10 Questions With the Founder of NOLAbeings: Claire Bangser

14:30 May 05, 2015
By: Erica Goldish

 

 I had the honor of grabbing coffee at Il Posto Café with Claire Bangser on a warm Thursday afternoon. A talented photographer and visual storyteller, Claire shared a plethora of information about her insanely popular website, http://nolabeings.com (think Humans of New York).  She lit up the room with her warm smile, and you could feel the excitement radiate from her as she spoke of all the amazing people she has meet from doing this unique social experiment project. Her NOLA Beings project is a simple concept, a photograph with a small quote of the person being photographed that tells you a little bit about the person that you would not necessarily know. The New England native has been living in New Orleans since 2012, and has collaborated with a wide range of local companies and non-profits as a freelance photographer and videographer.  So, without further adieu, 10 questions with the amazingly talented Claire Bangser:

WYAT: How did you get your start?

Claire Bangser: I started NOLA Beings last February as a way to learn more about New Orleans through the people within it. I've always loved talking to strangers, and I'm a photographer so the form of NOLAbeings was a natural way to combine my interests.

WYAT: How do you make someone feel comfortable in front of the camera?

Bangser: It’s different for every person, but I try and find someone interesting and then give them a genuine compliment. I wont approach someone who looks like they obviously don’t want to be photographed, for example a woman walking her dog in the morning in her bathrobe or a businessman who looks like he’s in a hurry. Instead, I’ll find someone who catches my eye and then talk to them for a bit before asking to take his or her photo.  I say that 1 out of 10 say no. Rejection is great, it’s really important, it shows that we all have a choice, I would never want anyone to feel like I suckered them into taking a photo.

WYAT: Who is the most interesting person you have photographed and why?

Bangser: The project is founded on the idea that everyone is interesting; so I can’t really answer that. I have had people that I have had really special interactions with, for example this guy Dale that I met that I have stayed friends with. He was so great because he took me on a tour of his neighborhood, which really opened up my eyes. We walked around for an hour, he pointed out all the places where he grew up, the corner where his son was killed, he introduced me to people, it was just really moving not solely because of the things he said but because this world he was showing me was just a few blocks from my house but I was viewing it through a completely new lens.

WYAT: Favorite celeb you’ve photographed?

Bangser: I mean I’ve interviewed Drew Brees and Matthew McConaughey and Wendel Pierce and other celebrities, but I don’t think that they’re more interesting than anyone else. I think that they’ve had a lot of great luck in their lives. Some of the most interesting people I have talked to have been the least lucky in life but have still been able to maintain a level-headed perspective, which I think is amazing.

“We actually met at a golf tournament… but then we reconnected four years ago when he was here shooting a movie - don’t remember which movie it was. But we sat and he cooked steaks with chimichurri.” “Yep. That’s right. That’s it." “Matthew, what’s something I should know about Drew?” “Six foot three quarters. I get asked his height like alllll the time. All the time. And I remember asking him once like, ‘well how do you see over the line?’ and he said ‘I don’t know! I’m throwing to spaces, man.' Right?” “That’s right. You’re throwing to spaces. Like, I know where my guy’s supposed to be. And I know when he’s supposed to be there. And there’s just this internal clock in my head and my footwork tells me that too. And you just let the ball loose. You feel. It’s gotta be a sixth sense.”

 

I also noticed that when Claire would post the pictures of the celebrities she would do so in the same way as she would anyone else’s picture as if to really imprint the idea that she wants the world to know strangers. Also to point out that celebrities are cool and interesting to see and read about, however they are not more special than anyone else she photographs, as we each tell our own stories in different ways, and are all unique.

 

WYAT: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from photographing people?

Bangser: I’ve learned that a lot more people than you would expect like talking about deep, hard things.

"My father passed away when I was twelve. I found out when I was inside eating spaghettis and meatballs. My sister called and was like ‘We have to go to the hospital.' I come to find out my dad was in an accident… he was working at the time on a garbage truck and a car hit him - an old man with Alzheimer’s who was like 87 - shouldn’t have been driving. He was a great dad - always there for me when I needed anything. I try to follow in his footsteps - try to show [my kids] the right way."

