The Ghosts Of St. Rita's

The Library of Congress recently purchased some prints from my series on St. Rita's Nursing Home. I am honored to have my photographs in the collection and I have been thinking a lot about the St. Ritas photographs recently.

There is a very important story and personal experience that goes along with these images. On August 29th, 2005 Hurricane Katrina barreled through St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, an area just east of New Orleans. After the storm surge hit water rose to rooftops within 20 minutes and made escape almost impossible. Having not been evacuated, which law requires for elderly citizens, 35 residents of St. Rita's Nursing Home drowned.

The first time in my life I ever experienced ghosts was in this nursing home. When I opened the doors of the nursing home, five weeks after the flood, this heavy cold damp air rushed out and swept over my body and into my clothes and hair. It was weird and I knew right away that there was something unique about this place. As I walked through the doors and trampled through the six inches of mud and slush, the cold air continued to sweep over me. Where was this wind and cold air coming from? There were no doors or windows open and, shit man, this is New Orleans, it's fucking hot down here, this just doesn't make sense. As I walked down the hallway of the nursing home with my view camera on my shoulder I went into each room and explored, just getting a feel for the place. I continued down the dark, muddy and mold infested hallway which got colder as I progressed. I soon got this strange feeling that I was not alone. There was something there with me. I thought it was just my mind playing tricks on me and I was imaging things. This presense got more intense and it is hard to describe but it became physical somehow, it had wrapped around me and I felt it from head to toe. I had to stop and put my camera down. I was scared. "Yooooo!!!!!" I screamed out thinking that perhaps someone was there. But no one answered. I was bugging out now. Should I leave, I asked myself. I have been in many situations before in my life that have gone quickly from a weird feeling in the gut that something isnt right to terribly wrong and life threateningly bad. I sat there with buterflies in my stomach, my heart racing and my thoughts in knots. Somehow I pulled myself together. Fuck it, I said, I've come too far to just walk out of here. I have been scared and unsure about things before, I just have to get past this I told myself, I'm here to do something and I am going do it. I got my might together and I picked up my camera and continued down the hall. I walked into a room and found my first photograph. As I began focusing under the dark cloth this presence became so powerful that I felt it consume me. I was powerless. For some reason though these ghosts allowed me to take my shot. And as I put the film holder in my camera bag and threw my camera over my shoulder this presence took over my body and carried me into another room. I found myself staring at my next picture. I took it. This spirit, this thing, these ghosts became a part of me. They were my guide as I drifted from room to room, picture to picture. I can barely remember getting to each room, I just found myself there, I was at the hands of something else in which I had no power. That is how I spent that day in St. Rita's Nursing Home until I ran out of film.

Looking back I think that the changing point was when I made it clear to the ghosts/presence what my intentions were. To photograph, to record, I was not there to cause harm, I did not have bad intentions. This became clear to the spirits when I picked up my camera with every ounce of courage I had and was determined to make photographs, nothing would stop me. In the end I felt like these ghosts almost wanted me there, they embraced me and revealed their world to me. Perhaps they saw me as a mesenger and the images I made that day they knew would be shared with a large audience and somehow the evil that had been done to these ghosts could somehow be recognized and accounted for? Who knows, but that day was my first encounter with ghosts and without them there guiding me to each picture I would not have been able to make this series of images. They are in every image, the dark, the light, the layers of mud, the moldy walls, the flipped wheelchairs, the empty beds, the broken windows and the abandoned belongings. I have not been back to St. Rita's but I know that a certain presence will always remain there, waiting, trapped and forgotten, as it lingers and wanders this place.