Change Agents, City Transformation, Creativity

‘Humans of Detroit’ photography project aims to tell the city’s stories, one portrait at a time

1 - HOD
3 - Tom-Culver

Tom Culver

It’s no secret Detroit has an image problem. So maybe the best way to solve it is to change that image, one photograph at a time.

So if a picture is worth a thousand of these things I use to describe Detroit via this blog…then a portrait of a playing child, a hopeful college student, a retired veteran, a graffiti artist, an aspiring teacher or a hard-working volunteer should be powerful enough to change a few minds about this city.

There are dozens of websites and Facebook pages devoted to Detroit photography. One in particular caught my eye over the summer: The Humans of Detroit. This particular version was started by four college friends, all of whom had an interest in both photography and altering people’s perceptions of Detroit.

Tom Culver, one of the four photojournalists on the HoD project, told me recently that Humans of Detroit came about in an organic way. The main idea was to honor the people of Detroit as they go about their daily lives here.

“Creativity and technology go hand in hand,” Culver believes, so what better way to share the stories of Detroit residents, workers and lovers than to roam the streets looking for their beautiful faces?

“It’s not about us gaining popularity on Facebook; it’s about the people who call this place home,” Culver said.

The other photographers — Nicole Hayden, Molly Zanley and Noura Ballout – are all either recent Wayne State University grads or current students, much like Culver. They all meet regularly to talk about the site and to give permission to Fan Girls like me to write blogs about them.

Noura Ballout

Noura Ballout

Another reason to start HoD was to honor a website known as the “Humans of New York,” a project started by Brandon Stanton that has gained international fame for its raw, honest photography. Culver isn’t bothered that HoD was based on someone else’s idea; rather, he believes it is a fitting tribute to how touching and impressive HONY truly is.

It also serves as a way to partner people’s portraits with simple text – a short story of sorts about what the subject was thinking or doing at the time of the picture. So while pictures of people sunning at Campus Martius or playing on Belle Isle are pretty and all, understanding the dynamics of what brought them there, what was running through their minds and how their lives intersect with the greater city shows a truer picture of what Detroit is.

“It’s about trying to negate the idea that no one lives here or that the city is empty,” Culver said. “It’s not that we’re naïve; we know there are problems. It’s just that we’re so much more than that.”

The idea of having four people work on the site came about because each of them has a different style, photography-wise. They also have unique interviewing styles, so they may find out different facts about their subjects than another, giving the site its wide-eyed optimism and joie de vive.

“Really, it is all about the people I take pictures of and about sharing their stories,” Culver said. “I’ve been really surprised how fast people open up to you. In five minutes, you know their life’s story.”

Nicole Hayden

Nicole Hayden

Like me, Culver admits he sometimes struggles with the idea of talking to perfect strangers. It can be hard to ask permission for a photo, strike up an emotionally charged conversation and move on within a relatively short period of time. Yet something about that challenge thrills Culver, and the challenge only serves to fuel his adrenaline to keep the project moving forward.

Every picture helps you get to know the subject. HoD is an ideal way to learn about the people you walk next to on the sidewalk. It’s amazing to see the diversity of the flesh tones, family histories, geographic distances and other relatively important details of the people around us. Hey, you even seen a familiar face or two every now and then (They even got Detroit Lives! Phil Lauri in one shot…how’s that for a happy accident).

However, it is arguable that the text selected to accompany each photo has as much power as the image itself. To me, the portrait always starts as something lovely to view. Adding the words makes me take a second look, to examine whether I can see the emotions expressed in the text within the subject’s eyes, facial expression or how they hold their bodies.

Molly Zanley

Molly Zanley

Take the picture of a man wearing all black and holding what appears to be video equipment. He could seem standoffish, hiding behind those big cameras. He’s not really looking at the photographer, so is he hiding something?

Then you read his quote: “Once you realize that you’re in it man – that you a beautiful human being in this world – you can do anything. You got to be the voice of your own universe.” And, upon another review, there is a slight, shy smile on his face, a kindness to his eyes and warmth to his relaxed pose that these words helped me see.

Another favorite of mine is that of a barrel-chested man in a plaid shirt, whose face seems young and unblemished. His quote shows his unblemished soul: “I always smile, man. My whole mission in life is to be smiling all the time. I try to encourage everyone I meet to smile more.”

Detroit, indeed, is more than just an image of an ugly building, a ragtag tree or shattered storefront. It is made up of hundreds of thousands of unique people, each trying to find their way. Sites like the Humans of Detroit allow us to see that humanity just a little bit more.

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One comment on “‘Humans of Detroit’ photography project aims to tell the city’s stories, one portrait at a time

  1. I’m doing a cartoon webliography to get a type in senior school and we needed an internet guide. I loved the put up of the website as well as the idea of it being peer modified, and so I used it in my demonstration.

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