By Eric Brandner

It started in a New Orleans bar with a camera and a jar.

It was Super Bowl Sunday 2010. The New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts and the city was alive.

Five bucks in the jar got you a photo. You could write a message on your hands to tell the world how you felt five years after Hurricane Katrina.

It was catharsis by Sharpie and flashbulb.

“[The struggle of New Orleans] manifested in these really simple portraits,” Robert X. Fogarty said of the night he launched his Dear New Orleans project, the precursor to Dear World. “I was lucky to be the one who started doing it.”

Fogarty, 28, arrived in New Orleans in March 2007 and worked as a community organizer out of the mayor’s office. He started in 2009, an all-volunteer nonprofit that trains and manages evacuation volunteers.

His Dear New Orleans project—originally conceived to help raise funds for—captured both regular residents with something to say and city celebrities like Saints quarterback Drew Brees and music legend Dr. John.

The notoriety the original photos brought opened the door for expansion beyond New Orleans. In the long run, they led him to what used to be Marine Gunnery Sergeant Ryan Leach’s front door.

Leach was the victim of a different natural disaster—the tornado that mashed Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on April 27 last year, killing 41 people. The Marine recruiter’s home was demolished in the EF-4 twister. He, his wife Heather—who was pregnant with twins—and his then-6-year-old daughter Anna Marie all survived.

“The closest thing I could compare it to was Fallujah in 2004,” said Ryan Leach, who also survived one of the signature battles of the Iraq war. “When you looked around, everything was just smashed and broken.” Leach—a New Orleans native—was introduced to Fogarty through a mutual friend. Fogarty made plans to visit the Leach family about three weeks after the storm hit to photograph them where their house once stood.

Neither Fogarty nor the Leaches knew what to expect.

“I just had this really heightened sense of ‘OK, don’t mess this up Robert,’” Fogarty said. “These guys are giving me time, energy and effort, so there’s one part of the social contract there that you don’t want to mess up. But, given the circumstance, you just want to do right by your subject.”

“We thought a lot about … ‘what do you write on your hands?’” Leach said. “We talked about that a little bit and came up with some phrases that we thought summed up our tornado experience.”

The result of the shoot—the family posing against a black backdrop—has become one of the signature images of the Dear World project.

“I was for [doing the photo shoot] if it brought attention to what people were going through in Tuscaloosa at the time,” Leach said. “Like Robert said in the video clip, the news stories go on, but a lot of times—especially in a natural disaster—the people … are still there dealing with the same thing.”

The Leach fam­ily welcomed twin girls Landry and Emilie on August 3 and was scheduled to break ground on their new home at the beginning of this year.

Fogarty—who has expressed interest in working with troops overseas in the future—continues to utilize Dear World’s stripped-down concept to capture powerful images.

“The portrait is just their face and their message on their body. I think it’s kind of this interesting equalizer,” he said. “I’ve taken Senator [Mary] Landrieu’s portrait with the same black backdrop (used in Tuscaloosa) in a Senate office building.”

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