Akasha Rabut: Death Magick Abundance
"A precarious place, the Big Easy, celebrates death, and in doing so overflows with life (or vice versa?), "writes Sam Feather in the introduction to Akasha Rabut's first book, Death Magick Abundance. "Destroyed and rebuilt from its beginning, New Orleans is at once grand and ramshackle, seductive and dangerous." The people make New Orleans and it's strange and frightening to imagine the place facing yet another disaster and this time one that prohibits many of the traditions that bring the community together. For nearly a decade Rabut has documented the people and culture of New Orleans, from the vibrant glow of the Carmel Curves, an all-female black motorcycle club, to the Southern Riderz, a group of urban cowboys, and everything in between.
I spoke to Akasha just as she left her cameras and New Orleans behind to be closer to her family in California during the pandemic. Our conversation drifts from being conflicted about leaving to the responsibility involved in photographing people and community and the pressure of representing both truthfully in a book. Released just last week, "this book is really about the people who brought New Orleans back to life," says Rabut. "The timing is such a sweet reminder that we're all in this together and we're going to get through this."
Alex Nicholson: Does it feel strange to finally have all this work published and out there after spending so many years working on these projects?
Akasha Rabut: It definitely feels very strange, I don't know how I feel about it. I feel very blessed to have a book with Anthology. It's so cool that they believed in me and wanted to make this book but I'm still a little bit in shock. It’s my first book so maybe I have postpartum depression about it. It feels very controversial, I'm very emotionally tied to this work. This book was not made by me, it was made by the people in the photographs. I was just lucky to be invited into their lives. When they see this book, even the people that I didn't photograph, I hope that they see it as a celebration and a beautiful dedication to them.
How long have you been working on the book?
It's been about a year but I honestly wish that it had been a longer process. The next time I make a book I'm going to give myself a couple of years to put it together. I learned so much throughout this process, I definitely didn't know much about bookmaking when we started.
It’s really nice to have the text introducing each series. How did you decide upon that structure?
Sam Feather and I are really big fans of Rachel Breunlin of the neighborhood story project. We own a boutique here in New Orleans and we have been carrying her books for years. All of her books are based around oral histories. It’s a super powerful way to create a dialogue with the community. When I first began working on the book Sam encouraged me to reach out to Rachel and see if she would collaborate. Having Rachel on the project really changed the whole vibe of the book. I feel blessed to have gotten to work with her.
Will you continue to work on these series now that they’ve been published in a book?
I am actually taking a break right now. Working on this book took everything out of me and was probably one of the most stressful things I've ever done. My intentions were very authentic and positive but it gets tricky when you turn your photography into something that's going to be sold. So I'm taking some space to figure out if I want to be a photographer or how I'm going to photograph in the future. There's just so much responsibility and accountability that needs to be taken when you make work like this. I'm learning as I'm doing it and I feel pretty naive for not really thinking this through more before making the book. Photography is so extractive and it can be really exploitative and I really want to change that. I'm also a freelance photographer and that part of it can feel really daunting and hard and I just want to figure out how to make a living not off of my art because I feel like that compromises everything for me.
I understand that dilemma. Are you still shooting or are you really taking a complete break?
I mean there is a funny project related to COVID-19 which I think is going to be really good for me to do. It's going to be all digital and completely different than any of my other work. I feel like it's going to give me the space I need. It’s kind of a goofy project... not that COVID-19 is not serious, but the way that I'm doing it feels more autistic and authentic with where I'm at right now. I usually shoot on film with a medium format camera and it feels so serious. I fled to California and left almost all my gear in New Orleans and it feels so good to not have myself strapped to a Pelican case full of camera gear.
I can’t wait to see what it is! So you're gonna try to photograph some in California too?
Yeah, I'm going to work on this project out here and see what comes of it. But it's very casual and I'm only going to do it when I'm feeling it. I'm not going to give away what I'm shooting on, but it's going to be very comical.
It’s good to be excited about something. It’s so strange thinking of a New Orleans without celebrations and gatherings.
I know, it's just so tragic to think about. I'm trying not to look at the news, but obviously I really want to know what's going on there. I'm not sure that I made the right choice by leaving. At the time I felt like I needed to leave and now that I'm here I feel like, man, I just left this place that I really, really love and I hope that I get to go back to it and it continues to be this place that is vibrant and full of culture. I think that the news is incredibly sensationalized, but everyone is talking about how this is going to be another disaster like Katrina because New Orleans has a very high poverty line. The city has its financial problems and not a lot of people have cars so they’re not able to drive to get tested. You have multi-generational families living together, people are getting infected and it's just so layered. And a lot of the systemic problems that happened during Katrina are surfacing again. I don’t know, maybe it’s a good thing, maybe people will finally pay attention to it and see that things really need to change. But it's just so hard to see this happen.
The last time we talked you mentioned working on some video projects, are you still interested in film?
Not really. At the moment I have no interest in carrying any camera that's heavier than half a pound. This stuff was so emotionally draining...Not in a bad way, I'm just very sensitive and emotionally connected to anybody I photograph and that part was really draining. It wasn't draining to be taking the photographs but it is really hard to have the responsibility of what to do with the photographs. To have them published, to control who's going to do what with them. It's the part after I take the photos that gets really tricky for me. There's a part of me that just wants to take photos and put all the negatives under my bed. Hilma af Klint vibes, where it's like, these are photographs for the future, people can look at these in 50 years. It's especially confusing with social media. I think social media really requires a lot from people. For me, if I give too much attention to social media then I feel like I have to be posting stuff all the time and need to keep that momentum. It's just not a natural thing for me. I feel much better about working at my own pace and releasing things when it feels good to me.
It seems like most people feel the same way but it’s just so hard to get away from it.
I feel like I did a lot of jobs through social media and I need these jobs. I love being a working photographer but then it just gets to be too much. Sometimes there needs to be some separation to just figure stuff out.
I also just want to say that I do feel very lucky. The timing of the release of this book is so beautiful with what's happening in the world right now because I feel this book is about resiliency and people coming together during a time where there isn't really any infrastructure and the government isn't really there to help. This book is really about the people who brought New Orleans back to life. The timing is such a sweet reminder that we're all in this together and we're going to get through this.
Oh that's a really nice way to look at it.
It's funny because we talked about releasing the book in January and I was like, “No, we have to do it in March and it has to be after Mardi Gras!” It's such perfect timing. It's a bummer that we didn't get to do the party, but before I left I hand-delivered books to people locally and everybody's in quarantine and reading the book. People were messaging me saying that it was a lifesaver. It feels good that it’s such a positive thing in such a dark time.