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In a city as vast and culturally diverse as Detroit, addressing issues of fair representation can be daunting. But for the organizers of Facing Change: Documenting Detroit, the solution could not be simpler—mentor a cohort of local emerging photographers and encourage them to capture their own view of the city. On Friday, September 23rd, the Detroit Institute of Arts co-hosted a screening of works by the 21 photographers from the weeklong 2016 Spring Fellowship program, sharing these multivaried perspectives against the backdrop of one of the city's storied institutions. 

FCDD1The crowd assembled for the late showing of "Facing Change: Documenting Detroit."These photographers—Gabriela Baginski, MarQuez Bell, Julian Bibb, Zac Clark, Amethyst Davis, Brian Day, Jon DeBoer, Cydni Elledge, Danya Ensing, Razi Jafri, Steve Koss, Ali Lapetina, Jarod Lew, Justin Milhouse, Rolando Palacio, Amy Sacka, Felicia Tolbert, Anahli Vazquez, Alexandre da Veiga, Sean Work, and Rosamaria Zamarron—were each paired with a mentor to help them cultivate their skills and hone their take on Detroit. The mentors’ experiences were just as wide-ranging as the Fellows, from Salwan Georges, a staff photographer at the Detroit Free Press who had a recent exhibit at the Arab American National Museum, to Carlos Diaz, a photographer of Southwest Detroit, and national photojournalists Brian Palmer, Krisanne Johnson and Kate Bubacz. 

Facing Change: Documenting Detroit is a subset of Facing Change: Documenting America, a nonprofit dedicated to “exploring America and its critical issues.” In an era of technological advances that make everyone with a smartphone a potential documentarian, it is both an obvious and an innovative mission to employ everyday photographers in the pursuit of a visual archive of real American life. 

FCDD2Farrakhan Muhammed and his daughter, shot by Justin Milhouse.The photojournalism project’s aim of “completing a documentary project illustrating lives of Detroiters throughout the city’s 139 square miles, focusing on daily life, personal stories, and larger social, political, and economic issues,” is a lofty goal, but the distinct viewpoints of the photographers attempted to present the multitudes of the city, presented in a community-wide public art viewing. Detroit seems to be an obvious stop for this national project, combining a distinct narrative with an abundance of creative talent seeking an outlet to share their take on the real Detroit.  

The evening’s outdoor program ran twice, each time drawing a huge and likewise diverse audience, assembled on blankets and folding chairs onto the eastern lawn of the DIA. Hosted by Documenting Detroit co-founders and project directors Karah Shaffer and Alan Chin, the presentation juxtaposed still images with recorded statements by each artist, discussing their process, inspiration, or subject matter. 

These subjects varied widely, though all of the photography was candid and largely unstaged, as might be expected from a documentary project. Some photographers chose to take a very narrow view, working closely with a few human subjects, such as Justin Milhouse, who examined the inner workings of a Black Muslim family, or Gabriela Baginski, who documented the life and times of Logan Sloan, an active young man battling Sickle-cell disease. Others surveyed neighborhoods or specific areas, like Ali Lapetina’s deep dive into the women of Banglatown, or Anahili Vazquez, who focuses mainly on youth activities and families in Southwest Detroit. Still others took a non-human view, capturing industrial landscapes of DelRay or the pastoral views of Belle Isle.

The reception for these images was warm, with many of the photographers on hand with friends and family to view the fruits of their labor. As the Fellows introduced themselves in the narrative statements accompanying their images, they called out being students, fathers, lifelong Detroiters, relative newcomers—all drawn from, returning to, or interacting with the city from different contexts. Though it must be noted that the swirling gray motif of the DIA’s marble exterior sometimes made it difficult to discern the details of given images, the view of Detroit as a dynamic cultural melting pot came across crystal clear. 

“We are a nonprofit, and we’re here to stay, and we’ll be doing this again next year,” said organizer and photography mentor Chin. Chin previewed more public art displays of selected photographs, referring to two weatherproof banners hanging at the front of the outdoor screening area, part of a series to be posted on different buildings and locations around Detroit. “The first one is going up next week at the corner of Kercheval and Field, on the east side,” said Chin. “Another one will hopefully be happening downtown, and then one on the west side—and then hopefully in other locations. Then when you drive, and walk, bike around town, you’ll be able to see some of these pictures big, which will be really wonderful, as well.”

FCDD7Breakdancers depicted at "Facing Change: Documenting Detroit" by Brian Day.Among the administrators of arts organizations, there is often a great deal of hand-wringing about how to diversify content and offerings and draw the folks in the neighborhoods out to engage with the cultural institutions of the city. In partnering with Documenting Detroit, the DIA drew an enthusiastic and engaged crowd from all corners of the city, by presenting art which effectively leverages Detroit’s greatest resource: its people. Facing Change: Documenting Detroit created a situation of celebration and connection between radically disparate communities by placing the emphasis on the empowerment of individuals to tell their stories. 

A simple idea, a (perhaps deceptively) simple execution, and a stunning representation of the different facets of Detroit. This is a city too complex to summarize in 10,000 words, but thanks to this project, their 2016 Spring Fellows, and the DIA, we got a slideshow that was worth a whole lot more than that. 

The work of Facing Change: Documenting Detroit Fellowship participants will be published in print as a magazine-style booklet, in weatherproof banners going up at different locations around the city, and on various online platforms. You can learn more here, and follow them on Instagram @EverydayMotorCity.

All photographs courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp 

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