Claire talked about how she used to ask people light questions such as what are you proud of, what are your successes, etc. and as she has progressed she realized that its important to ask some of the harder questions, and people are usually open to answering them.

 

Bangser: Questions such as “What are your fears,” and, “what’s the hardest thing you’ve had to overcome?” “has anyone ever broken your heart?” really create a space for people to open up if they want to - and somewhat surprisingly, many people are drawn to these questions more than the easy ones.

WYAT: Funny Celeb story?

Bangser: I ran into Thomas Lennon (from Reno 911, Hell Baby, 17 Again, etc.), I actually didn’t notice him, I saw his son, and his son was so cute and I was like oh hi, can I take your sons picture? Then I looked up and went, “Oh wow you’re famous” and he was like yes!…and I was like cool!…so it was just a funny way to meet a celeb and it was so casual.

WYAT: Toughest challenge you’ve faced?

Bangser: Sustaining the website is hard because I go through waves of excitement, and waves of feeling burnt out. I’m a photographer and a filmmaker for money too, this is just a side project, so it can be really challenging. But it's great in the sense that I'm learning how to talk to everyone and how to listen well and find the story and the wisdom in every being. I've learned that often people don’t think of their stories as stories or frame them in a clear way, so part of my work is to help them bring their stories out through asking good questions. 

WYAT: Most rewarding part of your job?

Bangser: I love it when I run into people again and they tell me good things that have come from my posts. For example, I shared a story about a woman who worked at a camp, and once I posted the story I noticed that the story had been shared across the camp network and that all these people were supporting her and giving her props, and I really liked that.

“I was a camp counselor at this camp called Camp Harmony and at the beginning of the camp they called out all of the students’ names and my friend turned to me and was like ‘Oh you have one of the trouble kids.’ And I was interested by that because no one had ever told me a kid could be trouble. And I ended up being this girl’s counselor and I just realized she wasn’t a 'trouble' kid at all, she just needed to be a kid and needed to be allowed to have fun. And I allowed that. And we’re still friends to this day - it’s been three years. That just kind of sparked everything and I came to New Orleans and started teaching. I think in general kids definitely need more one-on-one attention and to be allowed to be themselves, and I think right now classrooms aren’t technically set up like that."

 

WYAT: Favorite photograph?

Bangser: Hard to pick, but I really love one I took of my friend Lucy, its just a beautiful photo of her, she looks great.” “I wouldn’t post a photo if I didn’t like it and I often let the subject pick which one they like best. I think of people’s stories as sacred, and I have a really deep commitment to sharing their stories in a way that feels accurate, and in a way that does it justice.

WYAT: Future plans?

Bangser: I have talked a lot about doing video portraits, but I’m not sure if it’ll be part of NOLA Beings or a different project, due to the amount of work it involves and the fact that I do need to do other work in order to make money. I am about to do a project for the Southern Foodways Alliance, which will be similar to NOLA Beings, where I will ask people to tell me stories about food, and we're making an exhibit with those photos. Themed projects like that are super fun to work on because they allow me to document an idea of one subject through a patchwork of many disparate human experiences.

 

 As Claire and I ended our coffee break, she relayed to me that the reason she continues to do NOLA Beings, and the reason she is so passionate about the project is that she really wants the project to initiate conversations among strangers. She humbly said, “that is what success looks like to me. Not that I personally get 1 million followers, but that in small ways the project helps break down some of the barriers that keep us from engaging with some of the people not in our immediate social circles. That’s why I get really excited when I run into an old man I recently photographed, and he tells me that everyone is talking to him now. This city, whether we like it or not is really divided in many ways, and I think that the more that people take that little step to learn about someone and realize that everyone has something interesting to share or offer, I think that’s what will make the city a friendlier place and start to break down some of those barriers.  Having a conversation with a stranger can be its own little act of rebellion against the system.”

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