Total washout

  • Aperture: f/5.6
  • Focal Length: 17mm
  • ISO: 400
  • Shutter: 1/0 sec
  • Camera: NIKON D1H

Gulfport, Mississippi

It’s my last night in Mississippi, and I have yet to fill a picture card. Like the people of this storm-ravaged city, I feel shell-shocked, dazed. There’s too much to see in this town where nothing’s left. The sorrow is mind-numbing. The loss is staggering.

Maybe it’s because I was already down before I got here. Maybe it’s for reasons only I can fathom. But the days find me huddled within the safe cocoon of my room, burrowed beneath the covers, staring at the toasted coconut-colored walls. When I manage to drag myself out, I drive up and down Highway 90, making the 23-mile loop from Biloxi to Pass Christian over and over. Sometimes I grind my teeth as I blast Linkin Park and Evanescence.

But mostly, I listen to Oasis and I cry. And cry. And cry some more. I’m preoccupied, lost in my own interior landscape — a dreary watercolor where nothing makes sense anymore. Everywhere I look, every scrap of someone’s life hanging from a tree, every bit of color buried beneath the mud, seems to rake through me, remind me of my own losses.

I feel like I should be doing important work here. Capturing the images from a place that will never be the same. But every time I lift my camera, I lower it again. What’s the point of recording anything for posterity? Happy memories just serve as stark counterpoint to reality, and sad memories make reality that much harder.

Somewhere, a little girl is probably wondering where this doll is — if she wasn’t one of the 236 people who died in Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina. No doubt, there are images of her receiving this doll for Christmas, holding it up proudly, perhaps sharing imaginary cups of tea on a sunny afternoon. What purpose do those photos serve now that poor Betsy or Susie is lying wet and moldy at the foot of the Gulfport Pier? What purpose do photos of the pier serve now that it is nothing but creosote toothpicks jutting from the same Gulf waters that erased it all?

As for this image, I don’t know what it accomplishes either. The light was fading, and my tripod wouldn’t go as low as I wanted. Carelessly, I threw myself down in the fetid sand and balanced my camera on a plank covered in blue-flowered wallpaper, pock-marked by the elements. As I waited for the eight-second exposure, I thought of the second image — the one no one will see, but which is just as real, perhaps more so. A sad girl, head down, sobbing into the wet sand. A rainbow-colored doll, loved maybe, but abandoned still. Two forlorn shapes, sprawled on a devastated beach as the sun sets on them both.

I’m sorry there’ll be no slideshow. No eloquent words. There’s nothing left. And what was doesn’t matter anymore. Tomorrow I’ll be in Mobile, Monday I’ll be back in Gulfport, Monday night I’ll be in Tuscaloosa, and Tuesday morning I’ll be in Selma. And somewhere on a deserted strip of sand between Biloxi and Bay Saint Louis, I’ll leave behind a waterlogged toy and a foolish girl’s tears.

Music: Stop Crying Your Heart Out by Oasis (lyrics)

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