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February 24, 2006

Houston-area residents have worked together over the past several months to provide support to those affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Our city became home to more than 100,000 residents from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast Region whose homes, communities, and lives were devastated by the storms. In January, 2006, FotoFest began a collaboration with the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston project, through FotoFest’s education program, Literacy Through Photography (LTP).

Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston is designed to engage the storms’ survivors in the process of documenting their stories, and the stories of other survivors, their families, their lost communities, and their hopes for the future. This program builds upon models created by the Library of Congress that documented the Depression-era dust bowl refugees, the man-on-the-street response to Pearl Harbor, and citizens’ responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston program will provide stories and narratives from survivors and photographic documentation of those participating in the interview process. The results of this project will reside in the collections of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and at the University of Houston.

The Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston project is designed not only to capture the stories of survivors, but to provide them with training to serve as photographers and interviewers for this project, and augment their professional skills as many are or will be searching for employment. Each participant attends a five-day field school with training provided by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the University of Houston English Department, and FotoFest. Following the intensive training, the interviewers engage in solo interviewing (under the mentorship of the project faculty) in various Houston communities.

The first in a series of field schools began in January, with an initial 15 survivors receiving intensive training. Thirty Canon cameras were supplied by FotoFest and Literacy Through Photography (LTP) Director Angela Grace provided the survivors instruction in the fundamental elements of documentary photography. Employing tested methods utilized in the LTP program, Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston participants learned how to “read” a photograph, and to design their own shots to best tell the story of individuals and families they interview.

FotoFest’s Chairman Fred Baldwin attended a training session and observed: this is a very important program and it needs to be supported. Many of our most vivid memories of the great depression of the 1930’s were preserved by the careful documentation by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The devastation caused by Katrina and Rita has been dramatically recorded by the media, however the individual stories and the continuing personal reflections will soon be lost unless they safely archived. The boldness of the methodology; training and using survivors to gather material, appeals to FotoFest very much and this is why we are supporting the program and encouraging others to do the same. We hope to persuade our friends in the camera and computer industry to join us in putting cameras in the hands of many more survivors as the Field Schools are expanded.

The training process was cathartic and emotional for those in attendance, given the opportunity to share their stories publicly for the first time. Giving survivors the skills and equipment to document their stories with photographs gives them the opportunity to record and validate their life altering experiences, and empowers them to leave behind and move forward with their lives.

Angela Grace
Director/Literacy Through Photography

Survivor field school students reviewing their first photo assignment.