Akasha Rabut on how NOLA's street culture shaped her photographic identity.
Photography: Akasha Rabut
Words: Elvira Vedelago
Trying to leave your own stamp in the creative industry is a difficult feat for any budding artist, something New Orleans based photographer, Akasha Rabut is very open about. Moving to NOLA from the “blissed out bubble" that is California, she found her zest for documentary photography within the eclectic street culture of one of America’s roughest cities. Here we find out more about her passion for her new home, creating her own photography rules and her project, ‘Edna Karr’ - a behind the scenes glimpse at a high school marching band in New Orleans.
What was your journey into photography like?
I’ve always been drawn to photography. I started making pictures when I was 14 years old. In the 9th grade I was on the yearbook staff and borrowed my step-mom’s camera to shoot some photos of popular surf spots on Kauai - my hometown. I remember feeling very excited by the outcome of the images. My junior year I decided to go live with my mom in California. When I moved to California, I told my guidance counsellor that I was going to go back to Kauai if there wasn’t space in the Black & White photo class – at that point I had no experience with dark rooms. I lucked out, got into the class and practically moved into the dark room. I was obsessed with photography by my senior year. I entered every photo contest that I could. I think I was the only photo geek entering them. The school would make morning announcements and I remember them saying “Akasha Rabut won 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in the such and such photo contest.” After graduating high school I attended a couple of art schools and studied photography and film. I got my BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2008. I’ve spent the past 10 years trying to find my place in the photo world.
“There’s a lot of rejection that comes with photography and there was a period of time where I was terrified of putting my work out into the world because I was afraid of rejection. When I started letting go of that fear and taking photos for myself, my career started to flourish”.
Any significant challenges?
When I first got out of college, I was interested in fashion photography because it was challenging and I was in a severe amount of student loan debt, so that path seemed like a great way to generate money. I moved to Chicago and did a lot of catalogue work, which I absolutely loathed. That stint didn’t last very long. Shortly after I found myself in New Orleans. That’s where I got back into documentary photography. I spent a few years working on the ‘Edna Karr' project and started my photo project about the Caramel Curves. I showed that work to a lot of people but nobody was interested. I felt conflicted about where I belonged in the photo world and decided to put all my projects on hiatus so that I could move to NYC to pursue a career in fashion photography. Once I got there I realised how much I loved New Orleans and missed its street culture. It also turned out that I wasn’t that great at fashion photography. The timing of the move coincided with the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Suddenly National Geographic, TIME and ESPN The Magazine started asking me about my projects and they wanted to see more images. As much as I was excited about the potential of having my work published, I was also frustrated for obvious reasons. It wasn’t until after I moved cross-country that people started to take a keen interest in my New Orleans based photo projects. That transition was really rough because I ended a relationship with my longtime partner and moved all my worldly belongings across the US. I only spent about three months in New York before I moved back to New Orleans. At the time the whole situation felt like and expensive prank. In the end a tremendous amount of success was incubated. If I could go back in time I wouldn’t change any of those events. A lot of personal and professional growth happened because of those challenging times. That struggle has made me humble and very grateful to be where I am at today.
What brought you to NOLA and how is it different from the city you grew up in?
I moved in 2010. I had never been to New Orleans and my partner at the time got a job at one of the universities here. We were living in Chicago and I desperately wanted to get out of Illinois. A few of my friends visited that year and we all made a pact to move to New Orleans. I was the only one who actually ended up moving. New Orleans is incredibly different from where I grew up. I grew up going back and forth between California and Kauai. I consider California to be a highly functioning state; it’s like a blissed out bubble of organic and free-range dreams. New Orleans lacks infrastructure. Its schools are still segregated and it’s one of the most violent cities in America.
“New Orleans is a very special place that I hold dear to my heart. I love it for its vivacious street culture, something that I never experienced where I grew up.”
What is it about NOLA that inspires you to feature aspects of its identity within your photography?
New Orleans is a cradle of culture. The inspiration is endless. There is an amazing tradition of street culture that flourishes here. This city is full of visionaries and luminaries and I feel very lucky to be living here right now. I’m grateful that the city has embraced me and given me the opportunity to document it. Local traditions and group identity are very important to my work, especially here in New Orleans.
How receptive are these communities to being photographed by you?
They love it! When I’m shooting at the second lines I usually get approached by people and they ask me to take their photo.
Is there a purpose or motive behind your photography or are you simply inspired by what you see?
I’m a very visual person. I love colours, patterns and light. I usually start a project because it’s visually stunning and then from there I come up with a motive and purpose.
How has your photography style changed since moving to NOLA?
My photo style has loosened up. I think I’m more willing to experiment with my subjects and engage with them on a personal level. In school I was taught not to become emotionally involved with subjects. I go against the rule of documentary photography and usually become friends with my subjects. My relationship with my subjects is symbiotic. I try to offer as much as I can to the people that I am photographing. Once I shoot someone I like to believe that I’m his or her photographer for life. Wedding photography and family portraits can be very costly; I usually end up doing those types of shoots for people that I’ve photographed for free.
How did you decide upon the Edna Karr project and why did you pick that particular high school to feature?
I feel like Edna Karr chose me. When I first began the project I contacted a lot of marching bands in New Orleans. Nobody responded to me. I ended up becoming friends with a teacher at Edna Karr and I told her about my project. I explained that I’d reached out to the school several times to no avail. The next day she sent me a message and said to come shoot their marching band. I feel really lucky that I had that connection.
What can we expect from you next?
I’m working on publishing a book that will include images from The Caramel Curves, Southern Riderz, Edna Karr and New Orleans an Ongoing Project. I’m currently working on funding and am hoping to release this book with the 300 year anniversary of New Orleans this fall.
Follow Akasha on Instagram @akasharabut
Words: Elvira Vedelago