Pin It
Akasha Rabut. Death Magick Abundance (2020)
“Candi” (2014)© Akasha Rabut from Death Magick Abundance

Akasha Rabut’s photographs celebrate the subcultures of New Orleans

The photographer captures the unwavering spirit of a city brimming with life

When photographer Akasha Rabut first moved to New Orleans in 2010, the city was still in the process of rebuilding itself after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina five years earlier. Having grown up between Hawaii and the “blissed out bubble of organic and free-range dreams” that is California, Rabut relocated to New Orleans after making a pact with a group of friends who all vowed to move there together. However, she was the only one who ended up actually making the move. Despite being initially unsure what her purpose and her relationship was with this new city, she gradually began to find her place. 

Initially getting a job at the Historic New Orleans Collection, Rabut worked as an archivist digitising their collection, scanning photographs of the brass band parades by Louisiana photographer Michael P. Smith. “I got to handle his negatives and really spend time learning about the New Orleans culture,” she told Dazed. “I think that was the catalyst to go out and shoot what was happening here.” 

She became fascinated with the “dizzying array of hallucinatory fashion” she encountered. “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,” she recalls. Her first documentary photography projects in the city included the marching band of Edna Karr High School, the world‘s first black, all-female biker gang, the Caramel Curves, and the urban cowboys who go by the name the Southern Riderz. The project of capturing New Orleans is still an ongoing one and the city remains her muse. “This relationship that I have with New Orleans has helped me learn a lot about myself and about integrity,” she explained to Dazed. “It‘s helped me develop into who I am. I feel like it‘s very important to me on so many different levels.” 

Her new book, Death Magick Abundance, is the culmination of her first decade in New Orleans. Accompanying the images are candid excerpts of conversations with the Caramel Curves and Southern Riderz, as told to the New Orleans Neighborhood Story Project, a nonprofit collaborative anthropology organisation. 

We talk with Rabut about Death Magick Abundance, giving back to her community with art, and life in the “Big Easy”.

What drew you to New Orleans in the first place? And what compels you to capture the street culture? 

Akasha Rabut: I’m fascinated by post-Hurricane Katrina culture. People’s resiliency and ability to continue celebrating their city and its heritage is what drives my commitment to this work. Even though Katrina was naturally devastating, it was also weaponised and used as a mechanism to oppress the people of New Orleans. This body of work celebrates the resiliency of a people who were essentially forgotten, yet expected to find a way to carry on or die. Despite the tragedy that surrounds the people of New Orleans, there is a vividness to the way of life here that makes it unlike anyplace else on earth.

I love the title, Death Magick Abundance. What does it refer to? 

Akasha Rabut: Death Magick Abundance refers to the cycle of life. Things die in order to grow – that's magick. And when growth happens, abundance is inevitable. This book is about death and life; it's about New Orleans and the people who rebuilt it after Hurricane Katrina. The photographs I take reveal this. 

Can you tell us a bit more about the street life and the second line parades in the city? 

Akasha Rabut: Every Sunday, a social aid and pleasure club, which is a group that honours the slaves that were freed and didn't have the financial means for whatever was happening in their life – whether it was being sick, or someone dying – these groups would pool their resources so that when a community member or group needed it, they'd have the support. People celebrate the cause by dancing through the streets on Sunday. There is a brass band behind the first line – the social aid club – and then, as they walk through each neighbourhood, they collect participants and that forms the second line of the celebration. 

“Things die in order to grow – that’s magick. And when growth happens, abundance is inevitable” – Akasha Rabut

Your pictures don’t feel like the work of an outsider. How did you become a part of the life of the New Orleans and the different subcultures?

Akasha Rabut: I have been intentional about how I participate in the community. I made friends with people who simply invited me into their worlds. I became a part of life here because these relationships were my foundation. Through paving the foundation together, a bond formed with many and that's how I've been given an intimate look into people’s lives.

Did you have any adventures with the different groups you photographed? 

Akasha Rabut: When I started photographing Devence and Dwayne from the Dirty South Riderz, they invited me on a trail ride and I met them at the location – three hours outside of New Orleans. When I arrived, I was alone in a field surrounded by cars and horses and, as I looked toward the horizon, I saw a large plume of dust forming. I was the only person there without a horse. I was clearly the outsider. Not long after getting there I remember seeing these plumes of dirt on the horizon and, as it got closer, I heard hooves on the grass and bounce playing as over 100 horsemen galloped toward me. After the dust settled, my friends appeared on a float they brought from New Orleans with ten speakers – the music source. It was spiritual and surreal. It's a day in my life I'll never forget. 

There’s a wealth of narratives in these pictures, they seem to suggest so many films and novels etc. Do you think you’d ever like to tell these stories in another medium?

Akasha Rabut: I’m pretty happy with these images living in the world as photographs.

What impression of New Orleans would you like Death Magick Abundance to leave the reader with? 

Akasha Rabut: The most challenging part of making a book is selling it as a commodity. I’m not from New Orleans and I do not want to exploit its people. It was hard figuring out how to make this book and give back, and nourish this community. So, the way I’ve done that is by donating to non-profits here in the city and keeping the book affordable. It’s important that I’m vocal about my process and emphasise the sensitivity of this subject matter. If you’re going to make work like this you have to accept that it’s not always going to impact the community positively. So the question became, what can I do so that it does? 

Throughout my project, I found time to teach locals how to take photos, and I try to hire these former students as much as possible. Through a non-profit, I created a class called Creative Council, where students were awarded money to apply for college by completing the course. Being able to create something with a whole community of people and forming these relationships is essential to my process. Building friendships and contributing to the community is the most gratifying outcome of my work.

It’s my top priority for readers to take away that New Orleans and its people require cultural nourishment in order to survive. This is a complicated topic, just like this place. It’s fragile here. It’s important that my book isn’t seen as promoting corporate tourism. It’s crucial that when you come here to visit that you support locally-owned and black businesses because that is the only way to sustain the multicultural experience. 

Death Magick Abundance by Akasha Rabut is published by Anthology Editions and available here now