Oh my, I think we are going to have a good time in the same festive spirit of New Orleans and Caribbean celebrations!
Peter, thank you for taking the time to chat with me. I appreciate the fact that you are taking time from what I imagine is a full and busy schedule. Here we go.
While I may explain later in our chat about how we initially met, I am intrigued about your journey in photography and videography. Take me through the process from the beginning that led and keeps you in this particular aspect of artistic and creative expression.
First of all, I love women, all the shapes and sizes and ages and colors of women.
In 1978, my wife bought a Polaroid camera for me and I went on the campus of Xavier University to try it out. This beautiful lady, who was sitting in the grass studying, asked me, “Are you going to take my picture?” That was the catalyst.
I used to be able to draw pretty well, but the camera eliminated the hassle of the picture coming out like I wanted. Photographing women seldom boosted my financial status, but it sure boosted my ego.
Photography was my second and sometimes my third source of income, until after Katrina. I found out then that photography was a gift and it was something that I loved, and was good at, and I could make money and pay the bills. I gradually developed a steady clientele that solicits my business, and I am thankful for that. My latest genre, as I have been dubbed the Cultural Archivist for New Orleans, involves the documentation, whether it’s photography and/or video, of different cultural events taking place in and around New Orleans.
It is interesting that you “love” women since most males still objectify the female persona and societal and media representations of womanhood continue to portray that sexist male inclination. But, I suspect that is another and different conversation. So, before the gift of a camera (and does your wife regret her decision?!) what were you passionate about…how did you make a living…and was New Orleans your birth home? And if that does not tell us who Peter Nakhid is, feel free to “teach” us.
About the gift:
From time to time, my wife, according to the lady being photographed, has sometimes regretted buying the camera. She says that the camera has put me in precarious situations that would have otherwise not have happened if I did not have a camera. She also says that women have used me to obtain photos to further their modeling and acting careers. She admits also that it has firmly established me in the City of New Orleans as a Griot, a keeper of the culture and traditions of New Orleans. Before the “camera”, I had a dual career as an electrician and a counselor.
While I was obtaining my masters degree in Pastoral Counseling at Loyola University, I worked there as an electrician, so I was doing side work as an electrician. After graduation, I had several jobs as a counselor and worked my “hustle” as an electrician. I was born in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. I left there in 1975 to study to become a priest in New Orleans. I stayed in the seminary for three years, but did not pursue it any further because of my love for women. It seems like I have been running from the vocation of the priesthood, while at the same time running right into it, as I have been coordinating Fathers’ Time, a black male healing and responsibility group, for the past five years.
This year will be our thirty-sixth year of marriage. My wife’s name is Rebecca. I have two daughters, Giselle, thirty-five, is a dance director and choreographer, and Zynani, twenty-eight, is a fashion designer and a licensed aesthetician.
Props to you and Rebecca on the longevity of your marriage, partnership, and friendship, and I suspect your daughters are well into their careers and their own specific life journey. If memory serves me correctly, you have been back to your country of birth and documented a carnival festivity. If I am correct, what was that like and do you plan to return to live there at some point in time?
Your “Griot” status in New Orleans is exemplary, and possibly can be considered as an extension of a life committed to service, healing, and helping others. I also suspect that as a chronicler of New Orleans, you have an astute political sensibility in terms of the direction of that City. In your mind, what is next for the development of New Orleans, and have you ever considered running for an elected office?
Back to T&T:
Yes, I have been fortunate to be back to my country of birth for the last three years in a row. I usually go back to document their annual Carnival celebrations. On one occasion, I was able to secure the rights to document on the stage, so I was able to photograph from an intimate perspective. Trinidad women have got to be some of the prettiest women on the planet, and I was blessed to be able to photograph them. On Carnival day, which is the day before Ash Wednesday, people really let their hair down. On Ash Wednesday, they go back to business as usual, usually in their own conservative way.
When I dream, although I have been in the U.S. for forty years, I often dream as if I’m still in Trinidad, so I hope to retire there one day.
