Photographer Tema Stauffer adds a dash of lushness to stark American landscapes; even the creepiest suburbs seem to deserve our attention if not our care. When we heard she’d gone to New Orleans, we demanded proof.
TMN: Why New Orleans?
TS: I flew down to Louisiana the last weekend in October. Part of my original motivation for the trip (before the hurricane) was to shoot video footage at The Angola Prison Rodeo for another project. As someone who is interested in the American landscape and the American experience, who was riveted by the hurricane news coverage, and who had actually never been to New Orleans, I was interested in seeing and photographing the area. I spent two days driving around the city and suburbs with friends and their video cameras.
TMN: What are your lasting impressions now that you’re back?
TS: The fact that the devastation was greater in low-income and suburban neighborhoods became more vivid. My trip was very brief, so my perspective on the catastrophe is limited. I was moved by the spirit of the people still living there and stepping forward with their lives—walking their dogs, adopting strays, gathering for neighborhood picnics, filling the restaurants that were gradually reopening. It felt good to simply be another body present.
TMN: Since it was your first visit, was it tough to imagine what had been there before based on the debris?
TS: Even turned inside out, the houses suggested the kinds of people who lived there and what their lives might have been like. And, of course, I had preconceived impressions of New Orleans based on its legends and what the aftermath of the hurricane revealed about its problems.
TMN: Any interest in attending Mardi Gras?
TS: Crowds of people drinking and celebrating make me uneasy. The glimpses of the French Quarter I saw from the car window struck me as a claustrophobic maze of bars and souvenir shops selling the image of New Orleans to tourists.
TMN: Lots of your work focuses on the American landscape, though rarely (in what I’ve seen) are people incorporated. Did New Orleans, with its diminished population, feel familiar?
TS: The eeriness of New Orleans was explicit because of the reality of what had actually taken place there, while some of the environments I have photographed are eerie or mysterious in more subtle and intangible ways. A deserted water park, for instance, looks a little strange and sad because the family vacation is missing, because family vacations can lead to expectation and disappointment, because big plastic animals are creepy. There is a sense of foreboding and tension and loneliness in some of these places that is not attached to a specific experience or event. But then, most of my images of New Orleans are similarly quiet.