egalitarian political demands and seeking economic justice, fair trade, and greater economic security. See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 203.

  26. This quote comes from a theatre review in the Times (London) of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The Times, December 31, 1964. I take this rather incomplete reference from James R. Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 71. Interestingly, the quote is often incorrectly attributed to the play itself.

Image: Prisoners at the National Stadium, Santiago, Chile, 1973. Photo by Marcelo Montecino.

About the Author

Kristina Lee Podesva is Editor of Fillip.

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