The best part of this assignment was digging into the cultural aspect of the city, getting at the meat of what makes the city great: the down-home music scene. Music plays an important role in the life of the city, and has for a long time. I grew up in New Orleans, so I was familiar with the sounds, but there were clubs I'd never gone to, namely those where the brass bands reign. This story took me into down-home places such as Vaughn's Lounge, in the Bywater neighborhood, and the Maple Leaf, a bar in the Uptown neighborhood, where the Rebirth Brass Band drew a packed crowd and kept patrons dancing into the early morning hours. And I finally went to the renowned Preservation Hall. It was unbelievable. The New Birth Brass Band, which appears there regularly, was playing. The hall is a small, somewhat narrow room, with a wooden floor, no heating or cooling system—so you either freeze or swelter depending on the season—and a few folding chairs and wooden benches for seating. But none of that matters, because you're there for the music. And that doesn't disappoint.
What was the trickiest part of the assignmet?
Since I'm from New Orleans, it broke my heart to see the devastation of the city and of my childhood neighborhood in particular. My family's house stood near the 17th Street Canal, at the foot of one of the levees that broke. The area is still a wasteland, as are many other areas of New Orleans and its surroundings. Some areas are coming back, and you can see the revitalization, but others, such as St. Bernard Parish, are just struggling. Recovery, if at all, seems far off for these places. I shot images for this story over a span of nine months, and in that time, little seemed to change, with homes, streets, whole neighborhoods left untouched. There's a profound sense of emptiness that still hangs over much of the city.
Did you come across anything particularly interesting?
Much of New Orleans sits below sea level, so most of the cemeteries are designed for aboveground burials, with people interred in vaults. In the older cemeteries, the tombs may be elaborately decorated with a cross and/or statuary and enclosed by a wrought-iron fence. I was excited to be in New Orleans on All Saints' Day, November 1, when Catholics in the city descend upon the cemeteries to clean their family tombs and bring gifts of food and flowers to the deceased. It's a time when families gather around to remember and honor their loved ones. Sometimes in spectacular fashion. I had heard that I should be sure to visit the old St. Louis No. 2 cemetery near the French Quarter to see the grave of Ernie K-Doe, a rhythm-and-blues musician who wrote the 1961 hit "Mother-in-Law." Since his passing in 2001, his widow, Antoinette, has been holding a virtual party graveside on All Saints' Day, complete with full-size statue of her husband. She brings the statue in grand fashion, fully dressed, in a hearse. On that day, she had some trouble negotiating the road, so I jumped behind the wheel of the hearse and backed it up to Ernie's grave. (That was definitely a first for me!) Once Ernie, the statue, was in place and food and drink laid out, Antoinette and her friends set up chairs and proceeded to have fun, meeting and greeting passersby. I'd never seen such a sight.