Jennifer Shaw looks through boxes of toys used in the creation of her book, "Hurricane Story." (Credit: Morgan Searles)
Jennifer Shaw looks through boxes of toys used in the creation of her book, "Hurricane Story." (Credit: Morgan Searles)

By Morgan Searles | LSU Student

Two plastic king cake babies led Jennifer Shaw to self publish a book about her experiences fleeing Hurricane Katrina.

"Hurricane Story," a collection of 46 photos and titles, describes the birth of her first son and the two months she and her husband took leave from New Orleans.

The book depicts different stages of Shaw's journey, using plastic toys to illustrate each scene. Shaw collected, arranged and photographed the toys over 18 months on 115 rolls of film.

She used the king cake babies to illustrate the feeling that she had to care for two infants — her newborn son and her sometimes-impatient husband — while displaced.

Though she is generally known as a black and white darkroom photographer, the intricate customization Shaw made to the tiny toys led her to choose color film for her modified Holga camera.

Three hundred and fifty copies of "Hurricane Story" were first released in 2007 through Lulu, an online self-publisher, but it was re-released last year by Chin Music Press, which printed 3,000 copies.

"I just wasn't sure how I could throw down thousands of dollars to move these books out into the universe," Shaw said. "By the fifth anniversary, we thought it was do or die. It had to happen right now or it wouldn't happen."

The process of pairing images with phrases was organic for Shaw, requiring her to weave words with the "visual candy" of her art, and the task became an exercise in minimalism.

Shaw began working on "Hurricane Story" after seeing photographers release images from Katrina and the aftermath.

"There were ethical issues being raised when these photographers who weren't from New Orleans began taking photos. I felt ownership until I realized that this is my city, but it wasn't my neighborhood."

With a new desire to share her own storm story, Shaw needed a way to recreate scene from her travels.

"I hadn't photographed along the way, and it would've been too real." she said. "I wanted to tell my story in my medium, and I had to get creative to retell it this way, rather than use the real people and events."

Shaw explained how self publishing brought her intimacy and intensity in her work, and the collaboration required to produce a book was a new experience that brought her art into the literary world.

"The self publishing route is a very valuable tool for an artist's growth."

Shaw is currently preparing a collection of new works for an exhibit in PhotoNOLA, an annual festival of photography in New Orleans, taking place from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2.

"This is really the first time I'm delving into this vast stack of images to create a new body of work," she said. "It centers on my kids, but it's not necessarily about childhood."