Spotted Cat, New Orleans, James Hayman.jpg

Photo Journal

New Orleans

A Photo Series

I first went to New Orleans when I was 15. It was 1968, and I was part of an academic domestic exchange program between my junior high school and an all-Black school in New Orleans. I lived with a family there and attended classes with one of their sons. Being at the height of the civil rights movement, you can imagine it was an eye-opener for me. Beyond the racial and political overtones, the city just spoke to me.

 

I returned periodically as an adult working on various projects. It was in 2014, when I moved there to run the television show NCIS: New Orleans, that I truly rekindled my love for the city. And as they say, it’s the biggest small town in the South. The civic pride and interconnectedness of its population immediately took me in. Someone told me when I moved there, “If you ask someone how they are, you better have 20 minutes because they are going to tell you.” I found it interesting that people take in one another so easily and the way it spills over into a cultural and civic pride gave me a sense of community and purpose. Now, I’ve become one of those people, so you better have 20 minutes!

Bourbon Street Pandemic, New Orleans
Queen of Jackson Square, New Orleans

Finally, the visual eclecticism of the city speaks to me as an artist. There is such a wide array of images to capture, it seems to put my work into overdrive.

I see my work here like a visual gumbo, the quintessential New Orleans dish. It’s where you take a little bit of everything you have in your kitchen, throw it into a pot, and make something amazing. I would hope that my work reveals the diverse and prideful culture that envelops this city. From the wild bacchanal of Mardi Gras Indians to those who struggle every day to get by—and everything in between. So many things are unique to New Orleans. There is a very particular joie de vivre in this city. Some say, because of its heavy French and Spanish history, it’s the most European of US cities. Others refer to it as the northernmost Caribbean city. What I see is its beautifully spectacular cultural and civic pride. Its refusal to bow down in the face of any adversity. Let them bring on the hurricanes, let them bring on all other pressures and still there’s a sense that “we will rise up,” and that is accomplished by everyone helping each other. There is a strong sense of shared community here.

 

The first time I directed on the streets of the French Quarter, when we were racing the light to finish a scene, a marching band and a Second Line passed by. I watched my entire crew stop working and join the dancing in the streets. At first, I protested, saying that we needed to finish the scene. I realized this was the exact moment I had been looking for when I first moved here. I joined in, we danced, the parade passed, and we returned to work and finished our day.

Mail Slot, New Orleans
Big Chief, New Orleans

I see my work here like a visual gumbo, the quintessential New Orleans dish. It’s where you take a little bit of everything you have in your kitchen, throw it into a pot, and make something amazing. I would hope that my work reveals the diverse and prideful culture that envelops this city. From the wild bacchanal of Mardi Gras Indians to those who struggle every day to get by—and everything in between. So many things are unique to New Orleans. There is a very particular joie de vivre in this city. Some say, because of its heavy French and Spanish history, it’s the most European of US cities. Others refer to it as the northernmost Caribbean city. What I see is its beautifully spectacular cultural and civic pride. Its refusal to bow down in the face of any adversity. Let them bring on the hurricanes, let them bring on all other pressures and still there’s a sense that “we will rise up,” and that is accomplished by everyone helping each other. There is a strong sense of shared community here.

 

The first time I directed on the streets of the French Quarter, when we were racing the light to finish a scene, a marching band and a Second Line passed by. I watched my entire crew stop working and join the dancing in the streets. At first, I protested, saying that we needed to finish the scene. I realized this was the exact moment I had been looking for when I first moved here. I joined in, we danced, the parade passed, and we returned to work and finished our day.

MLK boulevard, New Orleans

When a parade comes by in life, you need to take a moment to enjoy it. That is the epitome of New Orleans to me. Laissez les bons ton rouler!

 

I had come to New Orleans sometime around 2010 to direct a movie, and one of my crew told me about the history of the Mardi Gras Indians. They were groups or “krewes” of African Americans who dressed in fabulous, beaded outfits which they made by hand. They gathered, dancing and drumming in parades, to honor the local Native American tribes who had sheltered and hidden runaway slaves. Super Sunday was the biggest parade day of the year where countless krewes showed up and paraded around a mid-city neighborhood, ending in a gigantic party in a city park. It all felt like the most honorable endeavor, both on the part of the tribes, and on the part of the krewes who remembered them. Not to mention, once you hear that music, it’s damn near impossible not to be swept up in it and be dancing yourself.

 

Growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s, there were television stations that played old black-and-white movies all night. My mother was a night owl and she and I would stay up late watching them. That started my fascination with both story and black-and-white images. When I first started taking photos and developing and printing my own work, black-and-white was what was most accessible. More than that, the starkness of the black-and-white image, the way it strips away the distraction of color, often helps me express what I am seeing in the world around me. That starkness helps me reveal  the emotional content of the subjects I am capturing on film.

By James Hayman