When Claire Bangser first moved to New Orleans, she lived in a small cupboard under the stairs.
Well, not exactly.
But she actually did live in a closet at her friend’s apartment for six months. Luckily it was a spacious closet (it had a window!), and it only cost a whopping $100 to rent.
Six years later, Bangser still calls New Orleans home. Much to her surprise, what started out as a simple visit to see friends turned into a love affair with a city she simply couldn’t leave — at least, not for long.
Photo via Claire Bangser, used with permission.
After a brief trip abroad, one thing was certain: For Bangser, there was no place quite like New Orleans.
Inspired by the grit and charm of the city, she began diving deeper into the arts when she returned to NOLA.
A "creative wanderer," Bangser had first dabbled in stop-motion videos and graphic design, though she ultimately decided photography was her true calling. After all, she had fallen in love with the medium when she was just a kid after her grandfather showed her how to use his camera when she was about 12. She had even built a darkroom in her house to sustain her passion.
"It was the first time I felt guarded and safe and protected. She just did that without me asking for it." Photo by Claire Bangser/NOLA Beings.
But it was while she was at a cafe in New Orleans with her friend that she thought of starting an Instagram account for her photography work. She was inspired by the popular series Humans of New York and wanted to create something of her own, something that captured what it was she loved so much about this city she now called home. So, she created NOLA Beings.
Since then, Bangser has conducted thousands of interviews and captured countless photos of the people she’s met in NOLA.
"I began using my camera as an excuse to talk to people," she says. "There’s just so many characters down here that it’s hard not to be curious."
Then, she'd publish the photos on the Instagram account for NOLA Beings alongside a telling quote from their conversation.
"He opens the door for almost everybody, even men sometimes, which I feel is a little awkward. I guess I taught him too well!" Photo by Claire Bangser/NOLA Beings.
And from there, NOLA Beings changed Bangser's life. Not only did she become a full-time photographer and storyteller, but it also transformed her relationship to the city.
The more she explored and talked with people one-on-one, the more she realized her original perception of the city was a very stereotypical one.
Like most, she knew about the fun festivals, parades, beignets, and gumbo. But after living in New Orleans and having actual conversations with neighbors, she began to put together a sort of "patchwork quilt" of the city’s exciting diversity.
"That's why we're here with our family. We love this country. That's all we can say." Photo by Claire Bangser/NOLA Beings.
It’s a city rooted in a colorful history that centers around Africans, Native Americans, and European settlers from France and Spain. That myriad and exposure of cultures has strongly influenced everything from the architecture to the food.
So while working on NOLA Beings, Bangser wanted to make sure she was always working to do justice in telling the authentic narrative of the city and its people.
"I feel like NOLA Beings kind of became my way of doing something for the city that was my little lens into the wild range of wonderful, diverse stories that existed here that were not the mainstream narrative," she said.
"It made me want to stay and be part of it. And it made me want to contribute to it," Bangser adds.
She started setting aside time to focus solely on exploring the city and taking photos. "I really believe that wandering around this city is the most magical way to find your truth here," she explains.
"To come out here ... it took a lot of practice." Photo by Claire Bangser/NOLA Beings.
A far cry from the closet where her journey began, she now finds that New Orleans is a city best experienced by sharing.
"I began to just see the wide range of characters and people who are coming from all over the place because something drew them to the city," she explains.
Characters like Dale, the elderly black man and longtime resident of the Ninth Ward who she befriended and now regularly walks with.
"He showed me and told me about what it used to be like there and really painted a picture for me of what that neighborhood was like to him," Bangser says.
"I didn’t have the ability to see that neighborhood in the way that he sees it," she explains, "but he opened himself up to show it to me."
"I have to be here... it just feels right." Photo by Claire Bangser/NOLA Beings.
And that's what NOLA Beings is all about — offering glimpses into a city and the everyday people who make it so remarkable.
New Orleans may be best known for the food, the lively celebrations, the music, and the architecture. But for Bangser, it's the people she meets that make New Orleans unforgettable.