Michael P. Smith Fund For Documentary Photography 2012 Grantee Kael Alford Bottom of da Boot: Losing the Coast of Louisiana

Juror's Statement

In 2005 photographer Kael Alford was sent to Louisiana by a Dutch magazine to document the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. While on location, she visited an area of the coast where her maternal grandmother had been born that is still home to the Native American communities of which Alford is a descendant. What she discovered there would become the subject of a multi-year documentary project to record the rapidly disappearing cultural and physical landscape of the region. Severely damaged by gas and oil extraction and battered by storms and spills, the Louisiana marshlands are in a tenuous state. The sacred ancestral land of Native American groups who have lived there for centuries is eroding into the ocean at the pace of a football-field-sized area of ground each hour. As Alford has eloquently stated, “Like the lower ninth ward in New Orleans, what is being lost on the coast of Louisiana is more than a neighborhood, or a storm buffer. It’s a piece of our collective memory and a unique piece of heritage that defines us as a nation.”

Alford’s work on Bottom of da Boot: Losing the Coast of Louisiana is well known to me, as selections from it are currently on view at the High Museum of Art as a part of our Picturing the South exhibition. While I was not the curator who initiated Alford’s commission several years ago, I have witnessed the project’s development since taking the helm of the photography department in April of 2011 and I have been nothing but impressed by it. Her work combines some of the most compelling elements of long form documentary practice: it is both personal to her and relevant to current national events; it studies a microcosm that has macro implications; and it demonstrates a true commitment to solid research while being driven by a coherent, stylistically consistent, and compelling approach to visual storytelling. What ultimately set Alford’s grant proposal apart from the other applications I reviewed was not just the demonstrated fullness of her achievement thus far, but also the clarity of her vision for the continuation of the project and how support from the Michael P. Smith Fund can further her goals in important ways. Following the presentation of the work’s first phase at the High Museum of Art and the concurrent publication of a monograph on the project with Fall Line Press, Alford has committed to making more pictures that delve into the science behind the coastal crisis. Together with Fall Line, two more volumes exploring the area will be produced in the coming years, making her three-part project a deep and truly remarkable documentary study on one of the South’s most pressing environmental issues. With the help of the Michael P. Smith Fund, I believe that Alford’s project can grow into one of the great socially engaged photo essays of our time.

Brett Abbott
Curator of Photography at the High Museum of Art

Congratulations to all of the Finalists in the 2012 Michael P. Smith Fund For Documentary Photography

Alford's Project Proposal

All images © Kael Alford