April 16, 2020

Learning to Swim [for the City of Detroit]

Portraits for the City of Detroit Gratiot/7-Mile Redevelopment Plan

The City of Detroit has launched a redevelopment plan for the Gratiot/7-Mile community. I’ve been hired by the city and the consulting firm Giffels-Webster as the still-images creative director and photographer. Our task is to create a series of portraits with two primary goals:
  • Highlight key quality-of-life issues in the community (i.e. public safety, health, mass transit, etc.)
  • Drive community buyin for the redevelopment plan.
The city identified the Heilmann Recreation Center as a keystone institution in this community. As such, the rec center seemed like a good place to start our portrait project – specifically the rec center’s swimming services. Swimming pool and swimming instruction access a key to public health. In addition to promoting fitness, swimming lessons also promote not dying. According to the Centers for Disease Control, inability to swim is a leading risk factor for fatal and non-fatal drowning. This risk factor is higher in urban communities where people either have limited access to pools or flagging interest in learning to swim. As a person from an urban neighborhood who cannot swim, I felt it important to create images that inspire Gratiot/7-Mile community stakeholders to be nothing like me.

If you live in the Gratiot/7-Mile community and have the following considerations, please get in touch: ▪︎ Are a small business owner. ▪︎ Feel uncomfortable when your child walks to school/plays outside. ▪︎ Use public transit (especially with a small child). ▪︎ Live in a home on a block where most homes have been demolished.

Client: City of Detroit Planning Department/Giffels-Webster
Photography and Creative Direction: Noah Stephens
Subject: Nicole Valentini
Assistant: Sterling Hurd

I'd like to give a special thanks to Nicole, Sterling, and Heilmann Rec Center supervisor Byron Spivey. Also, Khalil Ligon in the City Planning Department and Michael Darga at Giffels-Webster for bringing me onboard for this project.

July 29, 2017

The People of Detroit: 50 Years Later [commissioned by "Detroit" the movie]

Detroiters consider how the 1967 riots continue to affect the city's people and landscape. The project was commissioned by Detroit – a new film from Academy Award winners Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal.

“The long-lasting impact is a lack of unity and black-owned businesses”

- Shana Hubbard, resident of the riot-affected Dexter/Elmhurst neighborhood. Full interview: https://youtu.be/UbT6u6mtfLw.

Photographer's note: More than 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed in the '67 riots. Many more would fall as a consequence of post-riot disinvestment.  As far as the story I want to tell with this series is concerned, these structures are as important as the subjects. The buildings were easy to find. Subjects were not. I was on deadline. I decided to stake out this particular building and hope a subject would come along. And come along she did. Not only was Shana photogenic with an innate feel for posing and narrative, her hot pink headphones were a perfect complement to the building's cyan blue. Shana and I talked about hopes, dreams, and how hard it can be to escape the circumstances we are born into. I hope Shana is doing well. 


“I don’t quite understand how we tear down our own, cause we have to live with it for the next 30, 40 years.” 

- Baltimore Gallery curator and Smile Brand owner Phil Simpson. Full interview: https://youtu.be/vaeBCGnaFZU.

Photographer's note: I started doing The People of Detroit as a way of self-medicating. I have severe chronic misanthropy. By forcing myself to go out with my camera and meet strangers, it was only a matter of time before I met a stranger who would convince me pandemics are a bad thing afterall. Phil was just that kind of person. Ironically, I photographed the Smile merchant on the day after he lost his keys. He was still as gracious as ever. To me, artistic entrepreneurs like Phil represents hope for Detroit's future. Not everyone in Detroit is an abandoned building. 


“In a way, maybe the guy [stealing a color TV is fighting oppression]”

- Quan Neloms, teacher at the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men in Detroit. Quan and his son Mathias were photographed at the site of the now-demolished Algiers Motel. During the riots, three black men were killed in the motel by white police officers. Full interview: https://youtu.be/CrBJVrNZSXk.

Photographer's note: I just happened to meet Quan while I was doing a lighting test at this location. The person I did the lighting test for was unable to make it. I happened to see Quan again later that week in Whole Foods. He had on the shirt featuring years when riots happened. Perfect. Quan and I disagree vehemently about the ultimate impact and characterization of the riots. When one person steals one TV, it's theft. When 100 people steal 100 TVs it's still theft. The fact lots of thefts occur simultaneously does not transmute theft into rebellion. That said, I'm glad Quan and his son Mathias were nice enough participate in project. Quan has a voice that needs to be heard. 


“The riots signaled the African-American community was not going to tolerate segregation.”

- Writer and Kresge Artist Fellow Marsha Music. She was photographed in the empty lot where her father's record store once stood. The store was destroyed as a consequence of the riot. Full interview: https://goo.gl/Tewnx4

Photographer's note: I think language is important. Specific words describe specific things in reality. We should match words with the reality they describe. I am persuaded by the late University of Michigan history professor Sidney Fine's contention that the events of 1967 do not match the word "rebellion." From his book “Violence in the Motor City”:

“Those involved in the disturbance in Detroit can hardly be described as having been engaged in ‘organized armed resistance to an established government,’ as rebellion is commonly defined.”

That said, Marsha is wonderfully articulate. When I started this project, I knew I had to include her voice.  

“We lost a lot of businesses and homes. [The riots] had a negative impact on the black race.”

-  Fiat Chrysler Automobiles employee Sonya Reese. Sonya and her daughter Ivy were interviewed and photographed in Gordon Playground. The playground was built on the site of the blind pig where the 1967 riot began. The park was remodeled in June 2017. The park is located on the precipice of prosperity. To the east are the mansions of the beautiful Boston-Edison historic district. To the west is the Dexter Bar. Full interview: https://youtu.be/E9czKO5piRk.

