A mother cradles her daughter. The daughter, who probably hasn’t been held in such a way in a very long time, buries her face into the crook of her mother’s neck, hiding from the sights of a suddenly unfamiliar landscape. Both are dirty, disheveled, weathered by a storm. Leaving behind miles of debris and one solitary tree, the mother, LaTisha Garcia, and her daughter, Jazmin Rodriguez, tread through the scattered remains near Plaza Towers Elementary School on May 20, 2013, following the worst tornado Moore has seen since 1999.
This iconic photo representing the devastation nearly one year ago will be on display, along with other images from that memorable day, in downtown Oklahoma City’s Leadership Square for a monthlong photography exhibition. According to Becky Sowers, marketing and public relations manager for Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center, approximately 15 photos of various sizes will show moments of the tornadoes from the onset of the storm, the immediate aftermath and the road to recovery.
People on the scene, including Moore residents, first responders, out-of-state volunteers and national photojournalists, submitted all of the photos for the exhibition, including the image of Garcia and her daughter captured by Sue Ogrocki of The Associated Press.
Journalists from KGOU Radio, Norman and the OKC metro area’s National Public Radio affiliate initiated the exhibition with Oklahoma Contemporary to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the storms, said Karen Holp, KGOU general manager.
“I think that anytime we pause to reflect on difficult times, it helps us process those memories and perhaps find new resources within ourselves,” Holp said.
May also marks the anniversary for The Oklahoma Tornado Project, a special series of reports started by KGOU soon after the event. For the project, journalist Kate Carlton has reported about 30 stories following residents, recovery efforts and resulting storm safety legislation. One of the first stories she completed after joining the project last September was an interview with a mother who lost her son at Plaza Towers.
“That was a two-hour-long interview, and it was just an experience that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Just the vulnerability she showed to me as a reporter was really impressive and humbling,” she said. “I was really fortunate to see that if you really listen to people, they do want to open up and they do want to share their stories.”
Carlton, Holp and other members of KGOU knew from reporting in the field that people were documenting their experiences with cameras, so they wanted those numerous unseen images and stories to be available to the public through a partnership with Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center.
“I don’t really want it to be a mournful experience for anyone, even though it definitely has the possibility of being sad,” Carlton said. “But we’re not just looking for pictures that have a house that’s leveled.”
Sowers believes the photos selected for the exhibition represent the emotion of the day, and that lends itself to some “heart-wrenching” photographs.
“We have some really — I hate to say they’re beautiful — but just some absolutely haunting images of the sunset that night. It was such a beautiful sunset, and yet there was so much destruction,” she said. “The juxtaposition of the photos is really jarring.”
And that juxtaposition is overarching. The exhibition and The Oklahoma Tornado Project seek not to minimize the tragedy but shed light on a dark day in recent state history.
“There’s such a sense of hope in Oklahoma because people just bind together,” Carlton said. “They join hands, and it becomes something really incredible.”