Psycho-geography: A photographic calling for Ben Carver
So you grew up in southeast Louisiana but not New Orleans. When did you first visit the city?
So I grew up in New Iberia. I grew up very religious so New Orleans was that sinful place, you know. Of course as a kid, they’re talking about that dark evil place--and I’m living in the rural bayou of Louisiana--so of course you’re going to be interested in it.
As I got older--I came out of the closet at 21--just going to the city was my first opportunity to explore my own identity and see the wider world. When you grow up in the bayou, you’re not really going any places if you’re poor.
So when I was at UL in Lafayette, I would go to New Orleans with my friends. New Orleans has always been a place that’s been informative, but it sort of shifted when I got older. I would turn to New Orleans in a time of transition.
Kind of like Tennessee Williams said, any time I experience a loss, New Orleans is a place where I return to feel rejuvenated and to get life. It always kind of settled me down and put me back on the right track. There’s just something about this city.
How did you decide to do this project?
I was never going to take that emotional feeling and analyze it and turn it into a question of “why?” Why is it, after all these years, that the city’s always drawing me to it?
So what you see here [in the gallery], is me trying to answer that question of why. What are these magical properties? So I took the approach of being a flâneur, like a 19th century vagabond. Just walk around and notice things, talk to people,and try to really be in the moment and experience life.
Psycho-geographic is something that’s rooted in the ‘60s. It’s about interacting with your environment; you’re not walking around with your guidebook or anything. There’s no itinerary. Who I meet is who I talk to. It's about trying to be really open with my environment.
Sometimes I photograph iconic images like the St. Louis Cathedral, and other times I’m shooting graffiti artists in a back alley behind a mechanic shop. By creating this visual map of neighborhoods, I get a sense of what it all means.
Had you ever done a project like this in New Orleans? Why now?
No, this was my first. Half my family lost their homes during Katrina and Rita. My stepfather went through Chemotherapy in a FEMA trailer. And my grandparents died a month later, mostly just from loss. My brother died during Katrina; he’s one of those people they tried to move from a nursing home and didn’t make it. That was 2005; that was a big time. And so I think after 10 years, I just wanted to get a sense of what was going on now.
It started out as a very selfish project, really. I wanted to do this for me. And the more I got into it…I’m really glad I did it.
You took three months to walk around and photograph the city. Was that the plan all along?
That’s just how long it took me. I don’t think the project is completed. I think this is just the first step.
Well, this is really just street photography, and I would like to go one level in. Actually go into individual cultures and communities. Go beyond the street. Go inward from the street.
I see archiving as the work of a lifetime. It’s a way of investing in the community. And there’s a political component: I’m trying to show people about the African American community, what’s happened there, and that they should still care about it. These people need to be taken care of. I’m not going to do that by taking pictures of D.C.; I’m getting the word out there.
What was the thing that surprised you most during your exploration?
I think the thing that most people are shocked to hear is that 10 years later, the Lower Ninth Ward just got their first grocery store. That there’s a whole lot of nothing and then they’ve got the Brad Pitt houses. We still don’t have a plan to provide low-cost housing for people who have been away for 10 years. It’s outrageous.
Did the city’s rapid gentrification shock you at all?
Yeah, I mean it’s surprising. I’m concerned. It all comes down to opportunity. When are we gonna bring the people back? When are we gonna provide the opportunity to move back with affordable housing? We’re not having those conversations. A lot of people are either complaining about the violence or celebrating the innovation and the new energy. But they’re not talking about the people who are suffering from the diaspora of Katrina. And those are the people that are the essential soul of New Orleans. They’re the people banging the tambourine, they’re the one’s making the music, the food, and if you lose those people, you lose the heart of the party. You lose the spirit.
Ben Carver is a freelance photographer and videographer based in Washington, D.C. Born and raised in New Iberia, LA, Carver recently debuted a gallery exhibition in D.C., focusing on New Orleans 10 years after Hurricane Katrina. He took three months last year to meander his way through the city, stopping to photograph everything from the St. Louis Cathedral to the Mardi Gras Indians to legendary--as well as unknown--street performers. His work can be found at Tulane University’s upcoming Shakespeare festival June 14 - July 12, as well as http://benjamincarver.com/ and http://bencarverneworleans.tumblr.com/