In late summer of 2005, the Gulf of Mexico held America's undivided attention. Hurricane Katrina was tearing through parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, destroying homes and business and displacing over 400,000 people.
Nearly 2,000 lost their lives, and for months on end, 24-hour news coverage captured the destruction and devastation in gory detail. It seemed the hurricane was all anyone was talking about. And then, with time, we forgot.
But Ruddy Roye didn't. The Brooklyn, New York-based photographer spent the past two years documenting a group of citizens America has most demonstrably neglected: black people in the post-Katrina South.
Roye's work betrays a remarkable intimacy with his subjects, who tend to be those most easily overlooked by society at large: the broke, the homeless, people you'd see in passing on the subway and never think of again.
"I was interested in this idea of forgotten people," he said in an interview with Mic. In 2012, Roye packed his equipment and drove 1,200 miles to Mobile, Alabama, where he began his journey. The aim, he said, was to better understand the modern toll of race relations in the U.S. "By working from my own space of invisibility, I hope to shed a light on myself and the people I photograph," he said.
The result is American Sojourn, a staggering work in progress that consists of more than 300 black-and-white images and portraits — faces Roye got to know well over the past two years, and most of whom he keeps in touch with to this day.
What struck Roye on arrival was how little things had changed since what many consider the height of racial inequality under Jim Crow. He recalls white customers entering a waffle house where he dined and spitting on him, black people stepping off the sidewalk to let white police officers pass by.
Indeed, some of the starkest racial disparities in the U.S. are most pronounced in the Deep South. Limited access to health care has led to maternal mortality rates more than three times higher for black women than white women in parts of Georgia and Mississippi. And in a nation where 1 in 3 black men can expect to see prison or jail time, Roye estimates that 80% of those he encountered had been locked up at some point.
Not to mention the Gulf States have seen their quality of life continue to stagnate since the hurricane. Though New Orleans is well on the way to its pre-storm population numbers, financial and psychological scars still linger in the region, and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 marked yet another setback that will take years to overcome, if it's overcome at all.
"It was hard to find beauty," Roye said. "I try to look for joy [when I photograph people], the beauty of people first before talking about adversity. These folks did such a good job making the ugly seem beautiful" — a capacity to manage that Roye says he has seen on display throughout the African diaspora.
This ability, however, is a double-edged sword. "Many white people don't see this as ugly," he said. "They see it as managing, and OK."
He hopes that these images remind people that pain still thrives here in abundance. "It has thorns," he said. "I saw cotton blooming for the first time when I came to the South ... [Just remember] before you had that T-shirt, someone's fingers had to get bloody."
The stories he captured illustrate this grim reality. Mr. and Mrs. Tucker of Mobile, Alabama, for instance — who fed and sheltered Roye through much of his stay there — wanted this image captured specifically because Mr. Tucker was dying:
He wanted a photo giving his wife a rose, and knew opportunities would be increasingly limited moving forward. Roye said Mr. Tucker passed away earlier this fall.
Perhaps the most telling image is of Joseph Priest, a resident of Mobile's Roger Williams Housing Projects. Roye was in the process of photographing Priest and his friends, young men caught up in a life of drug dealing and gunplay, but paused when he saw this:
"He was being hanged," Roye said, referring to the line extending downward to Priest's neck, like a noose. "Today, it's the social structures that hang black men."
Roye's journey took him from Mobile to Biloxi, Mississippi, to New Orleans, and many places in between. He hopes the photos he took remind people that a humanity, one often besieged by pain and devastated by socioeconomic and environmental hardships, thrives unchecked in a region most forgot once it stopped making national headlines.
The Deep South, like the rest of the country, remains a wellspring of unfulfilled promises for black Americans. Perhaps Roye's sojourn can shed light on the region in ways the media has failed to.
All images courtesy of Ruddy Roye