Dispatch 29: Louisiana Gone
Interview by Jeffrey Roedel Photography by Madelyn Smith & Trent Andrus
Every free weekend last school year, LSU student and research assistant Madelyn Smith loaded up her car and ventured from Baton Rouge down to the coast of Louisiana. Often accompanied by project partner Trent Andrus, Smith interviewed and photographed dozens of residents of the region besieged by land loss, coastal erosion, an embattled fishing and shrimping industry and increasingly destructive storms—emotionally and existentially-taxing days for the Lafayette native whose peers were enjoying tailgates and concerts while she was being baptized by the tides of communities in crisis; all but forgotten towns like Leeville and Grand Isle. One’s even called Cutoff, as if to presage the area’s destiny within the apathy of the legislature and industry that grip tight the reins of the state’s future.
The result of those excursions is a combination of Smith’s passion for environmentalism, social issues and fine art. The 117-page 10x10 book of black-and-white photography and interviews is called Louisiana Gone, and can be ordered here.
Wonder South spoke to Smith about her experiences creating the book. Take a look at some exclusive images from the volume and read our interview with the photographer and adventurer below:
How are things going with the book right now? What phase are you in with getting your work out there?
The book is finished and printed, and I've been promoting it through various avenues available to me as a student at LSU. For example, in October I organized an event in the Honors College French House with the College of Agriculture that combined a viewing of photographs from the book, a book signing, and a panel of faculty members that study coastal wetland loss, southern Louisiana culture, and worked on coastal management planning.
Sounds exciting, and busy. How are you holding up?
I am very busy! Although nothing compares to last school year when I was driving down to the coast every free weekend to do interviews and photograph. After juggling the project, work, and school, I feel like I can handle anything.
That's awesome. And the work is strong, so you have something for which you can be proud. What first inspired you to begin this project?
It was really an opportunity provided by the LSU Honors College that got me thinking about a project I could complete that would be interdisciplinary and meaningful. The LSU Honors College offers something called the Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors Leaders Scholarship, that provides funding for students to complete any type of project they would like that is relevant to improving the state of Louisiana. When that opportunity presented itself, I had just finished an honors seminar course called "The State of Louisiana" that focuses on Louisiana's two biggest issues: poverty and coastal wetland loss. The discussion of the magnitude of Louisiana's land loss really struck me, especially what will eventually happen to the culture of southern Louisiana as people will be forced to relocate from their traditional homes. So many don’t realize what can happen in this generation and how we are not prepared for a migration of all of these communities.
“The magnitude of Louisiana's land loss really struck me, especially what will eventually happen to the culture of southern Louisiana as people will be forced to relocate from their traditional homes.”
I have also always been excited about merging my interests in art and science, and this was a perfect opportunity.
Why do you think it is that land loss in Louisiana is not discussed as much as it could be?
I think that the discussion about Louisiana's land loss is hampered by the immense magnitude of the problem and timescale on which it occurs, which is too long for the modern political cycle. It is a very complex issue that most politicians are not motivated to tackle because it requires acknowledging the nuances of our relationship with controlling water and beginning work on a problem that won't produce an easy victory. It's also tough because Baton Rouge, the seat of political power and action in Louisiana, is very disconnected from the water. We are right next to the Mississippi River, but, to see it, you have to climb a levee or cross a bridge. It's no longer part of our collective consciousness to think about natural waterways as things that influence our daily life, although the entire history of our state is shaped by it.
The state reps and senators all need a retreat to the coast. Maybe the next legislative session should be scheduled in Grand Isle.
Absolutely! It's all about giving the voices of people living on the coast a big microphone. And hopefully moving someone by their portraits, humanizing their issues.
“It's no longer part of our collective consciousness to think about natural waterways as things that influence our daily life, although the entire history of our state is shaped by it.”
Do those people you interviewed feel that they need a microphone? Are they pained by their lack of a voice?
What a good question! Most of the people I spoke with felt disenfranchised by their government. They deeply understood the environmental issues facing their communities, but didn't believe the state government would listen or even had the ability to implement solutions. I would say that they were mostly resigned to the state of affairs and dedicated to sticking it out as long as possible.
What was the interview or interaction that had the most impact on you personally, and why?
The interview I remember most was Roger Guilbeau, a retired diesel mechanic who I met at a fishing rodeo in Grand Isle. He shared some stories about what island life was like decades ago and how he used to fish and grow watermelons with his children. He recounted one anecdote about how, after their home in Grand Isle was destroyed by Hurricane Rita, they had to move to their fishing camp in Leeville while repairs were completed. He would ferry his children to attend school on the island every by boat every day. Now, Roger's children have all moved away from the island to chase college degrees and economic opportunity. He told me about how most of the old island people are gone, and the community is mostly dominated by fishing camps people frequent only seasonally.
That’s such a monumental shift in just one generation.
Yeah, pretty much your classic "children have grown and gone" with a southern Louisianan twist. It really hit me hard, especially because this was a man I had known for 30 seconds when he decided to tell me his life story.
How would you describe your approach to photography?
For this project, the photography was built from a partnership between myself and a partner, Trent Andrus. We actually completed all the photographs in the book collaboratively. Our medium format film camera allowed us to do that because of the waist level viewfinder. I would set the composition while Trent metered the light, and then we would scrupulously check one another. Each photograph took us at least five minutes to set up, and we bracketed every exposure to make sure we would get it right. It was a brilliant partnership for us because I have several years of experience with composition (I have a minor in painting and drawing) and Trent is interested in the technical aspects of film photography, which he has read several textbooks about. So, I guess I would describe my approach to photography as collaborative and meticulous.
The attention to detail really shows. And what detail do you want readers of this book to know about the coast or to know about what role we can play in helping?
My biggest action point for people is pretty much the same as every other grassroots political movement- Vote! It's a pretty replayed strategy, but that's because it works. Make choices on who you vote for based on environmental issues, and pay attention to local elections.
“I guess I would describe my approach to photography as collaborative and meticulous.”
Everyone needs to read up and vote. That's like homework for adults. We need to do it. Anything else you'd like to add? What's next for you? Do you see yourself staying in this realm and combining storytelling with your environmental and community passions?
My current plan is to leave the state for a Masters of Environmental Management with Specialization in Human Dimensions, get some experience with an environmental conflict resolution firm or nonprofit, and then come back to Louisiana to work on community engagement and facilitating collaboration for coastal management planning.
That sounds like a great plan. We need more boomerangers who leave but come back to improve our state.
I'm also working with Dr. Pasquier at LSU right now on his Coastal Voices project, focusing on the podcast series production and production of a video series of storytelling by Louisianans to investigate the relationship between man, land, and water.