An interview with the New Orleans photographer.
What's your name and where are you from?
My name is Akasha Leilani Rabut. I grew up in Kauai and Oceanside, California.
How long have you been taking photos?
I’ve been taking photos since I was 14 years old. For some reason I was really drawn to photography. In the 9th grade I was on the yearbook staff and borrowed my step-mom’s camera to shoot some photos of popular surf spots on Kauai. I remember feeling very excited by the outcome of the images. I was attending one of the worst school’s in the US at the time and decided to go live with my mom in California. When I moved to California I told my guidance counselor that I was going to go back to Kauai if there wasn’t space in the Black & White photo class – at that point I had no experience with dark rooms. I lucked out, got into the class and practically moved into the dark room. I managed to get 2 periods of photo my senior year and would also spend lunch eating in the dark room while playing with chemistry, probably not the best combination. I was obsessed with photography by my senior year. I pretty much entered every photo contest that I could. I think I was the only photo geek entering them. The school would make morning announcements and I remember them saying “Akasha Rabut won 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in the such and such photo contest.” I was a total nerd!
Is photography your primary medium?
Photography is my primary medium. I’ve started to dabble in other art forms, which is super refreshing. It’s nice to get out of my head and try something new. Lately I’ve been making ceramics. I’m horrible at it and I’m pretty sure everyone in the class is embarrassed for me. It’s actually pretty grounding to be in a class where nobody knows that I’m good at something!
What is your favorite medium, technique, or platform for sharing your work?
My favorite medium is photography and I love shooting film. The chemistry between light and film is astounding. I’ve been shooting film for over 15 years. My relationship with it is very intuitive. Most of my work is 6x7 film. That means that I only get 10 – 12 exposures on a roll. That forces me to be thoughtful and accurate when I shoot. It’s also outrageously expensive to shoot film so that really encourages me to take 1 photo and make it count. I’m not really into digital photography, but that’s probably because I just don’t understand it and hate computers. I have mad respect for photographers who are able to make digital images. My favorite platform for sharing work is through zines. I love being able to hold peoples work in my own hands. There is something special about flipping through pages of a book / zine. I much prefer that to scrolling through instagram.
What have you learned lately through producing art?
I have a huge wealth of knowledge that I’ve accrued through producing art. I’ve learned that in order for me to be completely 100% interested in what I’m making I have to be innately passionate about what I’m creating. I make art for myself but with the goal of sharing it with the community. I’m deep into social justice and documenting the rich culture of New Orleans. I feel very blessed to live in such a beautiful city. New Orleans is a cradle of culture and I’m lucky that I get to live in it and document it. I’ve also learned that I’m least happy with my art when I’m doing it purely for money. This has been a struggle for me because like most people I need to earn a living. I used to take all the jobs that came my way. That tactic really stressed me out and the work that I would produce wasn’t that great. I started to realize that it was important for me to maintain the integrity of my work through working on projects that I believe in. This means that I have to fund most of my projects. That can be kind of risky but surprisingly it has worked out in my favor. I’m definitely feeling a lot of support from major publications and friends. I think since I’ve self-funded most of my work editors at publications trust me. Lately I’ve been able to pitch passion projects to publications and they usually fund them, which was not always the case. I feel fortunate to say that I’ve been able to be a lot more selective about the projects that I take on.
Is there anything that you've learned through producing art that has made you a better person as a whole?
I feel like I’ve built a large audience with my work from New Orleans. Having that amount of attention on my work is very empowering. It’s made me more aware of my voice. It also encourages me to be authentic when it comes to photographing the vivid people of New Orleans. I don’t want to misrepresent people nor do I want people to feel like I’m just taking from them. It’s very important for me to give back to the communities that I photograph. I was taught that I shouldn’t ever be emotionally attached to my subjects and I’m quite the opposite. I definitely try to be as supportive as I can when it comes to the people that I photograph. It’s essential that people’s stories are told through the images that I make.
What most inspires you about New Orleans?
New Orleans is the most inspiring place that I‘ve ever lived. The culture is remarkably rich, and the people here are luminaries and risk takers. There is a lot more creativity here than I’ve seen anywhere else in America.
“New Orleans is the most inspiring place that I‘ve ever lived. The culture is remarkably rich, and the people here are luminaries and risk takers. There is a lot more creativity here than I’ve seen anywhere else in America.”