Akasha Rabut’s decade-long document of New Orleans delivers a powerful message about resilience and community during the current pandemic
Early in the morning of 29 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States. The storm devastated the country’s southeastern coast, and with a death toll of more than 1800, the category three hurricane became the third-deadliest in US history. Having been spared a direct hit by the storm, in New Orleans, Louisiana, where much of the city lies below sea level, officials thought they had dodged a bullet. However, the true threat was still to come. The city’s flood banks failed, and by the following day, 80 per cent of New Orleans was buried underwater.
It took two-and-a-half-weeks for the floods to subside, but, with over 200,000 homes destroyed or damaged, and more than 800,000 citizens displaced, it was over a year before New Orleans returned to what it once was: the “Big Easy” known for its round-the-clock nightlife, vibrant music scene, and the parades that take over the city’s streets with music and dancing every weekend.
For 10 years, Akasha Rabut has been documenting New Orleans and the social tribes who bring it to life. Now, the stories are published in her first photobook, Death Magick Abundance, a collection of dynamic images that capture the sound and style of New Orleans, including the ‘Southern Riderz’, the modern-day cowboys who parade the city every weekend, and the ‘Caramel Curves’, an all female biker club.
In the following conversation, Rabut describes the vibrant culture of her adopted home-city, where, although its people live under continuous threat of tropical storms and flooding, their ability to rise up from the ashes, and to celebrate life and death, is a form of resilience that we can all learn from during the global pandemic and the uncertainties that we face internationally.
Where are you now?
Right now I am in California. I have been living in New Orleans for 10 years, but my family is from here. I had some pretty bad anxiety in New Orleans because there was word about the National Guard coming in, and there is so much trauma and history between the National Guard and New Orleans. I flew back to California yesterday, which was surreal because it was just me and one other person on the plane. I’m not sure if I made the right decision coming back to California, because I do feel like I want to be with my community, but I also feel that as a brown woman in the South, and with the National Guard being on the streets, it just did not feel good.
Looking through your images this week has brought a lot of joy. I read that beliefs surrounding the circle of life and death are central to many of the traditions in New Orleans. This must take on a whole new meaning now.
Yeah, it does. New Orleans is known for jazz funerals, which are a celebration of life and death. When celebrities or musicians in New Orleans pass away, people take it to the streets and there is a procession with music and a band — it is a huge celebration. In New Orleans death is celebrated as part of life. Everything seems to be a celebration down here, which is a really beautiful way to live. It allows people to let go of anything that is not an experience, and to cherish and value their lives. I’ve noticed that people in New Orleans live every day like it’s their last day, and to me, that is so powerful.
When you started the project, did you know it was going to be long-term? Why did you decide to make the book now, after 10 years?
The way that I usually make work is long-term, so I knew that whatever I worked on was going to be a long-term project. I just did not know that I was making a book.
Actually, making the book was not intentional. I was approached by Anthology Editions — they asked me if I wanted to do a book and it felt right. At the time, I felt ready for it because I hadn’t had a lot of exposure for this work. The story about New Orleans is so potent and powerful — I wanted to put that out into the world and allow people to see how vibrant the culture is.
The timing of the book release is so beautiful, because it is a story about resilience, and people who are living without aninfrastructure or a system that supports them. These people built the foundation of what they are today through the people. That is what we need now, while things are feeling so uncertain. We need the help of our community and the knowledge that we have a community that is going to have our back no matter what.
Are the parades you photographed cancelled due to the pandemic?
All of the second line parades have been cancelled, which is so eerie and weird, because they are such a huge part of the city. They are about participating – you don’t go there to watch, you go there to be a part of them. They happen every Sunday, and they go through my neighborhood every other Sunday, so it is quite surreal not to hear the music anymore.
You must have become familiar with the people you photographed and were there any specific characters you got close with on the second lines?
I am close with a lot of the people I photograph long-term — I have photographed some of their weddings for free, and I want to give back to them as much as they have given to me. This book is a gift from the people of New Orleans. They gave me so much, and I was so lucky to be invited in and able to take these photos.
There is one woman in particular who goes by Sharon “Ms. Colors” Walker, who appears twice in the book, but I have many more images of her. I have been photographing her for probably around eight years. She’s actually the person that I look for every Sunday because every week she comes out dressed to the nines. There are people I always look out for, like my friend Polo Silk, who’s on every second line I’ve been too. I’ve definitely made some great friends there.
What is the concept behind the book’s title?
The title comes from how I see life, and also what I see in New Orleans. Death Magick Abundance refers to the cycle of life. Things die in order to grow, which is magic. And when growth happens, abundance is inevitable. So the book is about death and life. It is about New Orleans and the people who rebuilt it after Hurricane Katrina. The photographs that I take reveal that.