Checking in with photographer Amy Harris, who has been documenting Mardi Gras in New Orleans for nearly a decade.
Photojournalist Amy Harris isn’t one to miss a Mardi Gras in New Orleans. “It’s so unique,” she says. ”It’s almost like being in another country. And, it hasn’t been commercialized like other festivals, with sponsorships or whatever. It’s really and truly authentic.”
Although Harris shoots everything from fashion shows to political protests, she is perhaps best known for her work as a festival and concert photographer, something she fell into by chance.
“I was out taking pictures [in Tokyo] and some guys in a band walked up and asked if I was a photographer.” Harris worked as an engineer at the time and only took photos as a hobby during her many international work trips. But, she had a big camera, so the guys invited her to shoot their show that night at Billboard Live with American R&B singer Mario.
“After that, I fell in love with music photography. I came back to the U.S. and started working as a sort of intern at a weekly newspaper, photographing the music scene in and around Cincinnati.”
Since then, she’s hooked up with numerous top photo agencies, including Shutterstock, Corbis, and AP, and has covered “basically every major music festival in the U.S.”
Often, her work brings her to New Orleans, which has a rich and distinct musical history, and is home to numerous festivals throughout the year. A few years ago, she bought the apartment of a friend of hers and has been living in the city part-time ever since.
“I wish I could live here full time,” she says, “but it’s just not logistically possible.” Still, she spends as much time in the area as she can and almost never misses Mardi Gras. “I’ve had [almost] every experience you can have at Mardi Gras. I’ve been in a crew and rode in a parade. Some years, I participate and some years I just photograph.”
Last year, Mardi Gras was cancelled [because of COVID]. “It was awful,” says Harris. “People were trying to dance on the street and being stopped by police. It was like being in Footloose.”
This year, however, Mardi Gras is back, and Harris is going to do her best to split her time between participating and documenting the festivities for work, something she admits is hard to do. “It’s so tempting to just want to go have fun and not take pictures,” she says.
“Every time I bring my camera out, I’m almost like ‘I wish I hadn’t done this.’ I mean, you walk down the street and everyone’s drinking and having fun. Everyone’s so friendly. It’s a real challenge to stay focused.”
But stay focused you must. Especially if you’re lugging around expensive camera equipment and hoping to take some quality photos.
If that is your goal, Harris has some tips to help you out.
1. Be Prepared for Massive Crowds
The crowds at Mardi Gras are huge, especially along the parade routes, and can be difficult to navigate. If you think you’ll be able to just slip onto one of those balconies in the French Quarter and photograph the festivities from above, think again. Space in those buildings and on those balconies is reserved in advance and access can cost a small fortune.
2. Be Patient
“Nothing moves fast here,” says Harris. “It’s not like on the East Coast or even in Cincinnati, where I live. Things just move at a different pace here. The people are super nice and super friendly and everybody’s happy, for the most part, but you have to be really patient.”
3. Come Early
“A lot of people think of Mardi Gras as just one day—this year, it’s March 1—but [the celebrations] go on for weeks before that,” Harris says. “Of course, Mardi Gras day is a huge spectacular thing, but leading up to that, there are parades with giant floats that go all over town, and concerts. It’s kind of magical. And, there are lots of opportunities to take photos.”
4. Don’t Limit Yourself to Bourbon Street
There’s a lot more to Mardi Gras than partying on Bourbon Street. “Mardi Gras is actually very family-friendly,” says Harris. “People go out with their entire family to watch the parades. The school bands march and play. There are concerts. People dress in costumes.”
Last year, when Mardi Gras was cancelled, people started putting on porch concerts to support local musicians and hired float builders to create custom installations for their homes. “They’ve kept it going this year,” Harris says. “So, there are houses all over town that have sort of been transformed into [static] floats.”
Mardi Gras is a huge industry in New Orleans, and its impact and influence can be seen all over the city. Not just on Bourbon Street.
5. Get a Buddy
When Harris shoots protests and other potentially dangerous events, she often has a buddy, so they can keep an eye on each other.
Mardi Gras shouldn’t be dangerous, but it’s always a good idea to have someone to check in on and with, especially if you’re new to the scene.
“Realistically, people need to be safe,” Harris says. “Stay with the crowds. Don’t walk down dark alleys. Especially with expensive camera gear. Stay where there are people.”
6. Let Yourself Have Fun
There’s a reason Harris and millions of others love Mardi Gras and come back to New Orleans year after year. “It’s really about immersing yourself and forgetting your troubles,” Harris says. “A lot of people come here year after year and meet their families and friends. It’s a tradition.”
“I got to cover Carnival in Colombia one year and sometimes I think of going to see what it’s like in other parts of the world, but then I’m always like, ‘No. I don’t want to miss [Mardi Gras in New Orleans],’” she adds. It’s that special, and you can’t fully appreciate it until you experience it for yourself.
Check out more images from Amy Harris and other Mardi Gras photographers below.
Images via Rusty Costanza/AP/Shutterstock, DAN ANDERSON/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, DAN ANDERSON/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, DAN ANDERSON/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, Gerald Herbert/AP/Shutterstock, Dan Anderson/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, Matthew Hinton/AP/Shutterstock, Amy Harris/Invision/AP/Shutterstock, Amy Harris/Invision/AP/Shutterstock, and DAN ANDERSON/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.
Cover image via Amy Harris/Shutterstock.