On April 3rd, the Bonnet Carré Spillway opened to release the growing pressure on the New Orleans levee system as the Mississippi River rose to flood stage. This opening of the spillway marked the third time in two years and fifth time in the last five years to divert water to Lake Pontchartrain when considered an emergency. For context, prior to 2011, the spillway had only opened an average of once every decade since it was completed in the 1930s.1
Each time this massive product of human engineering is opened, huge crowds gather to take photographs of the spectacle–a poignant reminder of the human engineering we’ve done to alter natural environments in an attempt to quell the impacts of the climate crisis.
But this time, there were no crowds. Except for a small group of staff from the Army Corps of Engineers and the media, residents of South Louisiana were required to stay at home to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Both of these crises have dramatically impacted our way of life and the physical space we occupy. The novel coronavirus has altered our social and economic systems quickly and dramatically. The climate crisis, however, has had a slower physical manifestation that has most often been visually communicated with hurricanes, flooding, fires, and other extreme weather events.
As humans, we are drawn to spectacle. We adopt a visual language to understand and process complex events and emotions, relying on photography as evidence rather than subjective interpretation.
These images of disaster have become the iconography of climate change, but the climate crisis, of course, is not limited to weather events. It is prevalent in all aspects of society, highlighting social inequalities that the current public health crisis is laying bare. At the same time that the spillway was being opened, the adjacent St. John the Baptist Parish reported the highest death rate per capita in the country from COVID-19.2 The parish is located within “Cancer Alley,” the densely concentrated petrochemical corridor along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which produces some of the highest rates of toxic emissions in America. If you live in the town of Reserve, Louisiana, your risk of cancer is 50 times the national average.
Illustrating these inequities on the scale that is needed will take a massive investment in the arts, not unlike the program that was established by the federal government to document life after the Great Depression. The Federal Art Project, created in 1935 as part of the Work Progress Administration, directly funded visual artists and provided support for other agencies like the Social Security Administration and the National Park Service. The Farm Security Administration’s Resettlement Administration hired photographers like Dorothea Lange to document the work done by the agency.3 The vast collection of images produced during this transformative time remains a visceral marker of national identity, but geographic and racial representation amongst participating artists was limited.
We are again undergoing a dramatic physical shift in how we occupy space and even without government investment, there will be documentary photography projects that come out of the COVID-19 crisis for months, years, even decades after this has passed. Depending on the author, the presence of the climate crisis in this work will be stark or subtle. What is certain, however, is that an increase in resources for artists can lead to an increase in perspectives around who is telling the story of climate change and what that looks like in their community. Art and photography are subjective, but we get closer to the truth by giving access to more voices.