"It's like the TV show Blackish, but it's pronounced brackish. Just remember that."

I never heard of brackish waters before. That day on the water where the alligators roamed on the outskirts of downtown proper, Kellen, a life-long fisherman explained to me the meaning that became the metaphor I was looking for to tell the story of NOLA and hurricane Katrina. Brackish describes a mixture of forces, of salt water and fresh water, of resources, of things like bass and red fish. To some, brackish suggests unpleasant. But perhaps better understood, brackish describes the often complicated and harsh conditions of dwelling alongside others while living amongst volatile natural forces. 

It's NOLA, I thought. 

When I asked Kellen who were the alligators in the brackish metaphor, he laughed and said simply, "the alligators are the goddamn politicians." The Blacks and the whites, he said, are the citizens. "We're the fish. We all can get eaten by the alligator at some point." Kellen's analogy reminded of another Katrina survivor, Wayne, who I first interviewed in Houston one week after the storm. Wayne, a native New Orleanian told me "the politicians is wrong. All that money coming in for the relief fund, the politicians are going to suck it up." In all the years of documenting the aftermath of Katrina, I've observed the constant re-telling of skepticism and distrust of those in power. 

Of all the different kinds of fish in brackish water that swim and eat together, despite their dissimilar colors and origins, and displeasure towards one another, it's the alligators that make the dwellers weary. The combination of waters and fish are like 'a big old bowl of gumbo', as Kellen once said of NOLA's people and its culture. But the alligators, they're something different. They prey.

But what happens when the storm comes, I thought. Where do the dwellers, and even the alligators hide? 

The sky turned grey. Kellen packed up his fishing rod and I put away my camera. We drove off before the downpour, leaving behind a metaphor. 

Ten years after the events of hurricane Katrina, I returned once again to NOLA eager to find out what life has been like for those who experienced the storm firsthand. What I observed was people working and raising families as usual, but seemingly on edge and cautious about some sort of inevitability. If anything, the aftermath of hurricane Katrina revealed even more the devastation between the haves and have nots, and how racial and class disparities, while hot topics of mainstream public discourse in 2015, was not a subject some I spoke with at length were eager to talk about, at least not on camera.

Brackish is a multimedia visual ethnography of NOLA and hurricane Katrina that span 10 years. This collection provides a glimpse into some of the complicated stories of survival and resistance, and of moving and standing still. It is an ethnography of wading in the waters with near dwellers who have experienced rupture and being ruptured. It is also a celebration of the lives of those who have survived and found strength in family, music, and tradition. This ethnography primarily follows Kellen Smith's journey from a 23-year-old aspiring professional bowler, golfer, and music producer to a 33-year-old telecommunications technician, partner to his fiancee (who he meant immediately after Katrina), and father to his 9-year-old stepdaughter and newborn son.

Included in this living archive:

  • Video footage and still images from 2005, 2006, 2011, 2015.
  • Short piece, Kellen and Katrina from Tara L. Conley, presented by Colorlines® and Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation.
  • Full-length film (35 minutes). View online for free. Download with donations suggested. Portions of the proceeds go toward The Kellen Smith JR College Fund.
  • Original music from the full-length film, includes tracks produced by Kellen Smith. Portions of the proceeds go toward The Kellen Smith JR College Fund.

Photos and videos by Tara L. Conley © 2015

For permission to use photos and videos, email tara [at] mediamakechange [dot] org.

To reference photos, videos, and text from this archive: © 2015 Tara L. Conley, Brackish.

To reference music from this archive: © 2015 Kellen M. Smith and Tara L. Conley, Brackish.