PORT ALLEN, LA (WAFB) - Photographer Thomas Neff stepped to the podium with a relaxed casual shirt and generous white goatee. His first words were an apology to the packed audience at the West Baton Rouge Museum Tuesday, August 18.
"Twenty-two months ago, I suffered a stroke that dealt a severe blow to my ability to speak." He continued, apologetically, that he had struggled to regain his speech and that even now the crowd might not understand.
"If you have problems understanding, raise your hand, and my wife Sharon can help me."
But there was no problem in this program where Neff told a rapt audience hanging on his every word how he spent five days after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans where the public was kept out.
Neff, an LSU professor and photographer who was on sabbatical, was with the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's SWAT team, who were in the Crescent City to help rescue people. Neff said he had press credentials and so he was permitted within the barricades.
"We just wanted to highlight some of his Katrina photography that is just so striking and poignant from right after the storm hit New Orleans," explained exhibition curator Angelique Bergeron. "He was one of the first responders there. He took some really great photographs that just kind of showed the resilient spirit of Louisianans."
Neff explained that he sought out the people then-Mayor Ray Nagin called the "Hold Outs," those who refused to leave and stayed with their homes.
As Neff moved through the stricken areas with EBR's SWAT members, they had outfitted him with a bullet-proof vest. But Neff said it was so extremely hot that he could wear it no longer and took it off for good.
Neff would spot the people who remained in their homes and would talk to them as their patrol moved through. He photographed some.
Listening to him, I realized he did not photograph everyone. He respected their privacy and asked their permission. And when taking their picture, he did not simply walk away. He got to know the people within the picture. As he spoke at the museum, he'd show each picture on the big screen up front and tell the story of not only how they suffered in Katrina but what eventually happened to them.
At one point, a picture of President George Bush smiling with a thumbs-up sign was slipped in among the Hold Out pictures. It was a meme that read "Want some wood?"
The audience laughed. Neff said, "The president who shall remain nameless made many promises to the city and many never came true."
Quickly he moved on with a lingering smile.
Neff said as he patrolled with the first responders, he did not just take pictures. He volunteered. Sometimes it was using a crowbar to pry open a door to get a pet who was trapped in a room.
"Many, many homes had standing water." He said it was not uncommon to wade in water up to his knees.
He asked one of his older photo subjects, Jan (pronounced Yahn) Hamer why he stayed and did not leave. Hamer exclaimed, "I'm 87, where exactly am I gonna go?"
Neff's book "Holding Out and Hanging On: 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina" is a beautiful art book with those photos collected over the early days after the storm.
Neff will be at the Greenwell Springs Road Regional Library for a book sale and signing Saturday, August 29 at 11 a.m. You'll hear a panel discussion about Katrina.
The Glassell Gallery at the Shaw Center will hold a "Holding Out" book signing downtown Thursday, September 10 from 6 to 8 p.m.
Bergeron invites you to see the exhibition at the West Baton Rouge Museum, 845 N Jefferson Avenue in Port Allen.
"I think it's still something that we need to talk about and learn from," she said. "It's still pertinent to today and to our response to other storms."
Admission to the museum is $2 for students and $4 for adults. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Neff's Katrina pictures will hang there until September 13.