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Photographing Drama, at Home and Abroad

by Stephen Becker 24 Feb 2012 8:14 AM

A Dallas photographer has spent the last five years documenting changes occurring along Louisiana’s coast. The project is both professional and personal.


House on Eroding Land. Leeville, Louisiana. March 2007. All photos by Kael Alford

A Dallas photographer has spent the last five years documenting changes occurring along Louisiana’s coast. The project is both professional and personal.

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Demonstrators pray outside the green zone where the Interium Iraqi Government and the US embassy are located in Baghdad. The Sadr movement, which represents a powerful spiritual and political force among Shia in Iraq was demanding negotitations to end the military confrontation between U.S. forces and Moqtada Al Sadr's "Mehdi Army" militia who had wrested control of the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, the holiest site in Shia Islam. August 13, 2004

Kael Alford knows what upheaval looks like.

In the 1990s, she photographed the war in the Balkans for American news services. She spent much of 2004 and 2005 documenting the affect the Iraq war had on everyday Iraqis for a book called Unembedded.

For the last five years, the SMU professor has turned her lens toward Louisiana’s Gulf coast. She photographed the region as it was decimated by a pair of major hurricanes and the BP oil spill. While her Iraq photos are visceral, bloody and chaotic, her images from Louisiana show the subtler and lasting affects of disasters.

“After five years, I realized the news cycle likes to pick up on these big stories when they’re big enough and exciting and dramatic enough,” Alford says. “But these issues are there all the time.”

Part of Alford’s interest in the area is personal. Her family traces its roots to the Louisiana coast.

“That’s the plot of land where my great grandfather had a hunting camp,” she says, pointing to one of her photos on an iPad. “So there’s literally nothing in this picture but a grove of trees and an empty field. It’s like the opposite of these high-tension photographs from a conflict zone. But the issues are no less dramatic.”

Kael Alford with one of the people she met while photographing the Isle de Jean Charles off the coast of Louisiana.

Alford’s photographs record communities that are shrinking. Some homes are knocked down by natural disasters. Others are just abandoned by people in search of a better life.

“There are a lot of quiet landscapes like this. A photograph here of a house surrounded by water. And there aren’t even any people in this photograph.”

That quietness is what stands out to her husband, Thorne Anderson. He teaches photojournalism at the University of North Texas.

“It’s been interesting to watch her make that transition to a steadier gaze, rather than her previous work, which was more about capturing events as they were more fleeting past her,” he says. “To go to a place where essentially nothing happens and to spend five years on a tiny little scrap of land, and to stare at something for such a long time, it really produces a different kind of effect.”

The project was commissioned by Atlanta’s High Museum. In June, the museum will host an exhibition of Alford’s work, and an accompanying book will be published. After that, Alford hopes the exhibit will be able to travel to similarly affected areas along the Gulf coast.

Kael Alford and composer Jake Heggie will take part in a State of the Arts discussion hosted by KERA’s Jeff Whittington on Sunday at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Joseph and Jasmon Jackson Play in the Bayou. Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. June 2010.