Terri Garland, a professional documentary photographer based on the west coast, first came to the South over twenty years ago to capture the white supremacist movement. Luckily, she found an attraction beyond the dark blemishes of our culture and has been traveling back to Louisiana and Mississippi ever since.
This past summer she had the chance to encourage the capturing of new memories. Thanks to the support of a grant from the Gulf Coast Fund, she traveled to Isle de Jean Charles and interacted with the youth there for about six weeks. She handed out digital cameras, taught photographic principles and visual literacy, then supervised the kids as they documented their home. Even though she knew some of the kids from her trips before and has experience teaching, she says working with the group this past summer was different.
"I don’t want to generalize, or romanticize my experience, but I was very aware of a major contrast in the ways that kids in Louisiana compared to those living in California spend time. Living on the bayou, the Louisiana kids seemed much more self-sufficient than many urban children. Growing up on or around boats, fishing the various seasons, maintaining equipment, it was interesting to see those skill sets being passed down. Families would hang out together outside – talking to each other. They have cell phones, play computer games and are like any other kids yet it was refreshing to see that electronics do not seem to dictate how they experience life."
Since the community on Isle de Jean Charles is so small, the kids all interact across a range of ages that usually separate by grade or status in other parts of the country. This provided a challenge for Garland since the younger kids had little interest in her lessons about aperture and shutter speed, but Garland was impressed by how eager the kids were to take shots of each other across age groups.
"From my little microcosm of students, it seemed like everybody was related, was a cousin to somebody else! At times, I was both fascinated and confused and early on we used some large sheets of drawing paper to 'map out' both Isle de Jean Charles and Pointe-aux-Chenes and locate where students lived. To this day, I am still not certain how they are all related. This was the first time in coming to lower Terrebonne [Parish] where I actually lived 'down the bayou' - I always stayed in Houma in the past and would drive 40 minutes each way when going to photograph. I was fortunate that Pastor Matt Schouest and his wife, Bernadette, allowed me the space to run the class and to stay on the church grounds."
Garland discussed her instruction with Chief Albert Naquin, the leader of the community who is attempting to get his people federally recognized as a distinct tribe. Both of them agreed that educating the next generation in documentary methods would serve a long-term goal.
"Three of my students live at the very end of Island Road," she told me. "That’s where Chief Naquin was born. Back then, the land was verdant, full of wildlife and six miles wide. Now it's a quarter mile wide, the wetlands seriously damaged and unable to prevent the incursion of salt water. So the trees die, the land becomes porous and unable to support new growth. All that in the short span of several decades; it’s heartbreaking [...] That family at the end of the road – theirs is one of the first parts of the road to flood and the kids did photograph that. But instead of emphasizing the less than stellar aspects of the landscape, most of the kids photographed what they found to be beautiful and important in their lives - family, friends, food and the crazy-gorgeous sunsets that happen down here."
Terri Garland's latest work, Louisiana, Purchased, appears in the upcoming issue of South by Southeast magazine. View her many portfolios, including her special Oil & Water - the Face of Loss series on her website.