When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, Gabrielle Geiselman evacuated like many other people did. And also like many others, she couldn’t wait to go back.
"I knew the moment the levees broke I would go back the moment people were allowed to return," she said.
A professional music photographer, Geiselman had been making a life for herself in the Big Easy. But when the city officially reopened that September, what Geiselman caught in her camera lens was very different from her usual subject matter of live bands like Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper and No Doubt.
The majority of Geiselman's post-Katrina photographs focus on the damage done to New Orleans’ lower Ninth Ward, which was one of the hardest-hit areas. She describes the feeling of walking back into the ruined city right after the storm as overwhelming.
"I've shot in intense poverty before, seen people horribly disfigured and sick in foreign countries, but this was my home, landscape irreparably altered on such a massive, massive scale," she said. "I literally kept tripping over my feet trying to get it all 'in the shot.’ I just couldn't back up far enough. The scale was staggering."
The images Geiselman took during that time (shown in the gallery above) illustrate the devastation left behind when Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005. To this day, the surge protection failures that occurred in the city during that storm are considered the worst civil engineering disaster in U.S. history.
Geiselman has a history with the city. Originally based in Los Angeles, she started her photography career there at age 13, shooting live music performances up and down the Sunset Strip for many years. But she started visiting New Orleans in the early ‘90s, and decided to move there in 2004.
When Katrina landed in The Big Easy, it had only been a year since Geiselman had settled there. It would have been easy for her to return to Los Angeles and never look back. Instead, she went back at the first opportunity.
Other New Orleans residents who chose to stick with the city opened up to Geiselman as she snapped images of their storm-damaged lives.
"The stories are ones I will never forget. The man who traveled over 40 miles three times a week to water the hanging fern on the one piece of standing iron left on his property because 'my grandfather would have wanted it that way.' The punk rock kids who were driving around on bikes at night with flashlights trying to help people dig through the remains of their homes after the sun went down because the streetlights were gone. It just was all so real. It made me so proud to be a part of this place," she said.
Reassembling shattered lives
The road to recovery has been a long one for New Orleans. Some areas got back on their feet quickly (the famous French Quarter was up and running the fastest). Other areas didn't recover as quickly, presenting visitors with a chilling reminder of the storm. Some believed the city would never be able to recover from the damage.
Some, who had very little to return to, looked for a fresh start elsewhere while many others chose to rebuild instead.
Even though Geiselman did ultimately return to Los Angeles after Katrina due to a family member’s illness, the goal was always to "come home" to New Orleans. She said that, despite residents’ safety concerns and the city’s declining population, she was drawn there.
"I saw such tragedy right alongside such strength and perseverance. I had dear friends who had stayed ... I heard their stories and knew I could not rebuild a house but maybe, just maybe, I could take a photograph that would make someone think about New Orleans differently. Maybe someone would see that it could be their sister, son, mother or uncle in those images ... that maybe one of the images cracked open someone's heart and motivated them to help," she said.
"I had never had a city embrace me the way New Orleans did. On some intense level, I felt an overwhelming loyalty to return that love and still do to this very day. You either get New Orleans or you don't. For me it was the missing piece and, as an artist, the most magnificent muse I have ever known."
While her career had continued to blossom in Los Angeles -- and she had added fashion photography to her repertoire -- Geiselman said the images she shot in the storm's aftermath continued to haunt her. She wanted to go home.
When she became pregnant in 2010, that desire grew even stronger.
"My first thought when I found out was: I'm going to have this baby in New Orleans even if I have to fly while I'm in labor," she said, laughing.
But she knows the city will always bear the scars of what happened to it eight years ago.
"The massive old oaks on Washington Street have grown back as if Katrina never happened. Harrison Avenue in Lakeview is booming. But sadly, the Ninth Ward, which has a beautiful new park for the children, just seems too quiet."
Despite the changes, she purchased a home in 2013 in the city's Garden District. She refers to it as her "dream home" and now lives there with her 2-year-old son, Grayson.
"New Orleans has changed, but it remains to be seen what that really means. But I have faith, that if any city can rebound and grow, it is ours," Geiselman said.