After Louisiana Floods, A Photographer Finds Resilience

Aug 26, 2016
Originally published on August 26, 2016 6:34 pm

In Baton Rouge, La., people are using whatever tools they have to help their community recover from the flood.

That includes cameras.

Four photographers have been creating portraits of those affected. Their project, "Humans of the Water," focuses not on what people lost, but on what they saved.

One of those photographers is Collin Richie. He says documentary photography isn't typically his style. Most of his work involves snapping photos for weddings, magazines and corporate advertisements.

But when a local magazine asked him to photograph someone who was using his boat to rescue neighbors from the flood waters, the story drew him in. He went back to photograph another flood victim, and then he went back again. That's how this project was born.

In one of Richie's images, a man is surrounded by thousands of water-soaked photographs scattered over a deck, on tables and chairs, some are weighed down with stones to dry out.

"He was scared of the wind," Richie says. "He didn't want any of the items to blow into the still-flooded yard and take it any worse. You can see albums, too. They're trying to separate the pages. He had lived in the same home for 72 years. He was 82 years old. And so it was, basically he referenced it as his entire family history."

Another photo shows a young man sitting beside an American flag that his roommate brought home after serving in Afghanistan.

"They were both veterans, and it was actually a group of them all live close by, and they were all trying to salvage their Navy medals, their Army medals, their flags, their service flags," Richie says. "Those things were the most important to them."

Richie says what surprised him about working on this project was how humble people were despite all they had lost.

"They ask, 'Why are you taking a picture of me? My neighbor took 7 feet. I took 6 feet,' " he says. "They always related to someone who had it worse. And they don't want the focus to be on them because they know so many of their family and friends are in such a worse spot. They're like, 'Well, I have a place to stay. You need to go photograph these people over here who are still looking.' "

When Richie met people, he would ask them about the one thing they took with them.

"They'd pause, and immediately walk me to the one item," he says. "They knew exactly what was most important."

Many of these photographs capture the role of faith in people's lives. Richie says one of the images that stood out to him was of a man holding a sign that said, "Faith." It was the only item the man recognized that wasn't in complete disarray.

"He took a video of it himself," Richie says. "He wanted to remember that moment. And the video shows him walking into still water in the home, and the faith sign is cock-eyed, and he corrects it. And then the video closes."

Richie's photos not only capture what people were able to save, but also the people who are helping communities rebuild. One of those images shows someone repairing a house.

"You're seeing an influx of contractors from the unflooded areas, and when we approached him, and we started taking his picture I said, 'You don't mind?' And he said, 'You do you're thing, I'll do mine,' " Richie says. "And as we're walking way, he kind of half turned and said, 'Hell of a thing, wasn't it?' And that just was really powerful."

Richie says he hopes this project will inspire photographers elsewhere to do the same when tragedy strikes.

"I think when you're faced with an adversity the size that Louisiana is now, we need everyone to help, and you can help best by doing what you do best," he says. "Everyone has something they're good at, and if we all come together and use our talents, we'll come out of this a lot better."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Baton Rouge, people are using whatever tools they have to help their community recover from the flooding that hit the area a couple weeks ago. And that includes cameras. Four photographers have been creating portraits of those people who've been affected, focusing not on what people lost but on what they saved. They call their project Humans of the Water. My co-host, Ari Shapiro, met one of the photographers.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Documentary photography is not typically Collin Richie's style. Most of his work involves snapping for weddings, magazines, corporate ads. When a local magazine asked him to photograph someone who was using his boat to rescue neighbors from the floodwaters, the story drew him in. He went back to photograph another flood victim. And then he went back again. And that's how this project was born. At his studio in the old part of Baton Rouge, Collin Richie pulled up some of the images on his computer screen.

COLLIN RICHIE: So this is an image of a man named Hilton Pray. And he's surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs. They all took water. And if you notice, they're all over a deck and tables and chairs - everywhere.

SHAPIRO: Some of them are weighted down with stones to dry off.

RICHIE: Yeah. And they - yeah, he was scared of the wind. And he didn't want any of the items to blow into the still-flooded yard and take it any worse. You can see albums, too. They're trying to separate the pages. And he had lived in the same home for 72 years. And he was 82 years old. And so it was - basically, he references it as his entire family history.

SHAPIRO: It's a really compelling photograph because you can't see above his shoulders. You just see these old hands holding this framed photograph with this young family. And it's clearly taken decades ago.

RICHIE: This is a mentor. This is a gentleman, Jeremy Crawford (ph). And he's actually sitting next to an American flag that his roommate brought home after his service in Afghanistan. They are both veterans. And it was actually - a group of them all lived close by. And they were all trying to salvage their Navy medals, their Army medals, their service flags. Those things were the most important to them.

SHAPIRO: So this is somebody repairing a house.

RICHIE: Yeah. You're seeing an influx of contractors from the unflooded areas. And when we approached him, and we started taking his picture, and I said, you don't mind, do you? He said, you do your thing. I'll do mine. And as we're walking away, he kind of half turned and said, hell of a thing, wasn't it? And that just was really powerful.

SHAPIRO: What surprised you about doing this kind of documentary photography? I mean, this is not your typical line of work.

RICHIE: I think what surprised all of us that are working together is how humble people were. They ask, why are you taking a picture of me? My neighbor took seven feet. I took six feet. They always relate it to someone who had it worse. And they don't want the focus to be on them because they know so many of their family and friends are in such a worse spot.

SHAPIRO: And when you asked people about the one thing they took with them, how did they generally react?

RICHIE: They'd pause and immediately walk me to the one item. They knew exactly what was most important.

SHAPIRO: One thing that struck me about a lot of your photographs that I looked at was the role of faith in many people's lives.

RICHIE: Yeah. And one of the images that really spoke to me was a photo of a man named Adam. And he said when he came into his home, the only item that wasn't in disarray that he recognized was a sign that said, faith. And he took a video of it himself. He wanted to remember that moment. And the video shows him walking into still water in the home. And the faith sign's cockeyed. And he corrects it. And then the video closes.

SHAPIRO: And you took a photo of him holding that sign that said, faith. He's wearing a blue tank top and a blue headband. And he's got a kind of scraggly beard, red gloves. And he's holding that sign that says, faith - to hope for things which are not seen but are true. What kind of impact do you see this project having as you watch it go out on social media and other venues?

RICHIE: I hope it would inspire photographers elsewhere, when tragedy hits, to do the same. I think when you're faced with an adversity the size that Louisiana is now, we need everyone to help. And you can help best by doing what you do best. And, you know...

SHAPIRO: So carpenters pick up a hammer. And photographers pick up a camera.

RICHIE: And lawyers start helping with legal needs. People who are good with paperwork start helping people, make sure those FEMA applications are perfect. You know, everyone has something they're good at. And if we all come together and use our talents, we'll come out of this a lot better.

SHAPIRO: Well, Collin, thanks a lot for your time.

RICHIE: Thank you, Ari.

MCEVERS: My co-host Ari Shapiro talking to photographer Collin Richie in Baton Rouge, La. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.