Zum InhaltsverzeichnisVirtuelles Magazin 2000 

Aoife Naughton , Maria Otte May 2005

William Faulkner in New Orleans

I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: When the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny, inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

William Faulkner, 1950

And I believe we will all agree that we failed. That what we made never quite matched and never will match the shape, the dream of perfection which we inherited and which drove us and will continue to drive us, even after each failure, until anguish frees us and the hand falls stiff at last.

William Faulkner, 1955

The creative process for a photographer always takes place “on site”. If one leaves the camera aside one experiences oneself as part of the scenery; as soon as one photographs, however, one is organizing a kind of choreography.

We meet William Faulkner at the Iberville housing project in New Orleans. The Iberville project is situated between the French quarter and the I-10 on Basin Street, and comprises of a series of red-bricked row houses set off from the street. It is just before noon on a hot Thursday in early May and Basin street has the feel of a dust-bowl in Arizona. The project lies stunned in the heat and recalls a slum in an old Victorian photo, but dustier now and more solid. Iron-grill trellises surround the balconies. Between the rows of houses are wide courtyards. The grass here is matted down like a trampled playground. Bald patches of brown earth show through the grass.

Originally from Ireland and now resident in New Orleans, I have been asked by the German photographer Maria Otte to show her some sites in New Orleans that lie outside the tourist’s gaze. After thinking about various options, I have decided to take her to the Iberville housing project because of its proximity to the French Quarter and the historic Tremé neighborhood. The Iberville housing project, built in the aftermath of the New Deal as subsidized government housing, has, since the so-called ‘flight from the city’ in the 1960s, become a mostly low-income (and mostly black) housing project. Lying on potentially lucrative land directly adjacent to the French Quarter and Canal Street, it has recently been earmarked for destruction by city planners. As an intensely resonant site at the intersection of race, class and real-estate development in New Orleans, I believe it is important for Maria to photograph before it disappears.

We approach the Iberville project from the I-10 underpass and cross over onto Basin Street. Three black men on the balcony of the first row house look down at us as we pass underneath.

The man in the middle of the group sits on a chair holding colored sheaths of Louisiana Lottery tickets. He has jowly folds around his neck and wispy grey hair. Two men stand on either side of him and watch him mark the pieces of paper in his hands with an ink pen - a young man with a flat stomach, wearing a grey baggy T-shirt and blue jeans and a slim middle-aged man with tinted sun glasses holding a can of beer partly wrapped in a brown paper bag.

Maria calls up in somewhat accented English, “Excuse me, you mind if I take your photo, yes?”, and smiles showing her digital camera to them. We are in tourist mode with rucksacks placed over our shoulders to the front. This is partly to hide the camera, which in Maria’s case proves quite uncomfortable, as the rucksack is much too big to be carried on the stomach.

 

For a moment the three men say nothing. Then the man with the tinted sun-glasses moves forward towards the iron railing of the balcony, holds out his hand with the can of beer and says, “Sure baby, go right ahead.” His young friend steps forward for a moment like a fox that is curious but yet does not want to get caught. He then steps back again into the shade by the wall and looks away. For the most part he avoids eye contact with us. The older man in the chair looks at his friend who continues to talk to us, and presently turns his attention back to the lottery tickets.

Maria takes a series of shots with her digital camera. I explain to the man with the sun-glasses that she is from Germany and that she takes photographs by profession.

“That’s good, man, that’s good”, he says. Pause. “I want the whole world to see how we Americans live”.

 

He hides the beer can behind his back, saying that it is not right to have it in the photo. I look around, a quick 360 degrees on the street, to see if we have attracted any attention for ourselves, two foreigners with some elaborate-looking camera equipment. A woman with a meringue of sprayed hair looks over at us with open curiosity from another balcony. Some cars pass on Basin Street.

Maria meanwhile lets the man on the balcony know that she will send him the developed photos from Germany. Leaning over the balcony edge, he then gives her his mailing address after some consultation with his friends about the zip code. “It’s 70112,” the young man corrects him. “No, 70110,” the older man says. “Just put down Basin Street, William Faulkner, New Orleans and it’ll get here,” he adds. “I’ll be waiting for my sur-prise package in the post”.

 

Maria puts the camera strap around her neck and we move away along Basin street. Suddenly a voice calls out. William shouts down that he will be right down to us. He comes towards us with a sheaf of blue Lottery tickets in his hands. “For my friend,” he explains. Maria asks him would he mind stepping into the courtyard so she can take a series of shots of him. “You want to photograph the yard?” he asks a little dubiously when he sees the camera. Maria takes a series of shots of William standing with the courtyard in the background. “She in love with me or somethin’?” he asks and grins to the camera. “How come she wanna take all my sides?” he asks. He moves his face in a slightly exaggerated way for the camera. “I gotta hundred a them expressions,” he says, flexing the jaw muscles of his face.

