February 28, 2011

Jacob and the Discovery Channel

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First, some housekeeping. Mac users: The default color space for the internet is sRBG. That is not the default color space for Macs for some inexplicable reason. To view the photos on my stream (and on the internet in general) with their proper colors, please go to System Preferences => Displays => Color => sRBG.

As you may have noticed, The People of Detroit has been on a bit of a hiatus. Those who follow my flickr stream [ http://flickr.com/noahstephens ], may have a hint as to why, but let me clue in the non-Flickr followers…

I've been busy. Around the end of January, I was up around 3 a.m. one morning (as is my habit), when I got an email with this subject line:

"Would you Shoot In China?"

My first thought was, "Sure. But when did China move to Nigeria, you no-good African tricksters!"

I played along. Within minutes of the initial contact, I was Skyping with a woman in China.

It seems the Nigerians had scammed DARPA out of captured intergalactic alien technology that allows a person to transmogrify their Skype image and project it to the viewer as a pleasant-looking, female Chinese advertising creative director.

Well, turns out that pleasant-looking Chinese creative director was real after all. She saw The People of Detroit on Flickr and hired me to shoot an advertising campaign in Shanghai for McDonald's China.

I was there for three weeks between late-January and mid-February. It was a transformative experience. For this experience, I have to give all praise to the Almighty…

...Internet for giving a humble photographer in Detroit the ability to share his work with people on the other side of the world. Technology has democratized the marketplace for art. There is no better time than now to be a person with a photo, idea, or thought to share.

I am also eternally grateful to the non-Nigerian, Chinese creative director who trusted a humble photographer in Detroit, Michigan to photograph an ad campaign for her multinational corporate client. You are the best, Hweebeng.

But wait, there's more…

While I was in China, I received an email from the Discovery Channel. They wanted to feature The People of Detroit in a series they were producing about Detroit.

All Praise the Almighty Internet.

That email from the Discovery Channel is what led to the photo you see above. The network is profiling Detroiters who embody the promise of a better future.

Since I'm doing the same thing with The People of Detroit, the convergence of the two projects only seemed natural.

Well, nature took its course on Saturday, February 19th, 2011 when I had the pleasure to photograph a young man named Jacob while the Discovery Channel filmed him and the interaction between he and I.

Jacob is a student at a public high school in Detroit. While most kids in America were aimlessly wandering the branded halls of a shopping mall (not that I have a problem with brands. "Ba da ba ba ba!"), Jacob and a couple two three dozen other students from public high schools across the city were at the University of Michigan's Detroit Center for the Michigan Engineering Zone program.

MEZ is an engineering mentorship program that provides Detroit high school students free access to a metal shop. In the shop, they are mentored by U of M engineering students and engineering professionals. Those mentors help the high schoolers build robots for competition against other high school teams from across America in the annual FIRST Robotics program.

The MEZ program is an excellent supplement to an education system in Detroit that is by any measure of things troubled.

Detroit has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country (though the district announced recently that graduation rates are at a four-year high of 62% - up from 58% in 2007).

Public discourse on this problem imagines schools as production factories and well-educated students as the product. With this analogy in mind, pundits seem to suggest that better top-down management from school administrators and better performance from teachers can produce better students.

This conception has one critical flaw: kids are not widgets.

Widgets are immune to peer pressure. Widgets don't smoke weed in a disused hallway instead of going to American History. Widgets don't play Grand Theft Auto all night instead of doing their geometry homework.

Ultimately, a well-educated student is the end result of a collaborative effort between teachers, the educational infrastructure and the student herself. If a student is disinterested in learning, it doesn't matter how good a teacher is, or whether or not the school has the most recent edition of a textbook.

You can't educate children who are  absent - literally or intellectually.

Which is what makes young men like Jacob worthy of a Discovery Channel program.

Amid a culture where education is undervalued, Jacob is intellectually engaged. He is taking positive steps toward improving himself intellectual and toward improving his chances for success. Which is all you can do, really.

When I started doing The People of Detroit less than a year ago, I didn't know if it would be a success or not.  I don't do anything with the idea in mind that it deserves to be successful just because it has merit and I worked hard at it.

I'm observant enough to know that many people work hard and never yield any success for their effort.

I know many public school kids probably come from difficult situations where they may have seen a parent work hard and never realize success.  I know that may dissuade them from trying at all.

I look at it like this: what's your other option? Not trying?

F that. All you can do is try. If you at least try, you give yourself a chance, and if you give yourself a chance,  who knows, you may get an email from China … or from the Discovery Channel.


Daniel Jay said...

Many people do work hard and never yield any success, but ideally - the hard work was a result of some real interest or love or drive or passion or something intrinsically self rewarding. Right? That's why we should really do things anyway isn't it? For the passion..

First off - high compliment to you for your offerings, what, in China and with the Discovery Channel! You're damn right it's a good time to get yourself out there.

Second, well. Glad to see another post. Always dig the pictures and stories man. Be cool -


Joy Mounia said...

What you are doing and what you have accomplished are so inspiring... congratulations! =) At this rate, I'm realizing that by the time we get the chance to have you "make" my portrait, you'll be way outta my price range!!! lol

The People of Detroit. said...

Thank you so much for commenting, man. It really means alot for me to get feedback. Thank you so much for your support.

If you apply that razor-sharp wit and intellect to a blog like I think you will, I may have to pay YOU to take your picture one day. :)