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Akasha Rabut
From Caramel CurvesPhotography Akasha Rabut

How to photograph a subculture

Akasha Rabut uses her lens to capture the people that give life to New Orleans

In 2010, photographer Akasha Rabut left California for New Orleans. It had been five years since the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina and the city was still pulling itself back together. Having grown up in a “super creative” household – her mum was an airbrush artist and clothing designer and her dad was a musician – curiosity was always encouraged. She moved between California and Hawaii in her teens and it was the latter where she discovered a love for the camera. She had joined her school’s yearbook team and was assigned the task of documenting the state’s paradisal beaches. When she eventually settled back in California, Rabut signed up for photography classes and spiralled into an obsession with the darkroom, developing images that she took of her punk and skater friends.

Following a brief stint in Chicago – “I couldn’t acclimate!” she laughs – she began a new life in New Orleans after making a pact with a group of friends. None of them came with her, but the relationship she formed with the city is increasingly deep. In 2012, her first series Edna Karr began to take shape when she became fascinated by teens twirling batons around town. After gaining permission, she pitched up in the high school and started documenting the cheer squad. The following year, she met the Caramel Curves, the first black, all-female motorcycle club, at one of the city’s second line parades. Her series Southern Riderz follows the urban cowboys riding through the streets on horseback. And New Orleans is an ongoing love-letter to the city she now calls home.

As part of the New Orleans’ iteration of the Vans Vision Walk – which aims to give insight to different cities and offers photography masterclasses from the people documenting them – Rabut took Dazed on a tour of its infamous French Quarter for a photography 101, which culminated in a chat about how to capture the subculture of a city.

“This relationship that I have with New Orleans has helped me learn a lot about myself and about integrity. It's helped me develop into who I am” – Akasha Rabut

MAKE YOUR WORK AN EXTENSION OF YOU

“The first time I ever took photographs I was in high school. I had just moved from California back to Hawaii. I didn't really know anybody, but I wanted to be on the yearbook staff – which is bizarre if you don’t know people. I just wanted to be behind the camera. I was given the assignment to drive around the island and take photos of the best surf spots in Hawaii. When I got the photos back my mum was like, ‘these are amazing!’ I knew then that I was really hungry for it, but I didn’t get to do an actual photo class until I moved back to California. I became obsessed with it. I spent all my time in the darkroom – I was literally eating it. I would be in the darkroom with all the chemicals on my hands, no gloves, and eating food. It’s probably inside of me.”

GET UNDERNEATH THE SKIN OF YOUR SUBJECT

“When I moved to New Orleans in 2010, the city was still feeling the aftermath of Katrina. There were a lot of shelled out homes, the population wasn't up yet – it's still not up. Pre-Katrina, there were 800,000 people. Today, we're around 400,000. I don't think the council thought that it was going to be a city again. I feel like they really used Katrina as a way to dispose of all the public housing, and the schools are no longer public, they’re all privatised. I don't know that they knew things were going to happen the way they did – but there is just this thriving community of people, and it's really beautiful.

“When I first moved here, I didn't really understand my relationship to New Orleans or why I was here. Then I got a job at the Historic New Orleans Collection, working as an archivist and digitising their collection. I got to scan a lot of (Louisiana photographer) Michael P. Smith's work, he shot all second lines (brass band parades in New Orleans). I got to handle his negatives and really spend time learning about the New Orleans culture. I think that was the catalyst to go out and shoot what was happening here.”

OPEN UP TO PEOPLE

“(Through my work) I want to show the best side of people. I don't want to lie in my photos, but I feel I make my best photos when people are really emotionally open to me, and in order to get that, I have to be emotionally open to them.

“I also fell in love with someone here and he really showed me this other side of New Orleans that I hadn't experienced yet. I feel like that really moved me. This relationship that I have with New Orleans has helped me learn a lot about myself and about integrity. It's helped me develop into who I am. I feel like it’s very important to me on so many different levels.”

APPRECIATE THE PLACE, BUT, MOST IMPORTANTLY, ITS PEOPLE

“Every time I go to take photos, I’m thinking, ‘Why am I the person telling this story?’ Because I'm not from here; I'm a transplant. Sometimes I worry that it really needs to be someone from here to tell this story. But it's been really interesting. I really like to develop relationships with my subjects and really become involved with them. I spend years with them. I really like to make it clear that it's not just me taking from them; I want to give back to them too. If they need a wedding photographer, I'm their wedding photographer. If their kid needs a photo, I'm gonna take their senior photo, or whatever. I just like them to know that I'm their photosphere for life and whatever I get, I'm going to share with them. That's how I've navigated (feelings of doubt).”

KEEP YOUR WORK CLOSE TO YOU

“I've gotten to the point where I'm really selective about where my work is shown and what publications it can go to. I needed to take a pause and figure out where I wanted my work to live. I want to maintain the integrity that I put into my work and these projects, for however long this work exists on this planet. I want it to live in really special places that are respectful and I want to make the people who are in the photos feel proud that I was able to take this photo of them. Hopefully.”

SPEND REAL TIME WITH THE CULTURE

“With Edna Karr, I had just moved here and I had seen these girls in sparkly outfits twirling batons all over the place – I thought, ‘I want to be them! But it's too late so I'll just take photos of them.’ (laughs) It took a long time to actually get a school to cooperate with me. When I first moved here, nobody used the internet. So I was sending all these emails and nobody was responding to me. I finally met somebody at this high school and they were just like, ‘just come and take photos, who cares?’ And so I did, and it was so amazing how cool they were with me. I spent a couple of years with them shooting their marching and during Mardi Gras and stuff like that.

“With Caramel Curves, I met them at a second line (march). I met Tru, and her and her friend were on motorcycles. I hadn't seen that many women on motorcycles and they looked really cool. I walked up them and Tru was so cool to me. She said, ‘I'm in an all-female motorcycle gang, the first black all-female motorcycle gang based out of New Orleans. We have our meetings every Tuesday and Coco's Nail Salon, you should come’, and so I went to a meeting. Not only are these women involved in this male-dominated sport but they also give back to the community. They do a lot of fundraisers and they come from all walks of life They really accepted me and invited me in.

“With Southern Riderz, I had met them one time on the street and I took a photo. (Later) I thought, "I wish I had the number of those horseback riders because I really want to do a project about them." One night I was riding my bike down the street in this neighbourhood, and I turned the corner – it was probably 10pm – and there were five guys on horseback just riding through the city, and it was them! They were like, ‘hey! I remember you! You took a photo of me!’ I said, ‘yes. I did and I wanna do more – I wanna do a project.’ So I got their number and I started hanging out at their stables.”

DON’T WORRY ABOUT WHAT ANYONE ELSE IS DOING

“I'm sure there's a lot of advice I'd give my younger self, but right after college there was this pressure to make money and pay back my student loans, and this idea that if I copied other photographers I would get jobs and that would make me happy. As soon as I started doing what I wanted to do with my photos, that's when I started getting jobs and people started paying attention to me. So I would tell my younger self to be free and don't be afraid to break out of that box and do whatever feels good. It's also important to pay attention to what feels right. Intuition is so important. If I would have known that that's what I needed to do  ten years ago, I would have done it a lot sooner.”

Follow Akasha Rabut and her work here. Learn more about Vans Vision Walks here