 

If William Faulkner asks whether I am in love with him, since I want to take pictures of him from all sides, then this truly represents the intensity of the relationship in the moment of the photograph. It is as if I wish to come up to his soul. It is a getting to know one another. And this happens only through give and take, whereby I also have a responsibility.

While Maria takes some more shots, William talks about the Iberville project. He looks around him at the red-brick buildings. He is fed up, he says, living in a “High Crime neighborhood” with guys from other parts of the city “beefin’ up against guys here.” “They be shootins in broad daylight,” he declares. “Be jus like this. Brrr-oad daylight.”

 

Two young black men in white T-shirts pass by on the street behind us and look over. One of them says something to his friend and they laugh. “They’s the type getting cut down all the time here. I’m telling you. We could be standing here just like this, things break out, next thing you know...” William looks around. He is out of the earshot. “O dey got guns, I’m telling you. Big guns, automatic guns, guns with ammunition. See those kids over there sitting on the porch?” William asks.

We squint into the distance and see alongside the perimeter of the courtyard two, maybe three young men sitting on separate porch steps “ I guaran-tee you, any kid’s sitting on a porch, he’s dealing drugs,” William says “and if he dealing drugs, he better have a gun.” William smiles broadly at this. “Oh yeah.”

We cross the road to look at the statue in the median strip. William stays with us. The statue is a large grey hulking figure, made in what seems like Soviet or East Block style of exaggerated musculature and limbs. “They shooting the Black Man not you guys,” he adds. “You don’t believe me?” We stand on the median strip looking towards the statue.

“Who’s that?” I ask.

“You asking me for history?” William looks incredulous. “I don know, I just want to get outta here.”

We walk around to the front of the statue. William bends over close to the inscription on the base and with some difficulty he reads out some of the letters of the general’s name. “Let’s see Juar..juare...” We read out the Mexican name in full. “I don know who this is,” William laughs. “I’m not interested in history. That what got us here, Low-Income Housing.” Pause. “You can’t sugarcoat this shit.”

“Sugarcoat?” Maria do not understand the term

“You know, make pretty and shit.”

 

Well out of the earshot of the project on the grass of the neutral ground, William begins to tell us his life-story. He says he first came to the I-berville from Mississippi when he was eight, to visit his aunt who lived here. Then after an accident he had at Jobcorps, after he was injured and went out on disability, this is where the government placed him. That was all he could afford. He is now fifty seven years old and has lived here more than thirty years. His sisters also live in New Orleans. One of them has her own place, is a nurse, has done well for herself, but he does not like to bother her. Nothing has changed much at the Iberville over the years. All they did was add some beech trees and some flower beds to the yard. He points out some triangles of fresh earth with spiky plants beside the street pavement. “That’s all the money they spend here. Beech Trees ’n Flower Beds. You know what I mean?” He is ready to move to a mixed neighborhood where people take pride in their homes. His neighbors here are ignorant and he has lived in too close quarters to them for too long. “You know what I mean?” he asks laughingly and looks over the rim of his sunglasses at us.

 

As for the mothers living in the projects, he says: “The a-corn don’t fall far from the tree. You know what I’m saying. Some of them mama’s got no education for themselves, how they gonna educate they kids? Ninety per cent of the kids here don’t finish school. Ninety percent.”

Asked whether anyone in the project plays musical instruments, he says:

“O they play music all right. Real loud on dey porches. They don’t make music, they just play it. Dey ignorant. You live in close quarters for a long time, and you don’t get on, it’s time to move on. You know what I mean? Only musicians I see round here, plays the trombone in the quarter someplace, comes by all the time to get drugs, that’s all.”

 

 

In three years, he says, there will be no buildings left. The project is being knocked down for

Tulane medical students. “See that building there”—he points out the husk of an industrial looking building on the opposite side of Basin St. closer to Canal St.—“Gonna be condominiums out in there. But only the kind a white man can afford.”

“See that”—he points at the old Krauss building—“Condominiums.”

He says he does not care though, that he is just biding his time before he moves. As we are about to leave, we walk back to the side of the median facing the French quarter and shake his hand. Suddenly William says shyly “You want to see inside my house hmm?” We look at each other and say nothing for a moment. “It’s not very tidy,” William confesses. “Ehm,” we say, trying to gauge what to do. “Wait a minute,” he says quickly, “I’ll be right back.”

William crosses the road leaving us beside the statue of the Mexican general and disappears behind one of the rows of houses near the cemetery. We confer about what to do. We could of course leave immediately, go over to the French quarter and be done. This seems rude though. It is also beyond our earlier expectations to be invited into a private home in the Iberville project. On the other hand, we do not really know William and this is a so-called high crime neighborhood, after all. Several minutes pass. It is unbearably hot on the median strip. We finally decide that if William lives in one of the houses facing the street we will go in. If however, he lives inside one the courtyards, where a quick exit might not be possible, we will politely but firmly decline his invitation.

