New Orleans resident Jennifer Shaw started taking pictures as a young girl, worked "rather obsessively in the darkroom by the age of fifteen," and studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. She was nine months pregnant when hurricane Katrina unfurled itself on the city. She recreated the experience in her photo book Hurricane Story — using a Holga camera and action figures in miniature tableaux.
1. Tell us a little bit about who you are and where you live.
I'm a photographer and a mother of two wild young boys. New Orleans is my adopted hometown. I came here after college for the magic and mystery, and stayed for the freedom and sense of community.
2. What do you do there?
I work as a fine art photographer, teach darkroom photography part-time at a girls' school, and am the volunteer organizer of an annual photography festival called PhotoNOLA.
3. What is the name of your project?
4. When was it published (and by whom)?
It was published this summer by Chin Music Press, a wonderful independent publisher based in Seattle, with a mission to create books that are "literary objects" — a pleasure to touch as well as read. It's a small press, so each project gets lots of love and attention. Hurricane Story was released under their Broken Levee Books imprint, which is dedicated to New Orleans titles.
5. How did the project come about?
I suppose having a baby on the day that Katrina devastated New Orleans was just too much chaos and change all at once. So after a little time had passed, and we were able to settle back into some semblance of normalcy, I started processing all that through my photography. My first post-K project was nature documentary, but in the months spent shooting the physical destruction, I came to realize that I really needed to tell my own story.
6. What's up with the mini props you used? How did you come up with that idea? And where did you find the toys?
I think it all started with the king cake baby.* We had a few hanging out on our spice shelf, and one day something just clicked. I pulled out a modified macro camera for some test shots, liked the results, and started building the narrative from there.
The acquisition of toys was a really fun part of the process. I borrowed them from friends' children, scoured the dollar stores, found things on eBay (pregnant doll! Toyota Tacoma Matchbox truck!). I often modified the objects to make them look more like the people or events depicted — painting, sculpting, and, in some cases, even sewing costumes.
7. What's the next (untold) chapter of your hurricane story?
We are lucky to still be in our home, which is on high ground by the Mississippi and only suffered wind damage. One of Katrina's silver linings was the rebirth of civic activism, and I have been very involved in a small piece of the cultural rebuilding, helping to form the New Orleans Photo Alliance — a nonprofit in support of the photographic arts — and spearheading the PhotoNOLA festival, which will celebrate its' sixth year this December. Another positive outcome from the storm has been the revamping of the public education system, and we're delighted to have found a great new charter school for our oldest son (the hurricane baby) after a very educational investigation into many worthy choices. I am in awe of all of the passionate dedicated educators who are working to make a difference here, and feel quite hopeful about the long-term changes this could engender.
8. What are you working on now?
I have a series called Nature/Nurture, which is soon to be published in a limited edition folio book by North Light Press. I've also been shooting my real kids for several years (as opposed to little plastic stand-ins) and will start printing images from that series as soon as I can get back into the darkroom again.
9. Any travel advice for people heading to New Orleans?
The Musee Wax Conti in the French Quarter is a hidden wonder. It's not your typical wax museum, and features a fairly dark and surreal introduction to Louisiana history. Napoleon in a bathtub — need I say more?
10. And what about a favorite place to eat?
Dick & Jenny's restaurant, Uptown. Treat yourself to fine food in a casual atmosphere. Added bonus: It's one block from Tipitina's, one of my favorite live music venues.
FOR YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE
Hurricane Story, by Jennifer Shaw
*Note: A Louisiana-style king cake is a traditional pastry associated with Mardi Gras. A small trinket (like a plastic figurine baby) is baked into the cake. The person who receives the slice with the baby inside is obligated to host next year's Mardi Gras party. It's quintessentially New Orleans.