With all due respect.

It seems that y’all are getting to see my firsts. First picture in New Orleans. First Mardi Gras. And, now first pictures of Mardi Gras Indians.

Even though I was living in New Orleans for about 5 years, I wasn’t out on the streets. In July 2005 that changed.

Looking back, it seemed like everything changed in about six weeks.

In mid-July Mardi Gras Indians Chief of Chiefs Tootie Montana, made a dramatic plea to the New Orleans City Council to live and let live. The New Orleans Police were cracking down on the Indians. They broke up two Super Sundays for no real reason except they thought the crowds could get out of hand. That word, “could.” They didn’t.

So, Tootie spoke before the City Council live on all the local television stations. As he spoke, he suffered a massive heart and died right there. Anybody watching the news was horrified. Word passed around the city in sort of a coconut telegraph, well before the advent of social media.

It was time to plan his funeral, in the streets and in the church. Everything took place in the heart of Treme, at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church.

I decided to attend and to photograph.

Spyboys meet.

And, so I went.

I arrived a little early. I parked at friend’s house just around the corner and walked over. I was stunned. There was a massive crowd.  There were Mardi Gras Indians, friends, family, spectators and photographers.

I had no idea of what I was looking at.  I saw a legendary photographer, Syndey Byrd, who I knew a little and she pointed me in the right direction.

I sort of jumped into the fray and started making pictures. You know that I like to work close, so close I went. The Indians would toss my out of their scrum. Back in I went. Back out they tossed me. After about four or five times, they realized I was the real deal and let me stay. Even Syndey was shaking her head in laughter.

These are the pictures that I made. The very first ones. I think that I worked better back than.  These are the kinds of pictures that I should be making now. Looser, with more suit and scene in the pictures. Looking at them after thirteen years helps me to see that.

Big chiefs pay their respects to Tootie Montana.

This all happened in July 2005. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall at Buras, Louisiana. The rest is history. I don’t know about you, but I truly believe that with the passing of Tootie Montana the city lost something. Call it whatever you like. Soul, heart, or juju. I like juju.

Even as we continue to heal thirteen years later, for those of us who went through the storm and early recover, something is missing. I can’t put my finger on it. The new people, who are gentrifying the city, don’t know or understand this. And, that’s really too bad.

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Spy Boy Dow leads them out.

Indian funerals.

They are like nothing you’ve ever seen. If you get a chance to go, you should go. They are spiritual. They are magical. And, the are colorful.

Keep in mind this is a very sacred event. Respect what you see. Respect who you see. And, pay your respects to the person who has just passed.

As you know, for me, the work is the prayer. I pay my respects by making pictures and documenting the scene.

I know enough to not get close to an Indian meeting on the scene — the Indians who have circled to discuss their roles on the street — and who may or may not know each other.  And, I know enough not to get into anybody’s faces while I think I am doing my job.

This pictures barely scratch the surface of what happened on this day. A day of celebration of life for Big Chief Tom Sparks Jr.

A word about Big Chief Tom. He started walking in 1947. He was the oldest living Indian before he passed. He was 86 years old. One of the things you may not know about me is that I live by some old Chinese sayings. One of which is, “When somebody dies who is over 80 years old, you laugh.” That’s the literal translation. It really means that you should not mourn for too long. Instead, you should celebrate their life.

Rolling to heaven.

The pictures. Nothing new here. F8 and be there. The real technique is what I’ve learned from years on the street. Things like moving in front of people with a smile and a kind word. A building of trust so that the Indians don’t toss you out of the circle. I felt like I succeeded when one of the pallbearers handed me his phone, checked to see if I was still carrying it, giving me a thumbs up and finally taking it from my hand when his job was completed. Smartphones are worth everything on the street. He trusted me to hold it. He is the guy in the blue shirt carrying the casket a couple of pictures down. It’s a little thing. But, it’s a big deal.

In honor.
Walking under the interstate.

And, so it ends. One man going home on a spiritual level. One Baby Doll walking under the interstate on Claiborne going to her earthly home.