In this week's cover story, longtime
Gambit photographer Cheryl Gerber shares images from her new book,
New Orleans: Life and Death in the Big Easy. Here she talks about how she got started as a New Orleans photographer, and the changes she's seen in the city since. — Ed.
I started photographing New Orleans in 1990, right after I was laid off from my job at New Orleans
Magazine where I worked as an editorial assistant. It was my first job in New Orleans after college.
I had studied journalism at Southeastern Louisiana University and already worked on two Louisiana newspapers as a reporter when it became evident that my fate as a reporter was doomed. My editor at the St. Tammany News Banner
handed me a camera one day to take photos to go along with the story I was assigned. He ran the photo extra large and cut most of my story. Each week the photos got bigger and the stories got smaller so I took that as an indication that perhaps I might be better at telling stories through photographs. I was devastated after being laid off my first real job so I applied to The Times-Picayune
for a photography position. They nearly laughed me out of the door but I guess that worked out for the best.
So I kept searching for avenues to make photography happen. That's when I discovered the amazing work of Michael P. Smith. I called him several times to make myself available to work for him for free but each time I called he couldn't remember who I was. After the fifth call, he finally agreed to meet me and I assisted him on a couple of jobs, but he was frank and told me that he didn't know what I could do for him besides carry his bags on some rare commercial jobs.
With no more options at making a living at that point, I took a position in Honduras teaching English. I sublet my apartment, packed my bags and move to Siguatepeque, Honduras. While I was there I took Mike Smith's advice and photographed as much as I could. Still not sure what I was going to do and how I was going to make a living in photography, I just kept photographing everything I saw.
Then one day after walking three miles to the post office, which I walked to every day to find nothing waiting in the mailbox, there was a postcard from Mike saying that he thought of something I could do for him when I got back. I returned at the beginning of 1992 and he let me stay in his studio. I began printing for Mike and trying to sell his work around town. Working with Mike opened up a whole new world for me. My family moved to a rural corner of the Northshore, so I wasn't exposed to the side of New Orleans that Mike documented so well. Not only did he teach me how to expose film and print in the darkroom, he taught me how to behave on the streets of New Orleans, how to respect Mardi Gras Indians when photographing them and how to duck when things get tense and guns were drawn.
I soon realized that I wanted to get serious about photography and started trying to get work. But it was so hard to find work as a photographer during that time. With no real work experience, I started trying to sell stories, written with photographs.
I got my first big break in 1994 when I wrote a story about the gutter punks in New Orleans. Everyone was up in arms about these new visitors to the city, hanging out on Decatur Street, so I followed them around for a couple of months and wrote a story and took pictures, then brought my package to Gambit
. The story was a big hit and I have been working at Gambit
ever since. I'll never forget the day that I walked into the then-PJs on Frenchmen Street and saw a policeman reading the story in Gambit
. He looked at me, not knowing that it was my story, and said, "This is the best thing I've seen in a long time."
From that moment I wanted to tell stories about people in New Orleans.