In the “Big Easy,” as it [New Orleans] is often called, as well as in most of the major cities in the U.S., I feel that special interest groups and powerful individuals control the major highways in the political infrastructure, I have very little interest, or hope, to jump into the political arena.
The city of New Orleans has put a lot of planning and effort into their upcoming tricentennial celebration in the year 2018. The fastest growing sector would be in tourism industry, so the city is doubling and tripling their efforts to secure their number one money maker, the French Quarter with major modifications to its streets and buildings. Unfortunately, the French Quarter is rapidly expanding beyond its assigned limits, so you will find gentrification going on outside the boundaries of the French Quarter. Neighborhoods that once housed Americans of African descent, including the oldest community of African descent, the Trèmé community, are now heavily inundated with Caucasians. The culture is being co-opted by individuals not in alignment with the heart and soul of New Orleans. Musicians who practiced or played music on their front porch are now required to adhere to a sound ordinance. Street entertainers, who were once welcomed, because of their contributions and their cultural significance to the city are constantly harassed, and restricted to the sidelines. Property values have tripled, and some areas of the city have never recovered from the devastation impact of Hurricane Katrina.
Now one of the ways I try to preserve what I see are dying traditions is to document the cultural events in the city.
There are those of us who felt that governmental response to Katrina on the federal, state, and local levels was a harbinger of a “plan” to re-shape and re-define the landscape of New Orleans, and transition the City from a place vibrant with the legacy and scope of African Americans to something else that served the interests of others who are not of African descent. Many of us have watched the gentrification of neighborhoods, cities, and regions throughout America bend to serve the interests of a dwindling majority. Many of us have watched (and possibly participated in) the occupy movements, talk of the one percent; debated income inequality and the ongoing impact of institutional racism, police transgressions, and lack of economic, health, and educational opportunities. And the current presidential primary race indicates all of these issues are stand ready to confront and challenge people of various spheres of influence. As a person who experienced New Orleans last year (in fact, that is how Lisa and I met you one night at the Ellis Marsalis Music Center in Musicians’ Village, Upper Ninth Ward,) are there any grassroots movements of progressive political alliances to challenge the radical shift in New Orleans?
How difficult is it for you to document what you see as the changing landscape of your City while still trying to assist people move through their stages of healing? How do you see “the people” embracing and preserving their culture, their roots? Can Trèmé weather the shifting demographics, and if not, where do the displaced people go? And how does all of these dynamic influences shape and mold your creative interests?
After the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, many small groups, and hash tags, from Black Lives Matter to white lies matter, have propped up to oppose the status quo, mainly to demand justice and accountability. In New Orleans, one of these newly formed groups that is aligned with the Black Lives Matter group, BYP, Black Youth Project, has taken up the mantle of demanding justice and a systematic reform of the police department. They were instrumental in forcing the city to remove two Confederate statues, and while remaining remotely interested in forming political alliances, they instead opted to form alliances with other small grassroots movements.
Historically New Orleans has served as a base or a catalyst for many of the slave rebellions across this country, mainly because there were many free people of color who were able to move in and out of the power elite. As a result, the “controllers” had to find ways for the people to vent, to prevent them from thinking about revolution and engaging in rebellious acts. One surefire way was to have a continuous party. Nowadays, on any given weekend, you will find a second line, a parade or music fair. So, on the surface, everything looks fine, and that’s the way many visitors see it. But psychologically, right below the surface, or logistically, right outside the French Quarter, you will see the malaise that best describes the current New Orleans, with the after effects of Katrina playing a major role in the dis-ease. So, healing is delayed, and while it is relatively easy for me to document the “changing landscape”, I am well aware of the conditions that gave birth to this band-aid approach to healing.
Culture is always in constant transformation. In New Orleans, there are intentional (gentrification and urban renewal) as well as unintentional variables (time and timing) that constitute to this change. Some of the early preservationists, the Mardi Gras Indians and the Second Line Clubs are under heavy scrutiny to see if they tow the line with the city’s new ordinances that claim to protect tourists, but secure their number one money making industry, hospitality. Many groups have continued to operate off the radar, on back streets and in backyards, to keep the tax collectors at bay. So either you intentionally decide to preserve your culture or you succumb to the whim of the architects of progress.
