The voice of Ben Carver is seldom audibly heard. Despite his immense popularity in Washington social circles, at social events the DC photographer is more apt to stand quietly in a corner with a friend or offer others a shy “hello” in passing. But, just because Carver is not often heard speaking does not mean that he does not have something to say.
A Louisiana native, Carver moved to Washington 16 years ago and began walking its streets with his camera even long before establishing himself a professional photographer and videographer. Carver’s 2015 series “This is the Place…” explored the lives of individuals living along New Hampshire Avenue in Takoma Park, MD. His portraits of New Hampshire Avenue residents were hung on street banners to accompany an interactive art project with Takoma Park dance company Dance Exchange.
Self portraits by the photographer
Despite establishing himself in Washington, Carver continued to return to Louisiana, and specifically the city of New Orleans. A Cajun raised by French-speaking parents in Acadiana, New Orleans held special significance to Carver as he grew up in rural Louisiana. It called to him as a child. It still does. In 2015, Carver returned for three months to New Orleans to walk its streets in an attempt to define the seemingly undefinable reason why the city continues to draw him back home.
“I went back to answer a question,” says Carver. “Tennessee Williams wrote that whenever a time of recession was called for – a loss, a psychic wound, or a defeat – he would return to New Orleans and no place else. The same is true for me. Over the years I have returned in times of transition. I needed to understand the siren song of the city and why it has always kept me in its grasp.”
“People don’t fully grasp how hard it is to live here,” continues Carver. “New Orleans isn’t the southernmost American city, it is the northernmost Caribbean city, and you need to understand that for the place to make sense. New Orleans is often perceived as a lyrical and magical place that exists between the seen and unseen, but it is and always has been a hard place.
The city is undergoing a renaissance, but only for the ‘pioneers’ who are bringing new energy and opportunity for the city. Most of those people are white and middle-class. Hurricane Katrina created a diaspora for the poor living in New Orleans, many of them remaining in the cities where they fled. 110,000 still live in Houston, 70,000 in Atlanta, 15,000 in San Antonio, and more in other cities. 10 years later and there still isn’t adequate housing for New Orleanians to return home.
Type A personalities often move here and are rejected forcefully. If the city doesn’t like you, you’re going to know it pretty quick. It’s best suited for people who are equal parts pirate and priest. That’s probably why oddballs and artists are present in great quantity. It’s a place where the weird can dance with people like them, and be happy.”
This Saturday evening, the Washington photographer presents a showing of his New Orleans collection at White Room DC. The display will include selections of more than 600 images taken by Carver. Prints and a photo book compilation will also be available for sale. We asked Ben Carver to share a few of the images that will be on view for the showing (which will also repeat on Monday evening), and to speak a bit about what each means to him. The following images and words are the photographers.
The Mardi Gras Indians are comprised of participants from the African American communities of New Orleans. Parades are largely unannounced. Super Sunday (the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day on March 19) is one of the only times where all Indian tribes march together and unite. It is a glorious affair of beads, feathers, music, and community. The tradition stems from honoring local Indians who assisted escapes from slavery and often incorporated former slaves into their tribes. While these Indians have paraded for well over a century, their parade is perhaps the least recognized Mardi Gras tradition.
I met this mystic on Decatur Street. He read my cards, rolled the stones, and put the pine cone you see here between his eyes and stared into mine for a full minute before asking me if I ate a lot of American cheese. He seemed convinced that I ate too much cheese in general. He’s probably right.
I was feeling a bit heavy that day. A friend who cut hair uptown had died the night before from an illness that took him soon after it arrived. While healthy he found a rapturous romantic love that he sought all his life, and was dead three months later.
I sat with the shaman for 20 minutes, smoked cigarettes, and conversed with him about how lost I felt and whether this project was failing. He’s a gentle spirit, and he helped me in strange sort of way.
Band on Royal
Few things are more magical than Royal Street on a warm day. You can spend an entire afternoon walking in and out of art galleries and listening to street performers, like this band. They were performing in front of George Rodrigue’s art gallery. I love the image of the New Orleans Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees posing with the “Blue Dog”, which is Rodrigue’s iconic character.
My stepfather used to play with Rodrigue as a child, making rafts together on the river and pretending to be Huckleberry Finn. I think of him when I see this image, which makes it special to me.
I was walking through the neighborhood of Treme on Fat Tuesday when I came upon a Big Freedia concert being held under the Interstate-10 overpass. There were easily 2,000 people around the stage so I never saw Freedia, but one of her backup dancers climbed the Uhaul truck next to the stage and started a twerkfest for the crowd.
What I love most about this image is that it reminds me of how different Mardi Gras can be depending on the neighborhood. Directly adjacent to the French Quarter, but far removed from its madness, down in the Treme I walked for two miles seeing very few white faces.
From an interview with the photographer (discussing Big Freedia):
“Seeing several black transgender and queer artists perform at a bounce show at Republic while hundreds of mostly straight white people lose their shit for several hours is something you just don’t experience in many places.
Despite the history of homophobia and racism in Louisiana, New Orleans has a progressive acceptance of race and sexuality that feels like the future. I still feel more comfortable holding hands with a man while walking through NOLA than I do in DC. The only time I’ve ever been harassed is by people from out of town.”
It was summer 2014 and I was finishing a promo shoot for the Shakespeare festival at Tulane when two young people joined me under the 500-year-old “Tree of Life” in Audubon Park and started hanging a purple silk behind me. I saw the way they looked at each other. So, I turned toward them and took the photograph. I knew that they were falling in love.
I barely spoke to them but two months later the girl tracked me down through the Tulane theatre department. In her email she told me that she and the young man were friends who fell in love at the very moment I was shooting, and wondered if perhaps I had captured the moment. I told her that I did.
As you might imagine, this has become one of my favorite photographs. Every time I see it my heart grows full as I wonder if he still looks at her this way, as some perfect thing descended from the ether of that ancient tree. I want so desperately for them to be in this moment forever.
New Orleans by Benjamin Carver
Saturday, April 30
6:00pm until 8:00pm
White Room DC
1240 9th Street, NW – Suite 200
A second showing at White Room DC will be available on Monday, May 02 from 6:00pm until 9:00pm.
The photographer will have photo prints as well as a book version for sale onsite.
For more information on the event, visit the Facebook event page.
For more information on the photographer, visit benjamincarver.com