 

William crosses the road leaving us beside the statue of the Mexican general and disappears behind one of the rows of houses near the cemetery. We confer about what to do. We could of course leave immediately, go over to the French quarter and be done. This seems rude though. It is also beyond our earlier expectations to be invited into a private home in the Iberville project. On the other hand, we do not really know William and this is a so-called high crime neighborhood, after all. Several minutes pass. It is unbearably hot on the median strip. We finally decide that if William lives in one of the houses facing the street we will go in. If however, he lives inside one the courtyards, where a quick exit might not be possible, we will politely but firmly decline his invitation.

 

When he returns William takes me firmly by the hand to lead us both across the road towards the project. We try to slow him down a bit to ask him which house he lives in.

“Amn’t I’m showin you which house I live in.” He looks at us in amazement.

“It’s just,” I say quickly, “it’s just that we were wondering whether you live on the street, because if not,” pause, “we do not want to intrude.”

“You think I’m going to harm you?” he asks squeezing my hand laughing. “Nuttin going to happen to you, I swear it”.

William then points to an old woman in a sky-blue house-dress on her porch. She sits hunched over a book the size of a telephone directory. She spends her en-tire day reading that Bible, William tells us quietly. Maria asks William to ask her if she would mind having her photo taken. “Mama” he shouts out “How you doin?” She looks up from her book and stands up unsteadily. She is probably in her seventies and wears her hair piled on her head like a messy towel with bits sticking out. “Can they have your photo?” She looks a little confusedly at us and then looks beyond us into the street. “I don know,” William says to us. “No problem,” Maria says to William. “No photo.”

 

Now, if I were a paparazzo, I would have secretly photographed her. But can I, in this moment, secretly do this, seeing that we have entrusted ourselves to William and are about to go into his apartment? We expect from him, that he will treat us well and he expects from us, that we will treat him well and not do things behind his back. In dealing with strangers (with the additional presence of a camera) it is extremely important that the parameters of what is going on be quickly understandable to the other. This is the responsibility of the photographer.

William then leads us down through the courtyard. A Twix wrapper rolls along the ground in front of us. About five meters away a young man with braids talks into a silver flip-up cell phone. Beside us an old black man wearing a formal brown suit and a black hat sits on the steps of a row-house. He is not wearing socks and he rocks back and forth. He looks up when we pass, and the whites of his eyes are yellow. Two doors down, William stops. “This is my house,” he says pointing to a door with a frayed sticker of the American flag. He warns us again that it is not very tidy. “I hope to be able to visit you in your house one day,” he says formally to Maria when she thanks him for letting her visit.

 

He opens the grill flap and the front door and lets us pass in front of him. The door snaps shut behind us as it appears to be on a spring. After the hot bright yard outside, the first impression is darkness. We find ourselves in a barely lit rectangular room. The first thing that stands out is a almost life-size sculpture of a black panther sitting on top of a shelf to the left. It gleams in the dim light and has large paws. On the wall facing the door are two framed pictures, one of Martin Luther King, the other of an eagle. “This is my Life,” William announces. “This the home of a Black Man.” I stand at the door, and keep a foot wedged in the doorway to afford Maria some light for taking photos and to keep an eye out on the courtyard.

William and Maria move around the room. There are some crumpled clothes on the couch. Beside the couch is a triangular wooden shelf with framed photos. Piles of paper, a telephone directory, a Bible, some plastic beads and a wicker basket with black Lifestyle condoms lie on the table beside the door. William apologizes again for not having the time to tidy up. “You know who that is?” William asks pointing to the picture on the wall. “That’s Martin Luther King.” After a moment of looking at the photo he says “yeah, but the dream is torn.” Maria takes some shots of the room and of William sitting on his couch and on a brown swivel chair. She is worried about the lighting in the room. I swing the door open more widely. William turns off the overhead light in the shape of a tulip bulb but it does not improve things. He switches it back on again.

The apartment is so dark that my camera does not focus. Nervously I turn off the focus and try to manually adjust the lens for sharpness, which does not work out. These pictures, the only ones that come to nothing, are among the most important ones I took in New Orleans.

 

After about ten minutes, we decide to leave. Just as we are about to go a young woman in a suit comes by to visit William. He tells her he’ll be right back and accompanies us again to the median strip on Basin Street. As we walk away from his door, I ask William what his favorite part of the Bible is. “The Ten Commandments,” he answers without pausing. “Not that I keep all of them,” he laughs, “but most of them. The most important ones.” Adultery, he says, is the one he breaks the most. What’s a man to do, he says laughing, what is a man to do. When we say goodbye the second time, William makes us promise to send the photos. “Don’t forget the name. William Faulkner.” We cross over onto Rampart Street and the French Quarter.

 

 

Deutsche Übersetzung "William Faulkner in New Orleans"