Ever since I was a little kid, I loved being on the streets of New Orleans. Whether I was hanging out on St. Charles Avenue for Mardi Gras, shopping the then-fancy Canal Street for Christmas gifts or just strolling down Magazine Street to visit my grandmother, I relished the chance to see a police officer, the mailman or a foul-mouthed drunk stumbling out of a bar.
New Orleanians live on the streets, and I've spent a great deal of time observing our unique street scene. Though I've made my living for the past 25 years as an assignment and event photographer, it's street photography that feeds my soul.
I first hit the streets in the early 1990s with my mentor, Michael P. Smith, who opened up the world of New Orleans street culture to me. I was thrilled to work next to the photography icon as he weaved effortlessly in and out of second lines, seemingly unnoticed. But when it was time for me to start shooting, I stood out like a sore thumb. Many people threw their hands over my lens, second liners yelled at me to "get out the way,'' and I was even run over a couple times. I was often too timid to point a camera in someone's face, so I'd try to sneak photos without asking. When I was caught, sparks flew. During my first Super Sunday, a Mardi Gras Indian leveled his wrath at me, and I swore I'd never take another photo. Smith half-jokingly told me, "Be careful who you shoot, because they might shoot back.'' He taught me the etiquette of street photography, how to approach people and when to stay out of the way. I've been shooting ever since.
Though I've never been in peril of being shot, I have been yelled at, had a tomato thrown at me and been cursed by "Ruthie the Duck Lady" and the "Lucky Bead Lady'' in the '90s, and by the "Pie Lady" in 2000. Sometimes it's hard to convince someone why they are photo-worthy, and just as often why they are not.
While photographing Super Sunday recently, I caught the attention and ire of an older African-American woman who caught me fram-ing her through my lens. "Baby, what are you photographing?" she yelled from the neutral ground. "The (Mardi Gras) Indians are way over there!'' she yelled pointing into the distance.
Shooting on the streets can be challenging but mostly entertaining and rewarding. I was standing at the corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue on a dreary day, lamenting the current political state of our country, when a red streetcar pulled to a stop right in front of me. The door popped open, revealing a middle-aged man seated in the conductor's chair dressed in red, white and blue from head to toe. My entire mood changed. The day didn't seem as dreary any more.
I take to the streets with high hopes of chance encounters I wouldn't find anywhere else. I'm drawn to the many strange and imaginative ways people reveal themselves in public, through fashion, body language, their pets and the indelible marks they leave on facades. Through photography, I hope to depict the social ironies and contrasts that make life in New Orleans so rich and diverse. My goal is for my photographs to create a deeper understanding of who we are and who we are becoming.
Now more than ever, I feel an urgency to document the evolving landscape of New Orleans because it's changing so fast and I'm afraid if I blink, I might miss something. In a microsecond, the camera captures the moment between the past and the future, technically freezing time.
Gentrification has been the most obvious change to our historic neighborhoods, but there are other factors. The smoking ban has pushed patrons into the streets, LED-lit bikes illuminate the night, a new mural seems to pop up every week on St. Claude Avenue and a proliferation of Airbnbs has brought hordes of frat boys carrying cases of Budweiser through the 7th Ward.
More important to me than the changes I see on the streets are the dwindling signs of the old New Orleans, with older buildings and hand-painted signs being replaced at an alarming rate. Yet, the city's strongest tradition of street culture continues. I still can't resist a good second line. While the music and styles have changed and hover boards and hot rods have become part of the scene, the spirit of individual freedom and expression endures.
Photographing street culture today is much different than it was 25 years ago. With the proliferation of digital and surveillance cameras, people are getting accustomed to being watched and seem less angry when they notice a camera pointed at them, though it still puzzles and disturbs some. I often grapple with the accusation that I exploit people. It's true, but never my intention. (I often feel like I'm exploiting myself when I'm focusing my lens.) There is a profound solitude when shooting in public that forces me to constantly listen to instincts and impulses. My primary interest has always been observing people and recording the marks they leave on New Orleans.
Smith gave me some great advice when I was just starting. He told me to pay attention to hairdos and T-shirts, because they mark time. He also said to focus on kids, because you don't know who they will grow up to be, and photograph old people, because you don't know when they might die. "And go where the people are — out on the streets,'' he said.
I often wonder what Smith would think of New Orleans today. I hope he'd find it as beautiful as I do.