Why Virginia Hanusik wants to humanize natural disaster

By documenting storm-battered coastlines, the photographer raises vital questions about communities suffering in the face of foreseeable environmental disasters

In the belly of the Great South, in the middle of the hurricane season, a new storm is raging before the last has finished making its way. Louisiana-based photographer Virginia Hanusik knows the phenomenon well. She has dedicated her work to photographing the South, with a particular focus on how coastal communities are affected by floods and natural disasters, events that she recognizes as man-made. When tornadoes and hurricanes strike, we know when flooding will follow, exactly who will be most affected, and ultimately which infrastructure will fail first.

Wary of disaster photos that fetishize damage and the tendency to portray people in danger as “resilient,” Hanusik seeks to humanize natural disasters. She “is interested in how the built environment symbolizes what we value”. By focusing on the built environment, we come to ask why disaster must function as the necessary wake-up call to catalyze steps toward environmental justice. The idea that progress must be preceded by inevitable catastrophes and casualties is wrong.

We could consider architecture as a space of creation and catastrophe as a construction suggesting that suffering is normal. In their book Critical Disaster Studies, Andy Horowitz and Jacob Remes explain that “disasters happen over time… Making sense of political and ideological clashes requires seeing people in context.” They discuss the deceptive nature of disasters, especially in the way they are presented to us. “People usually imagine that disasters are unexpected and sudden. Thus, viewing a problem as a disaster can reveal contingent structural conditions, local generalized conditions, and acute chronic conditions.

Policymakers turn their backs when it suits them best, making disaster management reactionary, never preemptive. Communities battered and weathered with each passing storm are applauded for their commitment to their homes, when the reality is that for many the convenience of picking up and going elsewhere is simply unthinkable.

Local Hanusik photographs in Louisiana show persistence. They depict changing landscapes that again and again leave the most vulnerable – low-income households, including those from ethnic minorities and renters who lack the security of home insurance on their side – on the front line of the disaster. The Batture houses, nestled in marshy alluvial land between low tide and the sea wall, are improvised and patchwork buildings, adapting to the land itself and repaired with each passing hurricane. In this sense, the flat houses are earth, smothered by cypresses and seen through Hanusik’s lens in the thick southern sun. In the parishes of Louisiana, the architecture exemplifies sea-level rise: houses on stilts dot the shoreline, constantly moving upward as flooded water flows in and out. On Tide Water Road in Venice, Louisiana, slender but sturdy bare tree trunks act as visual markers for a rising tide.

Environmental change does not happen all at once. Nearly a hundred years ago, the Mississippi Flood of 1927 traveled from Cairo, Illinois to New Orleans before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. It was a widespread and slow-moving disaster, the most destructive flood in American history, not confined to one location and displacing people for many months. Hanusik returns to the site, reminding us of the environmental refugees from the disaster, especially the roughly 20,000 African Americans who were forcibly moved to tent camps and made to work on levees by the Red Cross with contractors whites.

Environmental justice will not involve severing the ties between people and their homes. As Horowitz and Remes remind us, the experience of disaster is not exceptional, but a call to come to terms with our relationship to the land. Environmental justice will rest on fair and dignified help, before today’s flood becomes tomorrow’s high tide.