In 1974, then-college student Richard Sexton hopped in a Datsun station wagon and drove from southern Georgia to Panama, stopping in every Central American country along the way. From there, he continued overland through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. For company, he took two friends and a Leica M4 35mm rangefinder camera, which he deployed zealously throughout the trip, amassing a collection of photographs that became his first serious body of work.
Thirty years later, Sexton returned to Latin America for the first time. It was then that the seeds for his latest book, Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin American Sphere, were planted. Between 2006 and 2014 he took pictures all over Latin America, using his current hometown, New Orleans, as the geographical and cultural center of the project.
Photos from Creole World are on display at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery along with a concurrent exhibition, Fidel and Che's Cuba: A Revolution in Pictures, which consists of historical photographs — including the world-famous portrait of Che Guevara, "Guerrillero Heroico" — by Castro's cadre of Cuban photographers whose assignment it was to document the Cuban revolution during the 1950s.
The two exhibits together make for an interesting contrast, as the scenes Sexton documents — usually of buildings or landscapes and free of people — often convey a sense of decay and faded grandeur. In the photos of Fidel and Che's Cuba, however, we see an incredibly volatile but hopeful moment in time, when the country was riding on the crest of its potential.
We spoke with Sexton about Creole World and the history of the region — and city — that he loves so much.
City Paper: Tell me a bit about how this book originated?
Richard Sexton: Well, it was a roundabout kind of thing. Ostensibly, I was just going on vacation. That trip, the 2006 trip, was Buenos Aires, which I had not been to in 1974. I had not been there before. Two years later, I went back to Panama and Ecuador, two places that I had been before, and since 1991 I'd been living and photographing in New Orleans. It was during that second trip that the idea for this project really gelled.
CP: You traveled to Cuba as well for this book. That must have been difficult to arrange.
RS: It was difficult — it took about eight months because I had to apply for a specific license. I didn't work for a newspaper or magazine that had a general license. It makes you realize that the cultural impact of the embargo has really been profound. It's unfortunate, because the connection between us and Cuba, it's a long and storied tradition ... It was a very popular foreign destination, more than any other place. And now you can't go there unless you get permission from the government.
CP: It should be interesting to see your photographs of the country next to the older photos of Che, Castro, and the other revolutionaries.
RS: Yes, in my work you really see the country a half century later. With the black-and-white work you see that moment in history, that epic moment when no one really knew how this was all going to play out. The embargo was only beginning to form, and it was the height of the Cold War. Now the history of that has all unfolded, so it has been a half century of the embargo, of Castro and communism, and you sort of see the contemporary outcome of all that.
CP: And how does New Orleans fit into the picture?
RS: What I was really looking at, and the perspective of the book is how all of Latin America shares a history with New Orleans. The main thing from my perspective probably comes from living in Louisiana, where the majority of people are Catholic. Many of them came from the Caribbean. Certainly in Charleston you have that same tradition.
CP: Even though Creole World is focused on Latin America, doing this book must have changed the way you see the U.S. as a whole.
RS: That was one of my goals with Creole World. Take New Orleans — people visit and say, 'There's no other place like this.' Well, there are plenty of places like this, just not in North America. You see these places — New Orleans, specifically, with this project — and you think, how unique, but really all it is is you kind of rambled into Latin America without knowing it.
CP: So how does New Orleans fit into the United States? Do you think of it as the South?
RS: It is and it isn't ... In the rural areas [of Louisiana], even in this current generation, thousands of them grew up speaking Creole French in their households. That tradition is right up to the current time. It's not fully assimilated yet — who knows if it ever will be.
Then in New Orleans, there's a whole large part of the city that we call Uptown, that includes the Garden District. That's where the Americans settled. It's kind of like two cities joined at the hip. You go there and it kind of feels like the historic district of Charleston. So in that regard it's a Southern place, but then it has this whole other exotic element unique to the Caribbean.
CP: And how did you decide which places to include in the book?
RS: A lot of it could be somewhat random. I had lived in New Orleans for 20 years, and photographed during that time. When I was in Latin America and I'd see something that reminded me of New Orleans, I'd take a picture of it, and the same in reverse. Then about a third of the way through I said well, I can't be totally random about it. For a book of this type there are certain places you just can't leave out. I couldn't leave out Cuba, for instance. New Orleans was governed out of Cuba before the Louisiana Purchase [Spain acquired it from the French]. I also had to include Haiti. Haiti is the other major French colony in this part of the world. So many people in New Orleans trace their lineage back to Haiti.
Then I had to put it all together. That was one of the more difficult parts, the organization, so that people would really appreciate it.
CP: How has this project changed the way you see the relationship between our country and the Latin American region?
RS: The three largest states by population are California, Texas, and Florida, all of them Spanish names, and that were originally part of Latin America. All of them have a Latino character, and all of them touch Latin America. They'll impact the future direction of our country, potentially. I would really like to see a tighter connection between the U.S. and Latin America — more cultural blending, and that sort of thing.