All through his childhood, photographer Eric Waters walked the New Orleans streets he’d later document through the lens of his cameras.
From his family’s house in the 7th Ward, he was able to walk to Corpus Christi Elementary on St. Bernard Avenue, St. Augustine High School on A.P. Tureaud Boulevard and even to Dillard University, where he got his bachelor’s degree. “I didn’t have to catch a bus anywhere,” he said.
But now, at age 68, Waters — one of the city’s most revered cultural documentarians — must drive six hours from Atlanta to get to his house on North Rocheblave Street.
After floodwaters in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 buckled hardwood floors, filled the house with stench and sent black mold up his walls, Road Home paid him about $136,000 for repairs. But the money went to fraudulent contractors who took his checks and left the house undone, without electricity or plumbing.
So Waters has continued to commute home, putting 100,000 miles on his pre-Katrina Honda in order to be in the city for St. Joseph’s Night, when the Mardi Gras Indians come out, or Sunday second-line parades like the Black Men of Labor. That organization sees Waters as “fundamental to the culture,” said club leader Fred Johnson, who was 13 when he first met Waters through the Tambourine and Fan youth cultural organization.
Now some of the city’s top jazz musicians hope to put an end to Waters’ nomadic post-Katrina life by hosting a benefit for him on Friday at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center.
“Eric needs to be home. And we need him,” said guitarist Detroit Brooks, who organized the event.
This affection for a photographer is a bit unusual, since New Orleans artists often have felt exploited when images of them end up adorning coffee-table books or sold as expensive prints in galleries.
Brooks said the long list of guests for Friday’s event is a testament to how Waters is different, making a comparison between a musician who plays from a book versus one who plays from deep inside.
“Eric does this from his heart,” Brooks said. “He is a part of what we do.”
Singer Sharon Martin said that she can’t imagine how Waters feels each time he leaves.
“I don’t think anyone loves home in New Orleans more than Eric Waters. Maybe me,” she said.
When Waters’ parents decided to move to eastern New Orleans 25 years ago, he bought the family house on North Rocheblave, where he could walk out his door and photograph Indians, parades and everyday scenes on nearby streets: kids playing in a yard, old men laughing outside the corner store.
Waters’ first job after college was at Flint Goodrich Hospital, where he worked in accounting.
But in the late 1960s, young civil-rights activists Rudy Lombard and Jerome Smith saw Waters taking photos and encouraged him to get serious about his art.
Soon afterward, Smith brought him to the International Longshoremen Association Building at 2700 S. Claiborne Ave, a civil-rights hub and the office of acclaimed photographer Marion Porter, who shot for Jet and Ebony magazines, for most of the city’s black churches and for nearly all the black press outlets in town.
“He mentored me. I would stay in the darkroom there,” said Waters, who also followed Porter’s lead in documenting the city’s black culture.
Ashé Cultural Arts Center co-founder Carol Bebelle sees Porter’s legacy continue through Waters.
“I think Porter’s motto was ‘anytime, any place, anywhere’ — he photographed murder scenes, high community rituals, family and community gatherings,” she said.
Historically, Bebelle said, words are often much less precise than images and so the work of Porter and Waters is essential to understanding our past.
“Having the picture helps us stay focused on what really happened,” she said.
In late 2005, clarinetist Dr. Michael White looked upon his flood-damaged collection of clarinets, some of the only things salvaged from his Gentilly house.
“They looked to me like bodies,” White said. “Some were still in their tattered and water-damaged cases, which then looked like coffins.”
White realized that it was a powerful image, and he told Waters about it.
Waters headed to Gentilly, thinking he might be there 15 minutes. But as he shot the clarinets sitting in the shed, using available light, he started to see their ruined beauty.
Ultimately, he created a collection of color prints called “Clarinets: a New Orleans Metaphor.”
“The clarinets started to take on a bigger significance: not just my clarinets but the whole city, its significance, its culture,” said White, who cried when he saw the images.
Waters’ current situation is also symbolic, White said. “His story is the story of a lot of people from Katrina who are, 10 years later, still maintaining ties to home and trying to get back home.”
The photo exhibit and musical benefit will be held Friday, May 8, from 7 to 11 p.m., with a patron party starting at 6 p.m., at 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. It will feature photos by Waters and musical appearances by John Boutte, Troi Bechet, Kid Merv Campbell, Topsy Chapman and Solid Harmony, Kanako Fuwa, George French, Donald Harrison, Marlon Jordan, Sharon Martin, Darryl Montana, Charmaine Neville, Bill Sommers.
The house band for the evening will be Thaddeus Richard (piano), Detroit Brooks (guitar-banjo), Chris Severin (bass) and Raymond Weber (drums). Joe Dyson and the Bridge Trio will play the patron party only.
For information, call (504) 569-9070.