Main Library Hosts MyNew Orleans Photo Project, A Prospect 5 Satellite Exhibit
For four years, Heather Milton handed out disposable cameras to people affected by homelessness in New Orleans and asked them to capture their world in pictures. After developing the photos, she recorded the photographer describing the image to her and what it meant. Now, these photos and their stories are on display at the Main Library, as part of a satellite exhibit for Prospect 5: Yesterday We Said Tomorrow.
The MyNew Orleans Photo Project Retrospective was coordinated by ReFOCUS, a nonprofit co-founded by Milton to develop photography projects that encourage diverse artists and audiences to better understand issues that divide communities. The project utilizes an advocacy method called photovoice, which empowers marginalized individuals to tell their own stories through images.
“When we hand out the cameras, we have a short meeting with the artists to talk about what the project’s all about, and we’d ask them to try to capture a couple of different things in their images,” Milton said. “One is what do you love about New Orleans and the other big one is what’s it like to be you?”
The participants all are either currently unhoused or have experienced homelessness in the past. Their images are varied, which Milton said is the goal as homelessness does not always look how people who have never experienced it might think. Through the photovoice method, Milton said participants have a rare opportunity to communicate the realities of their everyday lives, particularly how they strategize about how to do everyday things while unhoused.
“One of my favorite photos is of a faucet in an alley down in the Warehouse District. The woman who took it said that faucet was hugely important in her survival while she was unhoused,” Milton said. “She said, for years, she would wash her hair there, and she and her boyfriend would wash their clothes. To someone walking down the street, it’s just a spigot. But to these two people, it was a part of their survival.”
Others raise issues of visibility, Milton said, pointing to a photo of Jax Brewery. Tucked in the bottom corner, almost obscured by shadow, is a tent and a person lying on the ground near it.
“At first glance, it’s really easy to miss them, to not see them at all. The photographer said he was trying to capture the juxtaposition between the haves and the have-nots, but I think another important message is just how overlooked and often invisible this community is,” Milton said. “And, with this image, perhaps the photographer can influence their audience to consider how that must feel. To either always be unseen, or too visible.”
Another common theme that Milton said has repeatedly come up throughout the project is the importance of the Library.
“Libraries are one of the last truly public spaces where you’re not expected to spend any money or do any work. You’re just here to be here and access resources. For unhoused individuals, that resource might just be air conditioning, or a bathroom, or an outlet to charge your phone without being bothered,” Milton said. “So, as you can imagine, the Library is so vital to the population we were working with on this project.”
During the project’s second year, Milton approached the Library to see if they would be interested in forging a partnership. Main Library manager April Martin said they’d be honored to work with Milton and ReFocus, and it wasn’t long before they were using it as a sort of homebase for the project.
“As a place where many people experiencing homelessness spend time, Main Library’s partnership with ReFOCUS seemed appropriate and worthwhile, and it was something we’ve been excited to watch grow and evolve over time,” Martin said.
Over the years, Main Library hosted numerous camera distribution and collections and informational and recruitment meetings, and Milton conducted many interviews there.
“The Library has been just exceptional,” she said. “They’ve been a wonderful partner, and by moving most of our programs here, I think it really opened up access to a lot of people. It definitely improved the project and how easy it was to facilitate. So, for us to have this collection showcased here, it really is very meaningful.”
Additionally, Milton said having the exhibition at the Library allows for a more diverse audience –– one that includes people who have similar experiences to the participants –– who might not have access to the show if it were in a more traditional venue.
“Public art is another theme that has come up so many times throughout the year as something that is really important to people experiencing homelessness, which is definitely another great reason to have this show here,” Milton said.
The My New Orleans Photo Project Retrospective will be on view at Main Library, located at 219 Loyola Avenue, through January 23, 2022. Milton also produced an online version of the exhibit, which features recordings of the artists discussing their work.
When East New Orleans Regional Library first opened on Read Boulevard in 1968, it was the largest in the New Orleans Public Library system. In the five decades since, the Library has served as a pillar of the community, particularly during Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts in the area, which was devastated by the storm. E