As a teen, Akasha Rabut lived in Hawaii, California and Chicago, but she found her true love in New Orleans, where she decided to stay. Falling head over heels for the culture and the city, she’s spent nearly ten years collaborating with and taking pictures of New Orleans’ people and their daily lives.
Now, she has released Death Magick Abundance, her first photo book, edited and published by Anthology, which is born as a way to preserve the cultural heritage of her beloved city. Through the Caramel Curves, the first all-female black motorcycle club; the Souther Riderz, a group of urban cowboys; or the Second Line’s fashion and music, she reveals the city’s spirit to everyone. And we couldn’t be happier about it.
You grew up in a creative atmosphere since your mom was an artist and clothing designer and your dad a musician. When did you realize that you wanted to follow their artistic passion and become a photographer?
My mom definitely nourished my artistic side. She always encouraged me to draw, paint and just make art. I knew I wanted to be a photographer when I was 15; it was before I had a camera. My dad has always thought it’s cool that I’m an artist and encourages me in his own weird ways.
As a teen, you lived in Hawaii, California and Chicago, but you decided to stay in New Orleans. What has this city that enchanted you?
I chose to stay in New Orleans the longest of all the places I’ve lived because I love the culture here; I fell in love with the city and never looked back. I became fascinated with post-hurricane Katrina life and what that looks like. The resilient people and their ability to not only rebuild but continually celebrate life by any means necessary are what ultimately enchanted me about New Orleans.
You say that the relationship you’ve built with New Orleans has helped you develop into who you are. What are the differences between the old and the new Akasha?
Being from the West Coast, I had a polarized idea of what the world was like, but once I moved to New Orleans, I quickly realized the South is different. I’d never lived in a city with such lacking infrastructure, but also a place where so much is needed. Louisiana is a historically racist state where people aren’t given the same opportunities; the people of New Orleans need and deserve nurturing from the government and they’re simply not getting it. Seeing this and experiencing it as a community member shocked me. Being from California, it’s been eye-opening to see and feel the very real struggle people face at times, a struggle between life and death, of people living below the poverty line. Living in New Orleans has made me realize how naive I was growing up and how much I took for granted.
While you were taking photography classes in California, you used to take pictures of your punk and skater friends. Living in New Orleans, you’ve taken pictures of its people, subcultures and clubs as well. What fascinates you about them?
The people I photograph inspire me because they’re the ones who came back to New Orleans with a passion to rebuild it and nothing else. The infrastructure wasn’t there, so it was the people who brought their city back to life, and that energy has driven my photography for the last decade.
You say that you are mostly interested in the ways that the younger New Orleanians are continuing and interpreting traditions. Is your new book your own way of trying to preserve this cultural heritage?
Yes, and because I take these photos as a preservation effort, I’m very guarded about where the work is displayed. In other words, these images are not to be appropriated into something else; they are what they are (or appear to be).
The Caramel Curves are the first all-female black motorcycle club. How did you meet them? Do you think that giving voice and exposure to these kind of stories is important to help society’s and culture’s evolution?
I’ve been intentional about how I participate in the community and I’ve made friends with people who simply invited me into their worlds. I became a part of life here because these relationships are my foundation. I have an ethnographic approach to photographing people and I think it’s important – specifically for NOLA – that I’m documenting this really special time and place. I’m not sure it’ll ever be the same again and it’s important that this documentation exists.
Your photographs are so colourful and centred on the individuals. What are you looking for when you take a picture?
I trust my intuition; when it feels right, I take a photo. Informed consent is very important to me and I never want to exploit people. So I always make sure to have a conversation with those who I photograph.
You are also the founder of Creative Council, a mentoring programme for young people in New Orleans pursuing careers in the arts. What made you start this project? Do you think that there’s a need of this kind of organizations?
I started the project because of the need for it. I decided to do it after teaching at a charter school for a year, where I realized there was so much undiscovered and underutilized talent due to the educational system. With little creative or artistic curriculum aimed at these kids, I wanted to fast track them into being professional photographers so out-of-town people wouldn’t take those jobs. Many get assigned work in New Orleans but don’t actually live here, and I always thought, what better people to show it than the ones who do. Teaching photography to this group was super important because they are the best people to tell the story of New Orleans.
What advice do you give to them? What would have you wanted/helped to hear when you were starting?
My advice for all future photographers is to seek your own truth and follow your intuition.