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Talking to strangers

Editor's note: Multimedia artist Claire Bangser  started a new portrait-based story project that marries image and text. NOLAbeings is inspired by the Humans of NY project, and comes from the belief that we can all learn from each others' stories. Primarily featured on Instagram (and tumblr), Claire meets people in coffee shops, grocery stores, living rooms, sidewalks, and learns something about each individual through a snapshot conversation and image. Each week, Claire takes us behind the scenes with 3 "beings" featured in the project, and sheds light on the scary/funny/moving/awkward process of asking personal questions to complete strangers. 

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Around about four o'clock on Super Sunday, I parted ways with my friends and made a beeline for my bike a mile back on the parade route - exhausted, Super Sunburnt, and frustrated that I had to go do client work on such a beautiful weekend afternoon. That's when I saw Raymond perched on the back of his white pickup truck, laughing with a friend. When I took a picture of the scene, he cracked a joke that I was photographing him and not the Mardi Gras Indians, and we started talking. It was a long conversation. Raymond told me about growing up in New Orleans, dressing like a cowboy with a mop stick horse at Mardi Gras, and tragically losing his mother in a car accident on a day trip out to the country when he was young. “That was the saddest moment ‘cause I didn’t have a best friend no more,” he said.

I went back and forth between quoting the story of his mother and the words on what he's proud of and chose the latter. Ultimately, that was the quote that embodied my experience with Raymond the most... I left glowing.

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“What are you proud of right now?”

“Still living at 63 years old! I swear! Because you know a lot of guys you hear about in the newspaper or on the news, they dying young - 23, 24 years old. I’m proud of this 63 year old body - I’d live 63 more if I could. Really though, that’s why I’m just sitting here all alone, watching all the scenery. I ain’t bothering nobody, nobody bothering me. I’m just looking and enjoying every bit of it. Every bit. I'm well content, that’s where I’m at. I’m happy because other people out here happy - they enjoying theyself. That’s what it’s all about. I bet you one thing - somebody leave whenever they come from around me, they leave smiling. Trust me.”

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When you're sitting in the park, talking on the phone with your friend and you see a giant, black potbelly pig casually walk by, what do you do? You hang up the phone. Then you go and talk to Patrick, while Gaston munches into grass, trash, and whatever else he can get his snout in. What struck me about talking to Patrick was his total non-chalance about owning a pet pig. He and his former fiance bought Gaston as a baby after losing their pet pitbull. Wait, what? Replacing a pitbull with a pig? Yeah, it still doesn't quite make sense to me either, but I gotta trust they know what they're doing. Hearing Patrick talk about the relationship between Gaston and their dog made me melt a little bit. My favorite thing I learned that didn't quite fit in the quote? Gaston is smart enough to do tricks like sitting and coming when you call him, “if he feels like it.” (!)

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“What’s the relationship between Gaston and your dog?”

“They grew up together. We got her about a month after we got him. They were both tiny. They would cry if they didn’t get to sleep together. I have some great pictures of them just nuzzled up together.”

“Do you eat pork?”

“Yep! I just don’t eat that one." 

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These kids won me over from a block away as I spotted the young one, Makai, climbing on the back tire of his parents' truck, flashing me a big front-toothless smile. To the rhythmic melodies of their mother's “ice cold water, smoked sausage, hot sausage” call, I asked the older brother, Malik, what he teaches his younger brother. “Teach him learning,” he replied without hesitation. Makai chimed in, “I know how to say my ABCs! And read the book.”

The quote I chose to post was an interesting moment for me – learning that even at the age of 6, Malik asserts that God is his favorite person. I'm struck by this, forget for a moment that he's a child, and then am shot back to reality as the boys start rattling and relaying their favorite types of motor vehicles.

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“Who is your favorite person in the whole world?”

“God.” “I like motorbikes.” "I like dirt bikes.” “And dirt bikes!” “And four wheelers.”

Claire Bangser is a New Orleans-based photographer and filmmaker with a passion for storytelling. She is the creator of NOLAbeings and has produced work for local, national, an international organizations and media since 2009. Highlights include a three-month bike tour storytelling project on the west coast, documentation for a four-month National Geographic Young Explorer’s grant in Turkey, and New Orleans-based digital storytelling projects like Cry You One and BOUDIN: The New Orleans Music Project. Find more of her work at www.clairebangser.com.