Pittsburgh native documents Katrina aftermath

Pittsburgh native Susie Shapira has made a career of taking photographs of natural and human devastation. Her latest project, titled Hurricane Katrina: One Year On, is coming to Garfield Artworks this Wednesday for a one-night-only showing at 7 p.m. It will include over 40 images of the wreckage, victims, and rebirth that followed one of the nation’s most severe natural tragedies.

Shapira’s exhibit draws from two locations: Mississppi and New Orleans. Following Katrina’s initial impact, Shapira shot a collection of images of the destruction in Mississippi; she then returned eight or nine months later to reshoot some of the same sites. Combining the photographs from both ventures, Shapira was able to create some moving and inspirational before-and-after displays which demonstrate how areas that once appeared hopelessly ruined were eventually revived.

Additionally, much of Shapira’s presentation is from several months she spent this year in New Orleans, from April to early August. Here she covers residential damage, neighborhoods that were almost entirely wiped out by the storm. Shapira also took pictures of wreckage left over from months after Katrina first hit New Orleans. Shapira was shocked by how little had been repaired over time, unlike in Mississippi. “Frankly,” she said, “I was disgusted at the fact that I arrived at New Orleans in April to a city that had barely been cleaned up.”

Shapira, who lived in New Orleans for a short time in 1999, noted that the tone of the city has changed significantly. The parts of New Orleans that were the most significant to local culture were also the most devastated by the storm. Meanwhile, Katrina did little to no harm to many of the city’s tourist destinations, which were often at relatively higher elevations. “The French Quarter, by some miracle of God, was not damaged,” Shapira explained. As a result, current visitors to the city might underestimate Katrina’s lasting impact. Shapira said, “It’s almost like the storm didn’t happen.”

Shapira aims to remind America of the hardships experienced by some of its people. “That’s my mission,” she said. Shapira resents the media’s narrow-minded coverage of Katrina. Though many news broadcasts highlighted the devastation in context of the affected demographics, the storm did not target its victims by race or economic class. Shapira’s exhibit contains photographs of wealthy communities, as well as lower-class areas, destroyed by the impact.

“It’s what I do.”

“I shoot emergencies, generally speaking,” said Shapira. “It’s always difficult; it’s always emotional.” Shapira attributes her passion for documenting such radical subject matter in part to her background in public health. Her portfolio also includes landscapes and portraits of adults and children, some of which are currently on display in the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, but exposing her audiences to issues of global concern has proven to be her calling.

Shapira has done her share of globetrotting in recent years. Her work has taken her to Ethiopia in the pursuit of images capturing the effects of widespread famine and malnutrition; she also visited Argentina following its 2001 economic collapse, as well as Niger after the 2005 food crisis. Shapira traveled twice to Sri Lanka, once immediately after the 2004 tsunami and again for its one-year anniversary.

Katrina, however, was her first photographic expedition that did not require a trip out of the country. “It’s very jarring,” she explained. “It makes you realize that this happened to people like you.” Though the media are guilty of distorting certain elements of the Katrina aftermath, Shapira noted one news item that she said unfortunately has not been exaggerated: The Katrina relief efforts have done little to help the city of New Orleans. “It’s something you wouldn’t ever believe of the United States of America,” said Shapira, speaking of the government’s inefficacy.

Shapira learned from her travels that New Orleans, even now, is a mess. The cost of living has skyrocketed, and utilities like water, electricity, and phone service are spotty at best. “You have to really, really want to be in New Orleans right now,” she said. “It’s been a fight every day there. It’s chaos.”

As far as rebuilding is concerned, those involved have a lot of work ahead of them. “I am really trying to sort of encourage people to go and see for themselves,” Shapira said. In addition to using her photography as a platform to educate her audiences, Shapira is sending a portion of her sales from Katrina: One Year On to the charitable organizations Habitat for Humanity and Operation Reach. The show at Garfield Artworks will also feature a donation box for any who are interested in contributing to the revitalization of New Orleans.

“The city is changing.”

Shapira has already lived to see an American city undergo a radical, albeit different, transformation — the city of Pittsburgh. Though she grew up here, Shapira has only recently discovered Pittsburgh to be an up-and-coming center for the arts. Some of her friends from high school who moved back to the city noticed the change and suggested to Shapira that she bring her exhibit here. Shapira mentioned that Pittsburgh is an attractive cultural environment in part because it is full of receptive minds. “Pittsburgh has a great audience right now,” said Shapira, enthusiastic about the development. “It’s great for Pittsburgh.”