If you believe there’s something to learn from everybody, then Claire Bangser is compiling essential reading on New Orleans’ good-living philosophy. Earlier this year, the photographer and videographer launched NOLAbeings, the local counterpart to Brandon Stanton’s wildly popular Humans of New York photo series. Both projects involve approaching strangers on the street in search of portraits and quips of conversation that range from offhanded comments to serious meditations on life. NOLAbeings is Bangser’s shape-shifting “patchwork” of New Orleans that figures into a global network of narrative-driven portrait projects. We met at the Orange Couch to talk about the je ne sais quoi that distinguishes these beings and this city.
INVADE: How did you become interested in photography?
CLAIRE BANGSER: I traveled quite a bit when I was young, and that really informed my interest in people and languages. I’ve always loved to travel. The first time I went to a culture that was really different from my own was when I was 17. I went to Morocco with my family, and I remember realizing that these Moroccans were just people … which sounds simple, but I had really only been exposed to anything related to Africa through the media. Then I had real interactions with these people, and I realized kids were kids, like me. The culture was obviously very different, but peoples’ needs and desires are similar. I was always interested in photography, but I remember wishing I could share that experience with people back home.
I lived in Mali for a semester of college and I did more documenting. One of the things I learned was that we have a lot of sympathy and a lot of pity in our world. Before I went abroad to Mali, people would say, ‘Oh, you’re so good to go help those people,’ or things like that, and I remember saying, ‘I’m not really helping, I’m just going to study abroad.’ There’s so much misconception of what’s going on over there and what people are like… there’s this idea that people are just sitting around waiting for help whereas there are businesspeople and entrepreneurs, and lots of different [professionals] – the whole spectrum of humans, just like there’s the whole spectrum of humans here. Basically, I realized that we all could benefit from some empathy and part of that is just identifying with people that we wouldn’t think that we identify with – hearing somebody’s story [from a person] that looks nothing like you but sounds a lot like your experience.
How did you start NOLAbeings?
When I saw the Humans of New York project [by Brandon Stanton] it struck a chord with me and I thought about it for a few days. I didn’t really plan; I just started doing it. A friend was in town and we were at Café du Monde, and I went up to an employee, interviewed him and made my first post. I did a couple more that day, got a bunch of followers on Instagram, and then I was like, “OK, I guess this is real.” It was very organic … It wasn’t like, “Notify the press! NOLAbeings is beginning!” It’s a passion project.
How do you map out what ground to cover? What factors are you looking for?
It’s not really planned. If I hear something’s going on, something that’s big, I’ll be like, “Oh, I should try and go find some NOLAbeings there.” But I miss a lot of stuff, too, and I have to be easy on myself because this isn’t my job – I’m not getting paid for it. Sometimes other things have to come first. But when I go to the Red Dress Run and am looking for that story, I’m not just going to go up to them and be like, “So, tell me why you’re wearing a red dress today,” you know? Tell me something you wouldn’t expect to hear from somebody wearing a red dress. I think what makes those costumed events interesting is when you realize, this is what you see, and this is something below the surface that you wouldn’t think to ask about.
At the beginning of the Saints seaso, I had to post somebody doing something related to the Saints; I just had to. That’s something we all can get behind even if you’re not a sports fan. In this city, you’re a Saints fan. It’s a force that brings people together. All different people. Like, I’m this little white girl from Connecticut, and I’m biking down the street, and all these people grilling on their porches were like, ‘Who Dat!’ You know? At the end of the day, I’m not a big football person, but I love being part of the energy in that space with a bunch of other people, where we’re all on the same team. There’s something kind of beautiful about it.
And I met Drew Brees! He was on NOLAbeings! He’s so nice!
Speaking of which – characters. From the famous to lifelong residents of the Upper Ninth, you’ve managed to capture an impressive range of freaks, the fabulous, and anyone who can appreciate the ‘do what ya wanna’ mantra. Who are some of the more memorable NOLAbeings you’ve encountered? What does a ‘character’ look like?
I’m trying to learn to approach people that don’t look like characters just as much as people that do, because ultimately this city does have a lot of “loud” characters, but it’s not just characters. There are a lot of normal people, too. I say “normal” in a loose sense, because everybody’s kind of got their own reason why they’re not normal, but there are people who don’t look like characters but have really interesting things to say. I don’t want the project to be like, ‘Look how crazy NOLA is!’ Those photos might get a lot of ‘likes,’ but ultimately in trying to build some kind of representative patchwork of the city, you have to show that there are lots of every day people living their lives here.
I think I pick people based on what kind of energy they’re giving me when I walk past them. Sometimes I’ll see somebody and I’ll be like, “Whoa, you have an amazing mohawk, I would love to photograph you, can I photograph you,” and they’ll be like, “Sure,” and then we’ll talk. Or I’ll be like, “Just stay exactly as you are and I’ll take your picture, and then I’ll tell you why,” because they’re just leaning on that truck in a really nice way, you know? Other times I’ll just be like, I’m giving myself an hour to go talk to NOLAbeings and I’m gonna pick anyone who makes eye contact with me and just says hello. You can tell when somebody’s not in the mood to be interviewed: They’re on the phone, or they’re just like, walking fast and not acknowledging you. So yeah, energy is a big part of it.
