A Medium for Their Message

Oregon senior, Antonia DeMichiel uses crutches walk due to cerebral palsy. Her message, "Stop seeing my disability. Start seeing my ability." Photograph by Robert Fogarty

His love affair with the city of New Orleans led Robert Fogarty '05 on a worldwide mission.

The Omaha, Nebraska, native moved to the Big Easy in March 2007—about two-and-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina hammered the city—for a one-year commitment to AmeriCorps. "It was an incredible experience," Fogarty says.

As he gained his footing in the storm-ravaged city and connected with new friends, he found an avenue to let others share their experiences. Families had been ripped apart during evacuations. Homes had been hollowed out by wind damage and floodwaters. Fogarty formed a company called Dear New Orleans and developed a distinctive approach to helping his neighbors share their experiences and their heartfelt and complex relationships with their hometown. Fogarty had people write messages on their hands, arms, or chests, then photographed them, creating powerful portraits of a traumatized but resilient city in the faces and on the bodies of its residents.

"I have had a bit of a love affair with the city since I moved here," Fogarty says. "You can feel the joy here. I suppose I never would have launched Dear New Orleans without having that feeling from day one."

He attributes the success of Dear New Orleans to being in the right place at the right time following his growth as a student at the University of Oregon. "I was challenged like the other journalism students to do good work and don't skip over details," he says. "I failed one assignment because I misspelled [former Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice's name. That was an automatic F for anyone becoming a journalist. Those skills and attention to detail are things I learned."

When Fogarty encountered a Louisiana couple, Ralph and Rebecca Serpas, one personal detail played a part in convincing him that it might be possible to turn Dear New Orleans into a bigger project. Ralph had written Cancer Free on his chest. The idea struck Fogarty that he "could tell more stories and have it be a bigger project," he says.

The local devastation of Katrina begat Dear New Orleans, then more universal and personal tragedies begat Dear World. The new creative adventure has taken Fogarty to places such as Joplin, Missouri, and Queens, New York. Fogarty met Bradley and Brody German in April 2012. The father and son survived the F5-category tornado that had ripped through Joplin a year earlier. Flying debris nearly killed the boy, leaving a pink scar running across the back of his neck. His brave message for the world: Survived.

When Hurricane Sandy slammed into the Breezy Point neighborhood in Queens, New York, in late October 2012, residents suffered not only devastating wind and water damage but also a massive fire that burned more than 100 homes. Local resident Marie Lopresti's response: Our homes burned, but our hearts are here.

"It is amazing to have people open up to you," Fogarty says.

What do you learn from running a project like Dear World, where people expose some of their most intimate feelings?

"We're all going to struggle at points in our lives," Fogarty reflects. "Sometimes, you can't steer your life in the direction you hope." After his experiences in New Orleans, it has become "a big part of me to continue telling stories of people who have no control . . . but responded so bravely in the face of their circumstances."

—By Brian Hudgens