There comes a point with every American tragedy—every global tragedy—when it becomes a footnote in history textbooks. It is romanticized, joked about at times, and dutifully recalled each year with increasing degrees of celebration and decreasing degrees of remembrance. Even now, this generation’s tragedies are heading down a similar path. On September 11, 2002, there were moments of silence, candle-lightings and vigils. This year, there were protests over a Muslim community center, a televised concert with Jay-Z, and growing demands to make the day a national holiday. As time passes and wounds scar over, it becomes easier to lose sight of why a particular day is a day to remember in the first place. Granted, this is not always a bad thing; it only becomes such when there are no more points of reference to turn to, nothing that lends a pang of sorrow and nostalgia—a piece of debris, a memory, or a photograph.
Richard Misrach’s Destroy This Memory is a photo essay, recently published by Aperture, that offers an understanding of Hurricane Katrina that no TV special, nor ceremony, nor heartfelt speech can match.
It shows plainly and in large format the devastation in New Orleans. There are no people in Misrach’s photographs—but humanity echoes through the graffitied words they left behind. Looking at what the victims of Hurricane Katrina had to say without placing them squarely in the frame, we see—really see—what is at the root of their emotions.
Anguish (“HELP” written on the roof of a dilapidated home), paranoia (“I AM HERE. I HAVE A GUN” scrawled in capital letters on a storefront), and even resigned humor (“SOLD TO LIBERTY MUTUAL AS IS” on a pickup truck surrounded by piles of rubble) emanate in these photographs in a way that exceeds a facial expression or gesture. Though it is easy to capture emotion by snapping a photograph of a person who lost everything, crying in front of her wrecked house, Misrach proceeds differently; he chooses to wait until she exits the frame to shoot. In doing so, he captures a graffitied echo of that emotion and turns tragedy from the suffering of one to the suffering of a thousand. The viewer experiences the words and the image in a personal way: the way she would react if she lost everything, and what she would look like, crying in front of her own wrecked house.
Destroy This Memory is not about Hurricane Katrina, not entirely. Misrach assures that not only by removing the faces of the hurricane’s victims, but including their voices. What they leave behind in scrawled messages on broken things is not an account of August 29, 2005. It is an account of human tragedy as a whole. Like toe tags on cadavers, these tagged messages tell us little about the people who were once living, but imply more about what living means: birth, death, and the ecstatic range of experience in between.