When I woke up Saturday morning it was raining steadily in New Orleans. I had planned to spend the morning photographing Tulane Medical School students cleaning up a vacant lot that is to be the home of a new clinic in the morning and Habitat for Humanity volunteers putting up a house in the 7th Ward in the afternoon, but the weather ruined that agenda. Fortunately, there was a third option. A Remote Area Medical/Dental team was holding a clinic at the Allie Mae Williams Center in Central City, a long impoverished and rough neighborhood a couple of miles west of downtown and just north of the Garden District.
Remote Area Medical was the brainchild of Stan Brock, who spent 15 years with the Wapishana Indians in the Amazon rain forest before becoming a co-host of “Wild Kingdom”. His vision was simply to find a way to deliver basic medical aid to people in inaccessible areas.
RAM was founded in 1985 as a network of volunteer doctors, nurses, technicians and veterinarians who travel at their own expense to provide care to people who otherwise would have to do without. Over the years the program has expanded to include urban clinics in the U.S. treating individuals who, lacking insurance, have no access to basic primary medical and dental care. Many of these individuals, not surprisingly, live in Central City, as well as elsewhere in New Orleans.
Because of a lack of parking at the Allie Mae Williams Center, RAM was running shuttle buses from Jackson Park a couple of miles away, where I eventually turned up after taking an inadvertent tour of Central City. New Orleans may only be rivaled by San Antonio as a difficult city for visitors to navigate. At any rate, after sitting on the mostly un-air-conditioned bus for the best part of a half hour, we finally set off on the roughly five minute ride to the clinic.
Stepping off the bus, I entered a covered walkway that was about 50 yards long and lined with people sitting on plastic chairs patiently waiting to enter the clinic. Once through the doors, I saw a double row of twenty or thirty people waiting to enter the actual dental clinic to my right. To the left were tables with computers where RAM volunteers were taking information from the patients. I asked the first volunteer I saw, an older woman who for some reason reminded me of a nun, about taking pictures.
Basically, the rules were that no close-ups of children could be taken because of fear of pedophiles and that adults had to sign a model release. And apparently I was on my own to recruit volunteers, which was a disappointment because this is something I hate to do, particularly when a large percentage of the pool of potential victims may be suffering from toothaches. Nevertheless, I proceeded into the examining room, which was about the size of an average high school gym.
There were four rows of eight improvised dental examining chairs, split into two rows of sixteen chairs facing opposite directions with a table for instruments separating them. As I stood just inside the door trying to get my bearings among the patients and the dentists coming and going, a middle aged African-American woman came in and sat down in the end chair of the first row. We made eye contact, and, as she didn’t appear to be in pain yet, I approached her and knelt down next to her chair.
I explained who I am and asked if I might take pictures of her getting her dental work, which she told me was having a tooth pulled, done. At first she said no, but then she reconsidered and said she guessed it would be okay. So I took out the model release and handed it to her. She looked it over for a second and then asked
So theses pictures are going to be on the internet?
Yes, they might.
No, I don’t want pictures of me on the internet, and a blog. No, no, my grandkids are into that bullshit. I’m not going to do it.
So much for that.
After standing around for a few minutes considering my options, I decided that maybe I should ask people before they actually entered the room where the dental work was going to be done. So, I went back out and surveyed the people sitting and waiting, but my heart wasn’t in it. I decided maybe I’d go check out the eye clinic next door where a lower percentage of those waiting were likely to be in pain. But the eye clinic, with its need for darkness for a significant part of the exam, didn’t seem particularly conducive to photography. I wandered back outside, and was just about to give it up and leave, when a RAM volunteer approached me.
He was probably in his mid-forties, a dentist or a doctor, I assume. He asked me if I was getting what I needed and I told him no, that I was having trouble finding people to photograph.
Well, I think I can help you with that.
I followed him back to the double row of people waiting to enter the dental clinic. For a minute or two he sort of looked them over, trying to pick someone out who struck him as likely to be willing. But I guess no one did because he finally just shouted out
Folks, this is a photojournalist and he’d like to photograph someone having dental work done. Is anyone here willing to let him do that?
And Paul Horton was. Paul is fifty-one years old, born in the Calliope project and a resident of Algiers. He used to drive trucks, but has been unable to work since his back was injured in a car accident two and a half years ago. He came to the clinic to have a lower right molar pulled. However, an examination by fourth year LSU dental students Jonathan Nguyen and Cindy Nguyen revealed that the tooth could be filled rather than pulled. So, although a little numb, Paul was happy to leave the clinic after a half hour of well documented dental work with the same number of teeth he had when he came in.