Review: Destroy This Memory by Richard Misrach


Book Reviews, Photobooks


Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Almost 2,000 people lost their lives, with an estimated property damage of the order of 90 billion US$ (this is where I found these numbers - just so you have an idea how much money that is, it ‘s about ten billion US$ less than what is currently being spent every year in Afghanistan to prop up that country’s corrupt regime, see this news report). While most Americans were lucky enough to be outside of the hurricane’s zone of impact, it still managed to send powerful shock waves across the country. During the first days people watched in horror - on live TV - as New Orleans was flooded, people were fighting for their lives, and no help was in sight. Later, scores of books with images from the immediate aftermath were published, to try to reveal the extent of what had happened. (more)

Richard Misrach’s Destroy This Memory is one of the latest examples, released at the occasion of the hurrican’s five-year anniversary. The book contains photographs Misrach took with a small digital (“4 MP pocket”) camera. “Artist’s royalties for this project,” we are being told, “are being donated to the Make It Right Foundation, which is currently rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.” Apart from the colophon, there is no text in the book, there are not even page numbers.

Actually, there is text, it’s the graffiti in the images, with short messages such as “Destroy this Memory,” “Help! Help!,” “I am here I have a gun,” “Looters shot - survivors shot again,” or “Fuck you.” There also are phone numbers and names, or longer messages.

Whether these messages indeed “offer a searing testament that continues to speak volumes” (this quoted from the book’s description on Amazon) I am not so sure, however. Or maybe I need to phrase this slightly differently: Given that five years have passed, isn’t it time to ask questions? Isn’t it time to try to understand what we have learned - assuming, of course, that we have learned something? To be honest I do think that the lack of an essay in Destroy This Memory that puts what we see into perspective is very fortunate (especially in the light of, for example, the essay in Trevor Paglen’s Invisible). Without an essay, the photography in Destroy This Memory puts us back into the state we were in a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, as these kinds of images emerged.

Now, five years later, isn’t it finally time to ask some questions? To demand answers? Isn’t it time to put things into perspective? The displays of anger, frustration, and often violent helplessness in Destroy This Memory are perfectly understandable. But they don’t serve us very well if we want to make sure that something like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina won’t happen again. Hurricanes are unpreventable, but the country’s inability to come to its citizens help immediately - that is something we need to prevent from happening again. We also have to make sure that those who still are in need in New Orleans, five years after the disaster, finally get help.

Hopefully, Destroy This Memory will stir a debate and make people ask questions. Anger, frustration, and feelings of helplessness are not the tools we need to fix whatever needs to be fixed. But they might at least serve as catalysts for us to get out of the slumber we’re finding ourselves in again, five years after almost 2,000 people died when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.

Destroy This Memory, photographs by Richard Misrach, 140 pages, Aperture, 2010