All Together Now
By Carrie Tahu ′09
Photography by Justin Fox Burks
Connecting and Collaborating
The torment and destruction Hurricane Katrina inflicted on the United States’ Gulf Coast region in fall 2005 raised major issues of how cities confront disaster. Two months before Katrina, those issues came to the forefront of History professor Jeffrey Jackson’s mind during a self-guided tour of the Paris sewer system. There, he encountered a photograph display that revealed that the City of Lights had endured its own devastating moment of natural disaster nearly a century before.
In the early 20th century, Parisians delighted in living in one of the greatest urban centers in the world. They never expected that in January 1910, nature would wage war on their seemingly indestructible city. Weeks of torrential rainfall flooded the River Seine, bringing raging water through the streets and infiltrating the sewer system. With their homes washed away in the flood, thousands of Parisians were forced to flee their city and seek shelter from the elements.
Intrigued by the pictures he saw on his sewer tour, Jackson looked further into the flood. His preliminary research revealed surprisingly little history of the event.
“There was one book in French, maybe a few little articles here and there but nothing more than that, certainly nothing in English that I could find,” he says.
It seemed as if the flood of 1910 was a decidedly forgotten moment in Paris’ history. Making a natural connection between the pressing concerns of Katrina’s aftermath and his passion for French history, Jackson knew this was a project he needed to pursue.
That he did. Jackson’s forthcoming book, Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910, will be the lead title in Palgrave Macmillan’s 2010 catalogue to coincide with the Paris flood’s 100th anniversary. It recreates the untold narrative of the flood using images and the preserved voices of those whose lives it affected.
In fall 2007, Jackson was on sabbatical, funded by the Spence Wilson Faculty Travel Grant, at the Columbia University Institute for Scholars at Reid Hall in Paris. There, he found the flood springing to life in hundreds of photographs: Many of the flood images were reproduced at the time on postcards published as collector’s items.
“I went to a flea market and asked a vendor if he had any flood postcards. He knew exactly what I meant and pulled out three thick stacks that were bound together by theme.”
Jackson also uncovered the voices of Parisians whose lives were impacted by the flood as he delved into Paris’ city and governmental archives. With their homes and shops destroyed, many people wrote letters to the government expressing their need for financial assistance.
“There’s a lot of correspondence, so you actually do hear these voices,” he explains. “That’s the impetus from the book’s perspective—to tell that story because it hasn’t been told.”
On returning to Rhodes, Jackson inquired in the French and History departments for a student research assistant who could help him add a virtual dimension to his project: an interactive Web site. He found the best of both disciplines in Andy Crooks ’09, a French and History double major. When the two discussed the project for the first time in spring 2008, they instantly found a common ground through their shared interests.
“Professor Jackson told me what his book was about and I was immediately interested,” Crooks says. “I grasped right onto it because my primary interests are 19th- and 20th-century history and, of course, French culture. It worked perfectly.”
Crooks began working on the project last summer by first reading Jackson’s manuscript of the book. He quickly realized the profound impact the images could have not only as an educational tool, but also as a way to complete the story. Likewise, Jackson hopes that the Web site will function as a virtual museum exhibition of the dramatic images to help bring the book’s narrative to life.
Although Jackson found hundreds of images depicting the flood while on sabbatical, the same kinds of pictures tend to be ubiquitous. One of Crooks’ responsibilities is to locate new images from various sources, including Web sites, postcards, newspapers and magazines. For Crooks, the interaction between his French and History backgrounds gives him an ideal perspective for finding unique images.
“We only really want one picture of people floating down the street in a rowboat—you don’t need 10 of those,” he says. “Many of the Web sites that have amazing pictures are in French, so it’s easier for me to navigate them. It also helps to have an understanding of French culture and life during the period.”
One of the greatest challenges facing the collaborators has been conveying the true essence of the flood through the images.
“It was hard to show the personal side of the flood because a lot of the images were taken with a purpose,” Crooks explains.
While many of them depict people working together and saving each other, they do not reflect the reality of human suffering. From Crooks’ perspective, finding images that convey the reality of the tragedy “brings the destruction and severity of the event home.”
Jackson and Crooks plan to incorporate interactive features on the Web site that will to help people understand the flood both geographically and chronologically. First, they envision a map that allows visitors to navigate the flooded areas, selecting a particular neighborhood in Paris and then seeing images of how the flood impacted it. A second idea provides a narrative account of the flood that tells the story in both words and pictures, including some quotes by eyewitnesses.
For those who may not read Jackson’s book, which will appear in late 2009, the Web site will provide a brief account of the story in words and pictures. On the other hand, those who read the book will be able to access the story from a visual perspective.
“We want whoever goes to the site to be able to read the book in pictures,” Crooks explains. “When I first read the manuscript, I kept wondering, ‘Where are these pictures?’ I think if you look at the pictures, you’ll want to read the book and if you read the book, you’ll want to see the pictures.”
According to Crooks, weekly Friday meetings with his mentor keep him on his toes and provide opportunities to brainstorm and acquire direction.
“Professor Jackson is very encouraging and easy to work with,” he says. “I feel really lucky that he has written this book that feeds strictly and directly into what I’m interested in. You don’t get to have an experience like this very often.”
For Jackson, the opportunity to team up with a student who exudes such passion for the subject has provided invaluable insight.
“Andy has re-introduced me to many elements of this history by seeing them in a different light than I have in the past. Working on a project like this for so long, I am sometimes too close to the material to see what I have,” Jackson says. “Andy has been able to bring fresh eyes to this research and to highlight parts of the story and photographs that someone reading about it for the first time would want to know more about.”
This fall, Jackson and Crooks expanded their scholarly collaboration, partnering with Danita Barrentine, a student in Memphis College of Art’s MFA program. Adding her graphic design talent and HTML coding abilities to the mix, Barrentine will assist with developing and designing the interactive Web site. The target launch date or ParisUnderWater.com is tentatively set for March 2009.
In conjunction with the Web site, the professor-student research team hopes that their work will shed new light on a significant—yet almost forgotten—moment in French history.