Award-winning Birmingham photographer Chris Keenan tells Terry Grimley about his ongoing coverage of New Orleans and a trip to find some legendary musicians in Prague.

Chris Keenan seems to have a natural empathy with musical activists. During 2007 he was seeking them out to photograph in New Orleans and Prague.

Keenan, 28, was recently one of three Birmingham winners in Channel 4's 4Talent Awards for young creatives (the others were performance poet Polarbear, alias Steven Camden, and comedian Nathan Hughes-Berry).

His interest in New Orleans began when he was hired by Southern Comfort to take photographs there in 2005, before Hurricane Katrina wrecked the city. I wrote about his return visit, also sponsored by Southern Comfort, in April 2006.

Early last year he went back for a third visit, this time on his own initiative, largely to follow up one of the city's most innovative musicians, Quintron.

"I wanted to photograph the Ninth Ward Marching Band," he explains. "Quintron runs that band. I emailed them before I went over and they didn't reply. I sent them another email and again they didn't reply.

"The year before Quintron was a little bit aloof with me. I marched with them and made friends with members of the band. They are legendary. They take old rock tunes and convert them into marching band tunes. At Mardi Gras, they do a six-mile march from Napoleon, which is uptown, down to the French Quarter. They've been going for about ten years."

You might assume that New Orleans is now well on the road to recovery from the disaster of Katrina, but apparently you would be wrong.

"It's particularly crazy there now, it's got much worse. It seemed that Mardi Gras was a little bigger than the year before, there were a lot more people, but the violence and crime were much worse. I didn't encounter it face-to-face but I know I just missed it.

"One morning we were about to go out for coffee and I looked out and saw a tank and police carrying machine guns. Then we found a guy had been going round on a bike and hitting people on the back of the head with a brick and stealing their money.

"This was in February, and a week before a film-maker called Helen Hill had been murdered. There was a huge march after this called Enough is Enough, about escalating crime and the police never having enough people on the street.

"In the last year alone crime has increased three or four times. Kidnappings are on the increase. Two of my friends told me about a narrow esacpe they had coming back from a place called the Mother-in-Law Lounge.

"A lot of people are leaving. A friend, Jessica, said she loves the city but has to leave."

Although a lot of regeneration money has been poured in, it seems that much of it has been targeted at cosmetic repairs to the tourist economy.

"The amount of money they must have spent on Mardi Gras is incredible. The French Quarter and tourist economy is a huge thing for them, it's a big part of the city."

In New Orleans, Keenan teamed up with a journalist, Victoria Larsson, contributing to her article in Swedish newspaper. He hopes that she will write the text for a small publication he is planning of his New Orleans pictures from the last three years.

Meanwhile, he still has that link with Southern Comfort: "They do a lot of events in England and they got me to photograph them. They're bringing the Hot 8 Brass Band over from New Orleans.

"They are a really huge corporation. I don't know how high up it goes that people like my work, but I was told that some of it is in their boardroom."

Keenan's latest assingment was a trip to Prague, which came about as an international project with Birmingham media agency Vivid. The idea was to photograph legendary rock band Plastic People of the Universe, precursors of the Velvet Revolution who will celebrate their 40th anniversary next year.

Formed less than a month after the Soviet invasion of 1968, the band took its inspiration from then cutting-edge American bands like the Velvet Underground, The Fugs and the Doors, and its name from a Frank Zappa song.

"I was there for about 10 days in total. I met the band, and ended up going on a mini tour with them," says Keenan. "I interviewed people going to the gig, and I found a lot of younger people hadn't heard of them. I spoke to some people who said they had really liked Plastic People when they were growing up and their parents were dissidents, but they said Plastic People are dead - they're not needed any more and they haven't evolved.

"In the 70s and early 80s their gigs were chaos. No-one knew where they were going to be held. Once tanks were used to blow a barn to pieces because the authorities heard they were planning to play there.

"The shot I ended up taking was their instruments on the stage of the National Theatre. It seemed the antithesis of where they used to play."

Closer to home, Keenan has recently done a record cover for electronic artist Yila which includes a photograph of a greasy spoon café in Kings Heath, and he has plans for an extended project documenting West Midlands café culture.

An early priority is Rosa's Cafe which, with its long-established neighbouring restaurant Los Canarios, is facing demolition to make way for a glossy new Eastside.

"They have a bed-and-breakfast there and I want to say there and do some photographs before it goes," he says.

You can see more of Keenan's work at