Ten year ago this week, Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Louisiana coast. Katrina was a natural disaster of cataclysmic proportions. The storm and subsequent flooding claimed nearly 2,000 lives, destroyed more than 180,000 homes, and created billions of dollars worth of damage to private and public property. The storm changed the way of life for the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
I have been through many hurricanes, most notably Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Gustav in 2008. While I’ve spent most of my life in Louisiana, I didn’t happen to live there when Katrina hit. At the time, I was in my second year of a doctoral program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. But most of my family and many close friends were in Louisiana, and I was left wondering how they—and my beloved homeland—would endure.
I watched in horror as the story of Katrina unfolded in the news media. I’ll never forget seeing aerial shots of the flooding and the heavily damaged interstates and city infrastructure. I vividly recall the countless images of people on their rooftops waiting to be rescued. I also have personal memory images of Katrina, specifically images sent to me of my grandmother’s home, which was one of the many flooded in uptown New Orleans.
As part of my research agenda, I am studying images from Hurricane Katrina to determine the most memorable images of the event and to determine if any images from Katrina could be considered iconic. This is an ongoing research project with my former colleague Dr. Andrea Miller.
Our recent survey asked people to recall images of Hurricane Katrina. The most frequently recalled images are those of people being rescued from their rooftops, crowds packed into the Superdome, aerial and ground shots of flooding and damage, images of survivors, and personal memory images. Some of the other most recalled images include dead bodies, people wading, and houses marked with an “X.”
Considering photographic media coverage of Hurricane Katrina, the most frequently occurring images in newspaper coverage could be categorized as “survivor stories.” These are as diversified and varied as crowds of evacuees waiting to be loaded onto buses to a young girl and elderly woman being escorted out of the city. The emphasis of these photos is on people who had survived the storm and were dealing with the aftermath. Ground and aerial photos of the flooding and/or damage were also largely prominent in newspaper coverage. Photos of authorities, elected officials, people wading, and dead bodies were also frequent in the newspaper coverage.
What is particularly interesting is that while “roof rescue” images dominate the categories of images that people recall of Katrina (myself included), images of roof rescues rarely appear in the photographic newspaper coverage. So where did audiences see these roof rescue images? Television, of course. And they were moving images rather than still images.
In the 10-year coverage of Hurricane Katrina, you will likely see many news outlets claiming to show “iconic” images of Katrina. Based on current theoretical suppositions, iconic images must represent a significant event for the collective, they must evoke emotion and human connection, and they must be duplicated across time and media. Based on these theoretical tenets of photographic iconicity, a working conclusion of our research is that no one photograph from Hurricane Katrina could necessarily be considered iconic. There is no debate that Hurricane Katrina is a significant event in our American history. And countless numbers of the analyzed photos provoke vivid emotion—from heartbreak to anger to despair. And while people vividly recall specific images, the media have yet to establish one particular photograph that has been repeated across time and place, which is a critical tenet of iconicity.
In addition, it is important to note that with the images of Katrina, it is not necessarily one particular image of the flooding or a rescue that is being remembered. There were hundreds of people stranded on rooftops waiting to be rescued. There were hundreds of people with signs asking for help amidst aerial shots of flooded neighborhoods. These were different events (all similar in content) being repeated across a flooded city. So while roof rescues are certainly a predominant visual marker of Katrina, the iconicity was achieved through a theme of images and not one particular image (much like the twin towers from 9/11). And, depending on the individual person, different images represented Katrina, but no one image seemed to represent it to most people (or to the media).
So what is it about Katrina (as an event) that has not led to the formation of a particular iconic image?
According to Dan Morrison, a photojournalist and colleague of mine, Katrina was a hurricane, but it was much more than that. It was also a flood. It was also a demonstration of racial policies (and racial tension) in the south. It was also a demonstration of the missteps of the Bush administration. And many people experienced great turmoil from Katrina (people who are still around today, and the event is fresh in our consciousness). Katrina was a sustained event with many facets and effects. The images of people stranded on rooftops or the helicopter airlifts resonate for some. The images of flooding or people wading or angry mobs resonate for others. Dan and I discuss this at length in our recent article in Digital Journalism.
Depending on the individual person, different images represented Katrina, but no single image seems to represent it to most people (or to the media). While you will see select images repeated across the media, they aren’t necessarily the images that resonate with audiences. Indeed, the findings our research show that Hurricane Katrina is more than one memory, one moment, one person, one event, or one photograph.
In addition, and critical for media scholarship, beyond Katrina as an event, we must consider the changing nature of visual journalism. In the Golden Age of photojournalism, it was typical to have a key photo that defined the event in question. For example, Robert Capa’s photo of the “falling soldier” visually defines for us the Spanish Civil War, and, as such, becomes an iconic photo delineating the event in our collective consciousness. Due to technology standards in the mid-1900s, it was only possible to capture a few frames. That is in stark contrast to today’s photographic technology, which allows photojournalists to shoot up to 11 frames per second and broadcast journalists to shoot hours and hours of footage. Further, it is no longer necessary to change a roll of film or a videotape, thus further speeding up the process and allowing photojournalists to shoot, store and broadcast hundreds of images in a matter of moments.
Media audiences are exposed to hundreds of thousands of images, both still and moving, often of a single event. Perhaps because of media technology and its immediacy, the Golden Age of the iconic photo has come to an end. As visual communication scholars, this is not a conclusion we propose lightly. At the very least, we must recognize that media technology has complicated the formation of a visual collective consciousness and thus the scholarly study of iconic images.