Andy Kopsa is a freelance journalist who currently resides in New York City. She (yes she) is the creator of the much-talked about Tumblr From NOLA to NYC, which appeared the week after hurricane Sandy. When I came across Kopsa’s Tumblr page via Twitter I immediately wanted to reach out and get to know more about her work. Like Kopsa, I too have a connection to both NOLA and NYC. Though I never lived in NOLA, I was a volunteer during hurricane Katrina while living in Houston, Texas. Over the last several years I’ve collaborated with Katrina survivors on media and research projects. Hurricane Katrina undoubtedly changed my life and fueled my ambitions to be a better storyteller and advocate.
Having recently experienced hurricane Sandy as a resident of New York City and as an Occupy Sandy volunteer, I’ve found myself reflecting on the similarities and differences between hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. I’m beginning to think hurricanes follow me, or perhaps I follow them.
Nonetheless, I’m fascinated by the power of the human spirit to act as a healing mechanism after (un)natural disasters. I’m also incredibly drawn to the ways in which ordinary people, those directly and indirectly affected by natural disaster use social media to create what I call nurture-networks; that is, online/offline support networks cultivated in response to crisis.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Kopsa about NOLA to NYC Tumblr. In addition to discussing her project, she also told me about how disappointed she is with media outlets using images from NOLA to NYC Tumblr without permission. She also talked about being frustrated by various media outlets referring to her as a "he". Kopsa also shares with me how she feels about NOLA seven years after Katrina. In the passages below, you'll learn more about Kopsa, the woman behind the NOLA to NYC Tumblr, and about her plans to continue to support the two cities she calls home; New Orleans and New York City.
TLC: It seems like we share similar experiences having both been affected by hurricane Katrina and hurricane Sandy. What interests you most to the stories of those affected by the hurricanes?
AK: I don’t think it is hurricanes per se. For me, this project was about two of the places I have called home: New Orleans and New York City. Having a deep connection with New Orleans, and with New York it only made sense . I had to do something. I am an investigative reporter who went to photo school so these things just happen with that kind of history!
TLC: You wrote in the “About” section of NOLA to NYC that during Sandy you were in NOLA, and while thinking about your family back in NYC, you thought to create NOLA to NYC via Tumblr. What made you think to use social media like Tumblr as an outlet and as means to connect two geographically separate communities?
AK: Truthfully, because it was easy. I had a Tumblr account for another project in the works featuring women journalists from rural america who moved to the “big city” and it was simple to add another page. I know, not a very sexy answer but the truth. On the road, it is hard at times to get up and run on a blog, new website, etc. Pitching stories on the fly is difficult for me. Tumblr afforded some serious ease since I was consumed with shooting, reporting, and watching The Weather Channel.
TLC: At what point did you realize NOLA to NYC was beginning to pick up viral steam on the Internet?
AK: A friend tweeted a Salon story featuring the project. But, I do publish in a wide variety of places and know writers at Salon so I wasn’t completely surprised. It didn’t seem like a big deal initially. It is when media requests started pouring in from places like NBC Nightly News and other outlets that I was taken aback.
TLC: What insights, if any, have you gained from the NOLA to NYC project? What have you learned that perhaps you weren’t expecting to learn as a result of creating NOLA to NYC?
AK: That the media, of which I am a part, is an incredibly powerful tool. For good or for ill, you have control how you use that tool. In retrospect, I may not have used Tumblr simply because everyone and their monkey’s uncle picked up photos and used them without permission. This started as a deeply personal project, me photographing Katrina survivors, friends. I listened to their stories and went through some personal anguish reporting on and photographing the appalling lack of progress in the seven years since Katrina. NOLA was my home for a handful of years and I love that place. So when people in the media, I am talking small time blogs to national television networks, started using some of the photos without even an email, well, I was none too pleased.
As a reporter who would never dream of using someones images, writings, anything, without permission - or at least a hat tip or link - it disgusts me. People were writing things about me that weren’t true. Like I am a he , which I am not. And, one publication printed that I was a native of New Orleans and a Katrina survivor. Both not true. Nowhere in my personal history will you ever find those kinds of claims. A 5 second google search would have told you I am an Iowa native and a lady. Come to find out the “reporter” picked up my twitter feed and read her own fantasy into my tweets about NOLA to NYC. I asked that next time she write about a person, at the very least, she give a ring-a-ling or drop an email. Off soapbox.
I should mention that I didn’t learn that New Orleanians are incredibly passionate, resilient and down to earth people, that Katrina survivors are bad ass, love their city and will give back until it hurts. I didn’t learn that from this project only because I already knew that.
TLC: Some may argue that NOLA to NYC is just another Internet meme that may lose people’s interest when the next meme comes along. Do you think NOLA to NYC is ‘just another Internet meme’? How do you keep the conversations going even after people lose interest in hurricane narratives?
AK: People are already losing interest. But, that doesn’t really matter. I wasn’t launching the site to springboard a career. I will go about my business. I won a grant from USC Annenberg (Knight Grant on Reporting in Religion and Public Life) to investigate religion and sex education in Mississippi so I need to get back to that. The only conversation I want to continue is the one about seven years later: NOLA is still hobbled. The lower ninth ward is still decimated. The lakefront still bears the scars of Katrina. Half the population is gone. Graft is still a king of New Orleans. We need to look at New Orleans as prologue to the long road back we have here in the wake of Sandy. There are tons of lessons to be learned from how Katrina was handled. We need to be mindful that although the administrations have changed, many of the mechanisms for disaster recovery have not. Private contractors promising victims a brighter tomorrow when what they really are up to is testing out new building materials or upcharging FEMA and the feds. I know, sounds bleak, but this is one of those teachable moments.
TLC: Do you have any plans to expand the outreach of NOLA to NYC offline or to other online spaces? If so, are there ways that other people can continue to support your efforts?
AK: I just made the decision to start selling prints of the original 12 portraits I shot. I will be donating a portion of the profits, if any, to the Ali Forney Center in New York City. A drop in shelter for LGBTQ teens. The center was destroyed in the wake of Sandy. A lot of my reporting in the past dealt with issues of LGBTQ rights and I've donated clothing and other items to the center before. It seems a natural and right fit.
I am also going to Mastic Beach this weekend to take NOLA to NYC care packages to the people hit hard in that area of Long Island. This was brought to my attention by the head of a pop-up charity group called New Orleans Gives Back. The group will be bringing a truck full of useful cleanup and support supplies to Mastic this weekend. The founder of the group asked if I wanted to be a part of it. Of course I did, so I am making little prints and bringing some of the words of love and wisdom from the NOLA to New York project to Mastic. It is a small gesture, but hopefully hearing from people who have been through it will bring a brief moment of comfort.
Many thanks to Andy Kopsa for taking the time to chat with MEDIA MAKE CHANGE.
To purchase prints from the NOLA to NYC project, please visit: http://andykopsa.photoshelter.com
Photos courtesy of Andy Kopsa