Celebrities … that’s pure luck. I saw Wendell Pierce, who plays Bunk on The Wire and is in Treme. I walked into Cake Café and saw him. It was so great to have a portrait project in that moment because I was like, ‘Can I put you in my project?’ and then we had lunch for an hour. That was sweet. Drew Brees was also amazing. I mean, Matthew’s nice too, but Drew was just above and beyond. He is super busy, and people are pulling on him all the time. I told him about my project though and [something came up that he had to take care of] but before he left he was like, “You! I told you I’d talk with you; let’s do it.” Then he was like, “Let’s get Matthew!” and he pulled him in. I’m nobody compared to him – he’s constantly surrounded by people … He’s a BIG deal – he’s our hero in New Orleans. All I had was this little portrait project and he was like, “Sure, let’s do it.”
In your experience so far tracking down NOLAbeings, have you come across a descriptor that could be generally applied to New Orleanians? How would you characterize your average NOLAbeing, if not the city at large?
When I first visited New Orleans, I stayed with my friend John who’s an amazing tour guide; he has a great sense of history. I remember biking around town with him and he’d be pointing out to me, ‘Yeah, we’ve got this street artist who’s like, hanging green pants all around town, because that’s his thing!’ And you’d start noticing that there were green pants hanging from signs and trees and all over the place. And then there’s a graffiti/street artist who just writes READ really big, and then we’ve got YOU GO GIRL, and we’ve got Swoon. There was some girl for a long time there who was making dreamcatchers and hanging them all over the place – beautiful, beautiful dreamcatchers! And I just remember thinking this city is so full of creative, interesting people.
I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time that I visited, and D.C. is great, but that kind of thing [DIY arts scene] was not present. Coming down here and seeing that people were putting ideas out into the streets was one of the things that really drew me here. Now some of those particular artists aren’t doing those particular things anymore, but a lot of people just have a thing. Do you remember the Gray Ghost? Yeah, he was a dick! But he was also just like this random person that did something else for money [during the day], and then at night he would just go around and get rid of art, which sucked and was lame, but at the same time it created this energy of like, This is here! And it could be gone tomorrow.
A villain, an antihero in a Gotham City of creatives!
Yeah, totally. This is a really complex city. You can’t really portray it any one way – I think that’s kind of the point – there’s no one message through this project. There’s no, “And thus New Orleans is… fill-in-the-blank.” It’s kind of like a patchwork quilt – one that’s growing.
What kinds of questions do you ask, and what kind of responses are you looking for? I’m imagining a “Humans of New York”-style questionnaire, with open-ended questions like “What are you proud of?”; “What are your dreams?”; “What was a painful moment in your life?” – questions that could elicit anything from the intimate to wholly impersonal and could apply to anyone. Do you think these questions highlight some basic version of the human experience? How different are we, actually? What kind of overarching similarities exist between these (seemingly) disparate groups you encounter within city limits?
I never know what I’m looking for. I kind of am looking for the true character of the person I’m talking to come out. That happens so many different ways that you really just have to listen and follow the threads of whatever the person is saying. If I don’t know what to say, I like to start off with ‘What’s going on in your life right now?’ Sometimes, ‘What’s stressing you out in your life right now?’ [is a good question] because that brings the person into the reality. [Questions about] the mundane things in life can lead you down a path that’s true, you know, and it also sometimes leads to what the person does with their time. So, they’re a doctor, or they’re an artist, or they’re really busy with college applications, or something. You can get into somebody’s thoughts instead of being like, ‘What are your thoughts on education?’ which would be a random question to somebody that isn’t involved in education. What I’m looking for when I feel that the interview is good is when somebody says something that makes me go ‘Oh!’ or ‘mmm, that’s an interesting take; that’s different from how I would’ve thought about it.’
Brandon Stanton (Humans of New York) does a great job of [asking lead-in questions]. He’ll say like, “If you could give one piece of advice to a million people, what would you say?” and rather than taking that piece of advice, he’ll say, “Tell me about a time when that was really hard for you.”… “Tell me about a time” is a lead-in to getting more of a story or a narrative. I think stories are always more powerful than advice. We’re always given advice; we’re constantly being told what to do, but if there’s no story behind it, there’s no real reason to do it. Bottom line, I’m looking for stories, but sometimes I’m just looking for something cute or witty or characteristic of the person that I’ve been talking to. At the end of the day, I’ll only feel good if it felt like it was a conversation and that the person enjoyed talking to me; it wasn’t just me asking questions and running away with [their responses]. I want it to feel like a positive experience.