Kael Alford on the Inspiration for Bottom of da Boot

Continuing our Friday blog series on the upcoming release of Kael Alford’s photo book, Bottom of da Boot, we decided to delve into the project itself. It’s a series about ideas much deeper than a simple documentation of the Louisiana coast and the people that inhabit that. Kael is the perfect person to tell the story, both through her words and through her photographs. You’ll see what we mean as you read below…

What attracted you to this region and this group of people?

I first traveled to New Orleans to report on the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. While I was there, I went further south to the coast to find my family who were still living on the coast of Louisiana - relatives of my maternal grandmother. Stories about our family in Louisiana sparked my imagination when I was a child. We were told they were Indians, that their land and oil rights had been stolen by oil companies, and one of our great grandmothers was the last Indian princess of her tribe. I found a great uncle I’d never met, and then another, and met a few cousins. I was looking for a project to help me reconnect to living in the U.S. at the time - I’d been living outside the country for nearly a decade. So, I returned for another visit to Louisiana and great uncle John gave me a tour of the coast, to the place where my great grandfather owned land, and then Indian community of Isle de Jean Charles near my grandfather’s camp and where he used to hunt as a boy. After that I would return on my own and try to decipher how our family was connected to that place. Through genealogical research, I found that many of the people there and in the community of Pointe Aux Chenes are distant relatives and I wanted to tell a new chapter in the story I’d heard when I was a kid. And the place just fascinated me. I loved the connection people had to the land, and the slow pace of life. 

What’s important about this project? What do you hope people take away from it?

Aside from how it’s important to me personally and my history, I’d like people to recognize a corner of America that is unique and at risk of environmental collapse and total social diaspora. The coast of Louisiana is disappearing at the rate of a football field worth of marshland every 30 minutes. Both the fishing industry and the oil and gas industry depend on this coastline for production, and we treat it like America’s toilet. 

Byproducts of industrial farming waste spill into the Mississippi River, which empties in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the runoff from farming fertilizers that’s created the massive dead zone of the Gulf coast, where the water is starved for oxygen and no marine life can survive. And all that existed before the BP oil spill and toxic dispersants were used to break up the oil and sink it. 

If we protect this coast, the quality of the sea and the landscape - it will mean a longer and more productive life for the oil and fishing industries as well. There are many people inside Louisiana working to that end, and plenty of discussions, conflicts of opinion as well as conflicts of interest. There are Louisiana organizations like the Gulf Restoration Network focused on advocacy and rebuilding the coast, but it’s a concern we should be aware of on a national level. Thirty percent of our seafood and much of our nations oil comes from the Gulf of Mexico. I wish we as a nation took a more holistic and long-tern approach to our collective well-being. We tend to focus on short term instead of long-term profitability and the broader social picture.

In addition to the environmental entry point, I hope the project is also an entry point to reflect upon the history of Native Americans in this country. The people I photographed have been fighting for Federal acknowledgement as a Native American tribe, but have been denied for years, although the state of Louisiana does recognize various tribes. I’d like to shed some light on that history and their struggle for recognition and survival.

This part of the country is fascinating. The waves of colonial powers - France and Spain and Great Britain left their cultural and political marks while sugar and slavery were also an important part of the economy. That history is still quite visible in the family names, stories, music, bloodlines and the vestiges of plantations. I hope the photographs might bring curious visitors who want to see what it’s like for themselves and learn some of that history. Most of the tourists I see in these communities come from France, due to the French cultural connection - French is the language that supplanted Native tongues long before the Louisiana Purchase. More Native Americans than Cajuns now speak French along the coast, and most Americans don’t know that these people or places exist. 

Did you envision this project turning into a book?

I had hoped for a book, but you never know when beginning a project if it has staying power. It’s hard to know if a project can keep your interest as a photographer and if you can produce enough good worthy of a book. Now I think we’re looking at three books - the first larger book Bottom of da Boot and two smaller companion volumes. The subject is rich and there’s a lot of ground to cover. I’m still looking for an excuse to paddle through the bayous, from village to village in a pirogue, the way some of my ancestors did.