Displaced people will go where they can afford. Economic development grants and low interest loans has diluted Trèmé with people that do not resemble the original inhabitants, who have been forced out as the French Quarter expands to their doorsteps.
In my role as Griot and cultural historian, I am sometimes insulated by the camera. At times, it is difficult to document certain activities, as I too have not healed from the devastating effects of Katrina or rather the intentional breeching of the levees. So, sometimes it does compromise my creativity, it does not nullify my documentation ability. But, we have to eat, so we keep it moving, and try to smile as we move along.
I appreciate your honesty, awareness, and continued willingness to document what appears to be a never ending economic/political/cultural struggle that routinely touches your spirit and innate sense of justice. In that regard, from your unique perspective, how has the “psyche” of the African American community in New Orleans changed? Have you perceived a difference in how we see ourselves, one another, our culture, the larger society especially in light of the Katrina devastation? And then, if there is a shift, have you considered documenting “in real time” the ‘evolution’ of those African American males that you work with? And when does visual documentation transition to Art? With this question, I am reminded of the Sixties Black thinking (which was also exhibited in larger artistic circles) that art does not exist for art’s sake but rather artists are cultural workers with a responsibility to the people and the “revolution.”
One would have to look through a multi-layered lens in order to analyze the “psyche” of the African American community in New Orleans. Besides the obvious and easily recognized institute of racism, there is the not so obvious or easily recognizable issue of the color, class. At one point, and still to a certain extent, still happening, one would have to pass the brown paper bag test in order to gain admission to certain neighborhoods, schools, occupations and functions. So this “psyche” change has to take into consideration, the economical, political, social status of the melanin content of individuals. Post Katrina, many Americans of African descent in New Orleans have had to embrace and endure a seemingly unending flow of new residents, who are mostly Caucasian, that are totally unfamiliar with the terrain, the culture and the traditions of the presiding residents. The new residents are unhindered by the barriers imposed by the new Jim Crow, and are able to move freely around the city assisted by low interest loans, economic development grants and white privilege, further widening the gap of economic equity.
The documentation that I do is ongoing, so there aren’t any measurements to calculate shifts in perspective from one time to another. Plus, the group of men that I coordinate are constantly changing, so there is not a consistent variable to add to the equation.
In New Orleans, artists are considered to be significant cultural bearers, as their work reflects the continuing nuances that permeate the New Orleans culture. Is it intentional or coincidental on the part of artists for their work to portray a sense of responsibility, and/or add fuel to the revolution remains in the minds of the artists? Some works are definitive while others are questionable.
And the ongoing dynamic in New Orleans is playing out to a certain degree throughout the country. While solutions may not be readily evident and those fleeting moments are influenced by elections, the media, economics, and shifting perspectives, it is noteworthy to know that there is a Griot, documentarian, and artist who is willing to capture and preserve moments in time that can easily be lost in the vortex of unplanned and planned change. As we come to the end of our conversation, are there any parting words of wisdom or unsaid things that you want to share? Just know that you are appreciated, and your visual art enhances what we try to do at aaduna. Thank you for your time and patience.
I am a human “being”. I am where I am supposed to be, right here, right now, and really could not be anywhere else. So, I’m enjoying the gift of the present.
♦ ♦ ♦
When aaduna started, I did an interview process titled “E-Viewpoints” with contributors. The purpose was to construct a wider audience for aaduna writers and artists while providing our readership with a better understanding and glimpse of the individuals who penned the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction and created the diverse array of visual arts. For a variety of unplanned reasons, I took a hiatus from that initiative. But now, I am back with “Conversations.” The plan is to chat with current and previous contributors and delve into aspects of their background that you may find intriguing and uplifting. I hope you become a regular follower of this series of “Conversations” and continue to enjoy the work of the individual that I have a chat with. The intent is not to be “in your face” but enable you to savor the nuances, expectations, and challenges that aaduna contributors face as people, just like you and me. I think you will find “Conversations” interesting, maybe provocative, and enlightening. I hope so.