Editor’s Note: Claire Bangser is a New Orleans-based freelance photographer and short filmmaker, and founder of the Roots and Wings Creative. Her work – spanning commercial and editorial projects – is centered around telling human stories powerfully. In February 2014, she started the popular New Orleans street portrait project NOLAbeings. Since then, her work has been featured by a wide range of media, including National Geographic, The New York Times, TIME, Wired, Glamour, Vox, Amazon’s DP Review, Le Parisien Magazine and New Orleans Magazine. Claire leads trips every summer for National Geographic Student Expeditions, where she teaches filmmaking and photography to high school students abroad.
“I just came here from Cuba about 6 months ago because I want to help my family. Now I’m working in housekeeping. I like it, but I’m looking for something better. In Cuba, I worked in hotel entertainment. When the guests come, we have to be with them, tell them what’s happening, and have parties. Hotels in Cuba are very different than here. My family is there. I am here alone.
My grand-mom is a nurse, my grand-dad is a manager at hotels. My mom works in hotels in my country. My brother is a driver. I want to study medicine. It’s so hard for us, because the system in my country is different from here. The best salary in my country is 20 dollars a month. If you are a teacher, if you are an engineer, if you are a master at something, you get 20 dollars a month. Here you have to pay for everything and in my country you don’t have to pay for nothing, but here, if you work, you get your money. So you have to pay the government this this this, but if you do that you can [do well]. I love my country, but this is good.
I miss my family, my friends, everybody. But everybody comes here because this is the best country in the world. This is the best opportunity here. We are living like poor people but I want to live better. I want my mom to be proud for me.”
“I’m a lactation consultant and a nutritionist. In New Orleans, [breastfeeding] is something all people need to know about. It’s so important. Because honestly, in this area, most of us still believe our breasts are for our husbands or our boyfriends. [People] take it sexual. They think you’re not supposed to [breastfeed]. Others don’t want to do it because ancestrally there were challenges behind slavery – wet nursing and everything that came about with that. And then you have the last piece where people never ever see people breastfeed, so they don’t know what it’s about.”
“How do you change that perception?”
“We are working on that now! By changing visual perception, [holding] consistent classes, and having conversations like this one. Every time I see a pregnant mom, I say ‘So tell me how you’re feeding your baby.’ That’s how we’re going to change it. You know, my son is a senior in college and he was a point guard in basketball. He used to say that taking the ball from the other point guard was like stealing breastmilk from a baby!”
“I remember the first night that I locked [Antoine’s] up by myself. I was here and it was well after midnight. I had the keys to lock up all of the doors – probably 20 different doors that you have to lock and check and everything. And I’m standing in this huge building all by myself with the keys, and I’m thinking about how many different people have been in this building, in this area. And what am I doing with the keys?! Then the first Sunday before we opened for brunch, I’m sitting in my office and the building just creaks. When you’re here by yourself, you hear all kinds of things. And the building is creaking and you can just feel it. I heard a door open. I said ‘Hello? Hello?’ – nobody was there. And then all of a sudden, the paper shredder goes off ‘rrrrrrrrr’. I’m like ‘Okay, I’m going home!’ I packed up all my stuff and I went. I called Rick I said ‘Hey! You didn’t tell me that place was haunted!’ He said ‘Oh sure it’s haunted! All kinds of things go on!’
When you stop and look and you realize that this restaurant was here before the Civil War and World War I and World War II, Great Depression… when you look back that long, it humbles you. I’ve been here 11 years – I’m not even a blip on the radar compared to how long this place has been in business. I think it’s just – you feel that. You feel the history of the building.”
“We both got really drunk after being together about five years. We were in a dive bar – we’re very classy people – and he asked me to marry him and I said yes. He had the day off the next day, and I run my own company, so we went to the courthouse the next day and got married.”
“What has that commitment taught you?”
“What I’ve learned is patience and I’ve learned how to be sensitive. I’m Russian and Jamaican, so I was brought up in a very strict household. My mother was from a very military style family and brought that into raising me and my sister. So sensitivity was not one of her strong suits. And I am not always so sensitive to other people’s feelings. He’s the more emotional side, I’m more practical and logical. So it’s still baby steps for me, being the sensitive type, but he teaches me this.”