All of my life, I had been known as Willie Morris’ son, but I became a professional photographer on my own

November 13, 2022

“My dad was a writer, but photography is how I express my feelings and see the world. My home is in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans and was close to ground zero for the flooding of Katrina. One of the stories of the century fell into my lap, and I shot photos for The New York Times, USA Today, and national reporters.

I wandered around New Orleans for three years shooting indescribable destruction. I pushed my own limits and proved to myself I was a good photojournalist capable of covering a story of that magnitude.  

It was also a time of stepping out of my dad’s shadow. All of my life, I had been known as Willie Morris’ son, but I became a photographer on my own.

That was one of the most painful and productive periods of my life. I sidestepped emotions, using the camera as a physical barrier between me and what I was shooting. I still suffer from the effects seventeen years later.

The years after Katrina were filled with work. I went on eight to ten assignments a month, but the news industry has changed. Eventually the phone stopped ringing with work for freelance photojournalists.

As photojournalism jobs dried up, I transitioned into making films. One was Yazoo Revisited about the integration of schools in Yazoo City. While Haley Barbour was governor of Mississippi, he said in an interview that the integration of schools had gone smoothly in Yazoo City, his hometown, because the Citizen’s Council kept out the Ku Klux Klan. That intrigued me because Dad also grew up in Yazoo City and wrote Yazoo: Integration in a Deep-Southern Town with a different story. I spent three and a half years conducting interviews and documenting 40 years of social change in Yazoo City following integration.

I use a clip in the documentary where my father quotes his hero William Faulkner who said, ‘One loves a place not because of its virtues, but despite its faults.’

My father loved Yazoo City and Mississippi but had to move away, hoping things would change. I was born in Oxford, England, and grew up in New York City. My parents divorced when I was nine years old. I visited my father every other weekend and in the summers.

I went to college in the north and often moved around. My father kept in touch through long, supportive, loving letters; they were his preferred communication and I kept all of them. He signed the letters ‘Love, Daddy,’ but they were confusing because he was often emotionally inaccessible to me in person. It was hard for him to say ‘I love you’ when he was sober.

An aspiring photographer from an early age, one of my first subjects was my father. The camera also became a way to protect myself and my emotions around him. That lasted through adulthood.

I had an exhibit in New Orleans with a few photographs of my father and his letters to me. It evolved into a 17-year book project telling the story of a complicated relationship between a father and son. The name of the book is Love, Daddy.

Going back through these letters forced me to deal with my own thoughts of being a father. I didn’t want to have children because I was scared of making the same mistakes my parents did, or my kid experiencing the same confusion I did. But my father wanted to be a grandfather and talked about it in his letters. 

One of the letters said, ‘I am sorry you didn’t inherit a better world from us elders. By the same token, you should have a son or daughter and see what they inherit. It’s a matter of generations and always has been.’

Now that I have watched my daughter grow up and go to college, I understand what Dad meant. I worry about the worldour parents did, too, but the issues were different. My daughter never met her grandfather, but she is a part of his legacy, and these letters can connect her to him.

Love, Daddy came out as Mississippi was banning books that made some people feel uncomfortable. If that is the case, they should ban my father’s books North Towards Home, Yazoo, Integration in a Deep Southern Town, and The Courtship of Marcus Dupree because each one examines the past in a direct and unflinching light. Mississippi can’t celebrate my father’s legacy as a crusading editor and journalist who told the truth and tried to sanitize the history he wrote about.

My father died at 64, not much older than I am now. My mom has Parkinson’s Disease. Taking pictures of her helps me deal with her decline and accept that I am getting older. 

I was down when I turned 58 because it was so close to 60. I ran the New York City Marathon on my 50th birthday but was slacking in the years after. I committed to running every day for a year to prove I was still a vital human being. I ran 860 miles, but when I hit my 59th birthday my body said, ‘You’re done’ and refused to run again. I am learning to do things differently to keep my body going.

I still love photography and shooting what matters to me. I am an old Deadhead. My first Grateful Dead show was in 1978, and I went to their final shows in1995. I have photos covering almost 20 years and would love to make a film about my circle of Deadheads.

My favorite photographs now come from Vaughan’s Lounge, a little bar around the corner from my house. I have been photographing there for 25 years. It was neighborhood central during the pandemic. It is also where we watch Saints games and go for celebrations, election night, and Inauguration Day. Community and connections like this are getting harder to find, and I want to keep saving them in frames.”

David Rae


  1. Karen Cawthon

    Your dad would be so proud of the man and father you have become. I know we are. We love you, sweet David Rae.

  2. Vern Holmes

    David Rae, like your book I am also glad to read these comments. I remember the great times we have shared and will always appreciate you for being the person I met and the person you have become, with a beautiful family to boot! All my best.

  3. Susan Cohoon

    Really heartfelt story fellow Scorpio! We still treasure the images you captured at our wedding 26 years ago this month.

    My dad grew up in the Upper 9 and my grandma worked a second job at night at Herstel’s to support him and his brother. I spent many nights with her on N Rampart Street – sweet memories.

    Glad to see you’re doing well. All the best to you and your family.

  4. Fish

    We met before the Chunky Bluesfest but that is kinda the place we became buds. Ive always admired your work, professionalism, and I am in love with Love, Daddy. Life is memories. You document them so well. I love the Morris family. If you ever decide to do anything with The Tangents, all my stuff is yours.
    Keep doing what you do. You’re a good one.
    Yo bud, Fish


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