Photographer's note: When I came up with the question, "What do you think is the long-lasting impact of the riots?" I was sure I'd created a trapdoor into an inescapable rhetorical steel cage. I was surprised to hear some people argue the riot was inconsequential – or even more remarkable – a good thing. I tend to agree with Sonya. Riots destroy businesses and homes in a community that was already marginalized. It's hard to imagine how this could possibly be a net positive. That said, I am happy to have stumbled across dissent. I think we are all best served when our assumptions are challenged. 


Final note: I'd like to thank everyone at Annapurna Pictures for trusting me with this fantastic project. I can only hope it is a modicum as powerful as the film for which it was created. If you haven't already, go see Detroit

May 20, 2017

The People of Detroit: 50 Years Later

An example of how portraits in this series will look.

Were you a witness to, participant in, or otherwise directly affected by the 1967 #Detroit riots? If not, do you currently live within 1.5 miles of 12th and Clairemont [https://goo.gl/A2xJu1]?
The People of Detroit would like to photograph and interview you for "50 Years Later." The project explores how the riots continue to impact life in Detroit. Photos from the project will be shown internationally on a high-profile platform. Please respond to this post or email: noah@thepeopleofdetroit.com. Please share this post with people who may be interested.
We would especially like to hear from people who participated in the riots. We'd like to know why you decided to participate. If you are uncomfortable speaking candidly, your identity can be hidden.
[The photos by Noah Stephens included in this post are an example of how the series will look. Each subject will have one close-portrait and one narrative-driven, environmental portrait].

January 4, 2017

Design Is Not Just for White People

Five years ago – before my photo project, The People Of Detroit, single-handedly fixed the city's image problem and spurred an era of redevelopment known as "New Detroit" – I took a bike ride to Eastern Market. 80 degrees. 2 p.m. The farmers market was thick with cars and pedestrians. I started to walk my bike. 
Smoke suddenly swirled around me. Like some sort of reverse tear gas, the peppery cumin effusion drew me closer to its source: a landmark barbecue spot called Bert's Market Place. I arrived just in time to hear the African-American grillmaster tell a customer Detroit's newly installed bike lanes were put there for "white people" (where "white people" is shorthand for educated, relatively affluent people of European descent who describe themselves using terms like "urbanist"). 
I was confused. I was a black person. I just used bike lanes to get to Eastern Market. How did I get here? How would I get home?

Speaking of home, the one I grew up in was government subsidized. The high school I graduated from had no windows (to mitigate the distracting influence of sunshine and fresh air). The high school bully I beat up in gym class eventually went to prison for robbing a liquor store. The high school bully who beat me up after shop class would some months later rob a mentally disabled man who bagged groceries at A&P. He didn't go to prison. He was eventually taken off the streets – specifically, his driveway after someone shotgunned him to death.

I imagine the grillmaster had similar experiences. If experiences like this are someone's frame of reference, design can seem something rarefied. Abstract. The exclusive concern of the thick-frame eyeglass gentry. In a place where people struggle to avoid unemploymenthomelessness, and armed robbers, design seems like a frivolity we can't afford to indulge. 
The exact opposite is true.

Design is essential to quality of life in a city. Urban gardens reduce crime. Bike lanes reduce stress and waistlines. Public art reduces sadness. Good design is not a luxury. It is a necessity.

To illustrate this point, The People of Detroit partnered with the Detroit Creative Corridor Center to photograph and interview a cross section of Detroiters about the role design should play in the city's ongoing revitalization. This question is especially relevant now. Last year, Detroit was the first city to win the United Nations' UNESCO City of Design designation. This designation both celebrates the design history that created Detroit and the contemporary design projects that are creating Detroit anew. 
It is in the utmost public interest that urban design initiatives like Murals in the Market, the Dequindre Cut , and The Greening of Detroit be sustained and expanded. Everyone needs good design. People from blighted, marginalized communities need it most.


Detroiters on Design

“Design is the lifeblood of this city. It is a significant part of our rebirth.”

- Andrea Riley,  chief marketing officer, Ally Financial 


“I’m a bike commuter. I have benefitted tremendously from the increased attention paid to the commuting experience for bikers.”

- Garlin Gilchrist, innovation director, City of Detroit


Mandisa Smith, artist, Detroit Fiber Works

“My hope is design will help create a more fair, just, equitable Detroit.”

- Mandisa Smith, artist, Detroit Fiber Works


“Design can be profound as long as it’s inclusive and respectful of the history that created Detroit.” [audio]

- Kaija Wuollet, designer/founding partner, Laavu


Joshua Smith, creative director, Who's That
“Beautiful design is a tool that can make everyone’s life better.”

- Joshua Smith, creative director, Who's That


Melvin Johnson, high school student, aspiring entertainer.

“Design projects are already starting to have a positive impact on life in Detroit.”

- Melvin Johnson,  high school student, aspiring entertainer.

July 26, 2016

Samuel [commissioned by Credit Karma]

"Credit gives you access to opportunity." 
- Samuel, 30

E'lexis [commissioned by Credit Karma]

"I monitor my score. If I do something that makes it go down, I don't do that thing again!"
- E'lexis, 20

Andre [commissioned by Credit Karma]

"A good score means I pay less for loans." 
- Andre, 30

Brianna [commissioned by Credit Karma]

"I haven't check my score yet, but I know it's important" 
- Brianna, 20

Zoe [commissioned by Credit Karma]

"I use Credit Karma to see how specific financial decisions will impact my score." 
- Zoe, 23

Carlton [commissioned by Credit Karma]

"I boosted my score by getting charges I did not make removed!" 
- Carlton, 20