Mardi Gras Indians: A New Orleans tradition

Story highlights

  • Photographer Charles Freger took portraits of many Mardi Gras Indians
  • The costumed revelers represent different sections of New Orleans

(CNN)Under a bright New Orleans sun, Mardi Gras Indians pose in their colorful costumes against equally colorful walls. They wear their feathers, headdresses and masks with a pride that spans decades.

It was their history, mythological and mysterious, that piqued the interest of French photographer Charles Freger. In 2014, Freger traveled to New Orleans to take a series of portraits of these costumed performers, who march annually in Mardi Gras parades.
Mardi Gras Indians are African-American revelers who wear costumes inspired by Native American ceremonial dress. They are grouped into various tribes ranging in size from half a dozen to several dozen members. As Freger tells it, each tribe has a unique name and represents a different section of New Orleans. Tribes typically consist of a Big Chief, a Big Queen, Spy Boys, Flag Boys and a Wild Man.
    Photographer Charles Freger
    There is debate about the exact origins of the Mardi Gras Indians, though two theories persist. One contends that New Orleans was introduced to Native American dress through Buffalo Bill's Wild West show in the mid-19th century. A more popular narrative is that the Mardi Gras Indians exist as a remembrance of the Louisiana Native Americans who offered sanctuary to runaway slaves. Freger said the Mardi Gras Indians like the idea of paying tribute.
    Freger uses his camera to explore the identity of communities and what it means to belong to a certain group of people. He does this by only shooting portraits.
    "I'm really interested in photographing people taking part in a community and wearing a particular style of clothing," he said. He has also photographed synchronized ice skaters, the Chinese opera and the Swiss Guard at the Vatican. "I'm not doing a reportage. I'm doing a documentary of portraits, an accumulation of portraits about one group."
    Freger wanted to work with as many tribes as possible. One "queen," photographed in her vibrant red costume and a headdress with orange flames, helped Freger meet other Mardi Gras Indians across the city.

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    As he got to know more tribe members, Freger learned the stories behind their costumes. Each costume is the result of an extraordinary effort. They are produced independently, and each person is responsible for the expense of his or her costume.
    "They have a story, and they produce a costume based on that story," he said. The costumes are labor-intensive and change year to year.
    In Freger's portraits, each person is posed in a way that accentuates their costume and the personality of their character. "I wanted it really staged," he said.
    Freger said his time with the Mardi Gras Indians led him to the larger black community in New Orleans.
    "We had a lot of discussion about (the community)," he said. "(We talked about) what it is like live in the United States and all the social problems there."
    It's the community he met in New Orleans and the shared history of its members that have Freger pursuing a larger project in the United States.
    "When you look at my pictures," he said, "you always have a sense of an individual, but you feel the background of a community."