Interview: Claire Bangser of NOLA Beings
An interview with the photographer, videographer and illustrator behind the NOLA Beings portrait project.
When I approached Claire Bangser at the Orange Couch coffee shop in Marigny, her camera was slung around her neck, and she was flicking through the photos she had just taken. Before she arrived to meet me, she had encountered a man who was walking down Royal Street, simply playing his trombone. Talking to him for five minutes, she listened to his amazing story and then snapped his photo. Satisfied, she walked away, knowing she had found her NOLA Being for the day.
Bangser, a freelance photographer, videographer and illustrator originally from Connecticut, is the brains behind the portrait project NOLA Beings, inspired by the popular Humans of New York project. Since her first Instagram post in February, Claire’s project has gone viral: a simple concept, a photo and quote, that tell the colorful stories of New Orleanians she encounters on the streets.
Q: What is your process when capturing a NOLA Being's portrait?
A: I record almost every interview. I'm really a stickler for using the exact words because I feel like the exact words that people use are so interesting and such another layer of revealing their personalities. We have a lot of dialects and a lot of different "slangs" in New Orleans because of all the different cultures that exist down here. The best thing I can do is to be true to their words.
“(The trombone) made me dance. And I want to make people dance, you know?”
Q: So you don't always plan when you are going to take someone's photo?
A: I almost never have planned to meet up with somebody in advance. Sometimes I plan that there will be two hours in the middle of the day when I am going to go do NOLA Beings, but the thing that is hard about that is that you really have to be in the right mindset for it. I really have to be prepared to stop thinking about me, stop thinking about my own work. It is really about focusing on other humans for that chunk of time.
Q: How do you approach people on the street to take their picture?
A: I think my awkwardness makes people relax a little bit. Ultimately, I am just a person that is asking if I can talk to them for a minute. People totally say no sometimes, and I respect that. A lot of people that I photograph tell me that once they were on NOLA Beings, people have started talking to them and recognizing them. Which is kind of the point for me. You talk to me, and you share your story, and now, a little bit of your story is known by a lot of people who will talk to you if they see you. Wouldn't it be cool if we all engaged with our neighbors and engaged with the diverse landscape of New Orleans a little deeper?
Q: Your photo of Matthew McConaughey and Drew Brees, arm in arm, went viral. What was it like capturing their photo?
A: That was a timely coincidence. They were both really nice, just very easygoing and personable. They ignored screaming women and paparazzi for five minutes while they talked to me, and I was just thinking, "Every woman on the street hates me right now, but I'm so glad that I'm getting this quote." On Facebook, it has been seen like 200,000 times, which is cool.
Q: What kind of lessons have you learned since starting the project?
A: I just love meeting people. I travel a lot, and I talk to strangers all the time. It was such a good solution to bringing a few things together that I really love. Back in February, I was at Café du Monde with a friend from out of town, and I was just like, “I think I am going to take a picture of one of the waiters and start a new Instagram account and ask him a question and post a quote.” That day, I posted two different NOLA Beings posts. I started getting a following because people were excited about New Orleans. I started using my real camera and had more of a robust workflow. I do a little bit of editing in my editing program, but I stopped using Instagram filters. I feel like if the whole point of the project is to show reality and show people that you meet on the street, then there is no reason to sugar coat it. NOLA Beings just opened up this excuse to ask real questions to my neighbors and to other people around the city that I wouldn’t have necessarily felt a good reason to approach out of the blue. It is funny, but I sometimes joke that NOLA Beings is my therapy because there is so much wisdom that people share with you if you just ask them questions. I have gotten a lot of really great jobs through people finding me on NOLA Beings. That is great, but it wasn't the point. It was kind of the “lagniappe” bonus.
Q: How long have you lived in New Orleans? What brought you here?
A: I have only been here for two and a half years. I grew up in Connecticut, and I went to college in Saint Louis. Ultimately, everyone feels frustrated by the influx of incomers who come and take something and then leave. I don't want to be like that. I am not planning on leaving anytime soon. I am also not planning to ever act like an expert, like I know New Orleans better than anyone else. I just think that for me, this is a project about asking questions, and anybody can ask questions. I think I could do that anywhere I lived, but I love doing that here because I think that this city is so full of characters and so rich with stories.
Q: Where do you see NOLA Beings going from here?
A: I have met a couple of people through NOLA Beings that I want to do video portraits of. I just have no time over the summer. This project can just be what it is for right now or as long as I keep it going, or someone else helps me keep it going … It is a great opportunity because it can be kind of overwhelming when I already have so many that I haven't posted yet. Sometimes, it is a little hard because I have so much other work right now. NOLA Beings started as a side project when work was slow. I poured myself into it. Now, work has picked up like crazy, and I am really busy. I keep running into new people. I want to post that guy with the trombone today. He is from Minnesota and moved down here and picked up a trombone and started playing. He is a singer, and he talked to me about how music has affected his life, and how the rhythm of his heart is what keeps him going, getting him through hard times.
Q: If you had to choose your perfect person to capture who would it be?
A: Everybody is perfect. I could definitely tell you what kinds of people are more popular and get likes. It is very interesting to see patterns in that. Sometimes, I am really surprised when I take a picture of someone, and the picture is nice, but the quote is not that great, and it will just go crazy. The celebrities are always fun, but they are well versed at interviewing. I met Wendell Pierce from The Wire. He came into Cake Café when I was there with a friend, and I was like, “You’re Bunk. Can I interview you for my portrait project?” I ended up having lunch with him for an hour.
There was a man I met in the Bywater, leaning against his truck. He told me about how his mother died when her house burned down. I asked him how he got over that, and he talked about death in this way that was sad, but he was also so at peace. It was very exciting to share that kind of quote because I think we can all relate to that. Maybe not to that extreme, but we have all lost people. It is not just a story but also a little nugget of truth and wisdom coming through him. If the story ties to a message that is relatable, then that is golden.
"I’m going to tell you this here: losing someone in your family is something you never get over. You know, time goes on you just move on."
Q: If you had two hours and had to pick an area of town to go find a NOLA Being, where would you go?
A: If I have two hours, I will just walk around the French Quarter. I know it is a lot of tourists, but there are also a lot of service industry people who come from all over town that are working there. I always have my camera wherever I go. It would be terrible if I were only taking pictures in the Marigny. That is so not representative of New Orleans. The same would be true if I went just to Broadmoor. Any one neighborhood is diverse, but New Orleans is a patchwork quilt, and it is all interconnected. I want NOLA Beings to be just as much of a patchwork quilt.