By Kelly Harris
Imagine losing your favorite baby picture, high school picture, family or wedding picture — precious moments – damaged by water forever. So many people who lived in New Orleans lost their pictures.
Gus Bennett, a self-taught photographer who before Hurricane Katrina hit had been laid off from a local university, had an idea: The New Orleans People Project.
The NOPP invites all New Orleanians to be photographed at a studio inside a Treme shotgun house –for free. After 24 hours, participants can use the image however they like: Facebook profiles, artist promotions, anything. The other rule is simple: They have to introduce themselves and tell their story. This makes every participant a collaborator of the project. Every photograph includes an interesting snippet of the person that was photographed. It’s a way of giving the people of New Orleans a new image to own and cherish.
“It’s a way of telling the world, ‘We are not refugees. We never were. Never will be,’” says Bennett. Some New Orleanians who’ve moved to other cities after Katrina have still posed for NOPP on their visits home. Post-Katrina transplants are in the collection, too.
Bennett says NOPP is a grassroots project that celebrates and documents the city’s culture and identity. He’s photographed teachers, a burlesque dancer, a stripper, a chemist, a civil rights leader, a snake handler, an opera singer, a doll maker, even the homeless.
Many of the images of Katrina and New Orleans were fixed in people’s minds as they watched the devastation from afar. NOPP counters those images by allowing New Orleanians to take pictures and tell their own stories. These pictures represent the tapestry of New Orleans. The project has photographed over 1,500 New Orleanians post-Katrina.
Bennett wants the everyday beauty and flaws of real people on camera. “There’s no need to dress up on Sunday’s best because I believe people are trying to be their best daily.” Bennett says the New Orleans Project is often compared to the popular Humans of New York.
“However, NOPP is not random. It’s deliberate image making. Everyone sits on the same chair, under the same light, same background and enters under the same door sill—and yet, every day is different. Every day is better than the last one.”
Although, the NOPP is a labor of love, it has taught Bennett that he can be self-employed without worry. “I didn’t know that prior to Katrina. I didn’t know how my life was going to turn out, but NOPP has helped to rebuild my career. I’m blessed.”
View pictures from the NOPP at the Soul of New Orleans Booth in the Convention Center during Essence Festival.
Search hashtags on social media #NOPP, #NEWORLEANSPEOPLEPROJECT, #GUSBENNETT, #GUSBENNETTPHOTO
Kelly Harris is the editor and founder of BrassyBrown.com. Follow her @BrassyBrownNOLA or facebook.