‘NY Times’ Photographer Talks About Covering ‘War Zone’ in Louisiana

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By: Daryl Lang, Photo District News

(PDN)Conditions grew worse today in New Orleans, as the flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was compounded by violence and chaos. New York Times photographer Vincent Laforet called PDN this afternoon from Baton Rouge as he was preparing to catch a helicopter ride into New Orleans. Here are excerpts from that interview.

PDN: Tell me what you see there on the ground.

Laforet: This is like a logistics day for us. … We met up in Baton Rouge today and we loaded up on supplies with water, fuel, food and medicine and what not. Because when you go down there you’re going into a war zone of sorts. It’d kind of a mix of the L.A. riots and the tsunami except if anything happens to you you’re completely on your own. The police cannot and will not respond. If you get hurt there’s no ambulances to come get you. So we really want to make sure we’re going in there prepared because getting in touch with the outside world, let alone even with each other within New Orleans, is close to impossible. …

Security is a pretty serious issue. There’s people getting hijacked on the side of the road. People are shooting at other people and helicopters. People are getting held up. It’s like the L.A. riots except you’ve got nowhere to run to and no one to respond. …

Communication is a total nightmare. Cell phone towers are on and off. Most of the time they’re off. You’ve got to go to telephone booths and the only way to make an outside call is to put in 50 cents with quarters, so we’re bringing lots of quarters down. We have a satellite phone that’s working intermittently. … I drive back to Baton Rouge every day to file with my wireless card with Verizon. And to get fuel and to just try and sleep. I’ve been sleeping in my car for four days in the back of the truck. …

It’s really hell. This is by far the most logistically difficult assignment I’ve ever covered, and I’ve done some wars and some conflicts. Nothing comes close to this. I’m not sure people outside of New Orleans understand just how dire the situation is out here. It’s really a total disaster zone where people are starving to death, dying of dehydration and getting absolute desperate. And here we are going in there, into this really dangerous situation, trying to do our jobs. …

PDN: What are you doing to make sure you have food, water and fuel for your vehicle?

Laforet: We’re loading it up in these big SUVs and driving down with it. Which makes us a big target. We’re loaded up with 25 gallons of fuel and cases of water and food. I’m covering it up so that no one sees what I have in my truck, but the fact that you have a truck with fuel in it that’s running makes you a target in the first place. They don’t have fuel there. They can’t drive out. People are getting really desperate and I’m not sure what they would do.

PDN: Are you traveling alone or with a reporter?

Laforet: I have been traveling with [Times reporter] Ralph Blumenthal for the past few days. He just left today and James Dao arrived. Our plan is to definitely pair up wherever we go now, whenever we’re in New Orleans.

PDN: The Times ran a big photo by you today of a guy in a boat holding a girl as they travel to safety. What can you tell us about that photo?

Laforet: I made pictures of refugees coming in and that’s the picture that ended up on the front page today. And then if you look carefully, the little girl on the right of the front page image wearing a blue striped shirt is the same girl that’s in the volunteer’s arms. When I got into that boat – I’m kind of choking up now – I did everything I could to fight back tears at that point. I almost burst out. Because this little girl was just like grasping so lovingly onto this guy. She was so clearly afraid and so confused. I can only imagine what was going on in her mind. So see a little girl like that clasp onto a total stranger was really emotional for both of us. He told me he was fighting back tears, too. I mean, no words were exchanged, but I think we both knew were both trying not to explode crying right there on the boat.

It’s a really tough situation. Reporters and photographers are going through hell of their own, but it’s absolutely nothing like what these people are going through. I mean, we can’t even compare. We’ve got cars and fuel and we’re able to get out. These people have no food; they have nothing. They’re just dying by the day and the government is having an incredibly difficult situation to overcome to get these people out. …

Pictures is, like, two percent of your day now. The rest of it is just trying to logistically manage your day so you survive. How you’re going to get in, how you’re to get out, trying to get in touch with your colleagues. …

We’re talking about serious stuff here. This is not a normal assignment by any means. The organization that goes into this, it can mean life and death. We have to make sure we have some sort of plans. There’s no one that’s able to help us if we get in trouble. …

I hope photographers who are coming in know what they’re getting themselves into. You do not want to come down here unprepared. If you’re not prepared the consequences are pretty dire. I heard of photographers being held up at gunpoint today, helicopters being shot at. If you run out of gas, you’re in serious trouble.

PDN: A photographer got shot at today?

Laforet: Helicopters are being shot at near the Superdome today. And I know that (Times photographer) Marco (Georgiev) supposedly took pictures of someone who was shot by the police and was threatened at gunpoint by the police because they didn’t like that. It’s tough out there.

Photographers beware. Come prepared. Take your time getting here, there’s no rush getting in. Of course, the caveat is God knows when the National Guard is going to seal the city off, and that’s why we’re trying to get in now, because we’re just afraid they’re going to seal the city off and let no one in, even media. … Everything changes by the minute out here. There’s no logic. There’s no one to call if they deny you entry or if you have a problem. No one’s out there to get a phone call.

PDN: How long do you think you’ll stay?

Laforet: I don’t have the answer to that. I just got back from being three weeks on the road and I haven’t seen my family. I’m going to try and get out of here when I can, but there’s no telling right now.

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