New Orleans photographer puts city's people front and center

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Many big events put New Orleans on a world stage. We see shots of St. Louis Cathedral, the Superdome and the skyline with the Crescent City Connection front and center. What's missing is the people. One photographer wants to change that by taking your picture.

Gus Bennett has a calling.

"I have this crazy idea that I can photograph everybody in the city at least one time. My ministry is creating an image and giving that image away," Bennett said.

He's doing this through The New Orleans People Project or NOPP.

"NOPP is about a deliberate attempt to make things excellent to get people to see themselves in a totally different way and to be willing without any compensation, without any idea that they are going to get rich, share themselves with the city with the world," he said.

Including front and center in the Cultural Exchange Pavilion at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

"Valerie is the coordinator for that particular tent, and she said, 'Gus your images would be perfect for celebrating people. Celebrating the 300th anniversary of the city because there are so many people in this project.'"

Nearly 3,000, each with a story.

"One of the reasons I give the images away is because of Hurricane Katrina. It took so many things from people, and most of which can be replaced, but when you think of all the images that have been lost," said Bennett.

It was an encounter during that trying time that sparked the idea.

"I saw a set of images on the front porch in mint condition. The house totally destroyed. The owner had managed to put her pictures in a Ziploc bag," he said.

Bennett tried to save the pictures, spray painting his contact info on the porch, but law enforcement threatened to arrest him at gunpoint if he didn't leave the images to the mercy of the elements.

"The photographer in me was like, wow what a loss. What a tragedy. I put it back reluctantly," Bennett said.

But he vowed to help preserve a record of those who had lost so much.

An unmarked shotgun in Treme on Galvez Street was once his grandmother's home, a place that holds many memories for him. It is now his studio, a place where all those stories come together.

The New Orleans People Project officially began in spring 2013.

"The studio is the same. It's a consistent set-up. It's a white background, a single light, good music," Bennett said.

He puts everyone from the homeless to some of the city's well-known in that same light.

"The project does not discriminate," he said. "I have never told anyone no. Everyone that asks to be in it I accept."

Kebori Denson and his family happened to walk up and greet Bennett while FOX 8 was shooting with him at Jazz Fest.

"It's pretty awesome," Denson said. "The images that you see, the stories that you hear. They are so powerful and heartwarming. It's an honor to be a part of it."

Denson and his daughter are featured.

"I think it gives the community a sense of pride in the face of all that's going on in the community," he said.

"Usually I'm behind the scenes most of the time," said Bennett's niece, Brittany Antoine, who often acts as his assistant. "Whether it's throwing leaves or fixing someone's hair just for that moment, just for that shot, or fixing a blanket to where it flows a little bit more naturally."

She took her turn in front of the camera for the first time.

"It's like he's capturing your soul in that one moment," she said.

Over the years, NOPP branched into some sub-projects, with the latest being the street edition.

"My goal is every day to wake up, walk on the street, and get 20 magical moments, Bennett said, stressing that it's always with his subject's permission. "I don't believe in just walking up grabbing an image, especially with children, especially with people just minding their own business. You would think they are in public domain, I could just take their picture, but that's not how I roll. I don't want that spirit, that snatch-and-grab spirit to dwell in that project."

Bennett says the willingness of his subjects is key.

"I'm self-taught, but the men that I encountered in my life - none of them were photographers, but they all taught me something about the preparation and the discipline that's required to be an excellent photographer," he said, mentioning that one of his many mentors "was a gentleman named Lee Alvarez. Lee Alvarez was a camera sales person. Lee taught me how to accept failure and don't get mad, because what you think is failure is just preparation."

It was his approval that helped Bennett figure out the right technique. After showing him photo after photo for months as a kid, Bennett said, "One particular day he looked at an image and he stared at it for longer than he normally would. He just sat it on the table, and then he framed it with his hands and just walked away. He came back two minutes later and said, 'Whatever you did for that, keep doing it.'"

Bennett said that was the first time he let his subject lead the shoot.

"When I start every session with the New Orleans People Project, I tell people to tell me what you want me to know about you, and then show me what you want me to see. Whatever that image is, I'm going to capture it for you."

Allowing New Orleanians to define how they look to the world.

None of the images are for sale at the moment, but Bennett does plan to publish books from the New Orleans People Project in the future. He also plans to share any profits with the subjects in keeping with the name.

You can see more of the images by following Gus Bennett on Facebook and Instagram. Get more information on joining the project by emailing peopleprojectnola@gmail.com. Please leave a daytime and evening number and someone will contact you to schedule a shoot.

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