Noah Stephens's 'People of Detroit' Portraits Show City's Humanity
"Because not everyone in Detroit is an abandoned building" -- that's the tongue-in-cheek but sharp-edged tagline to Noah Stephens's "People of Detroit" portrait series.
Stephens, who grew up in Highland Park, says he started his photography project in response to negative and over-generalizing media portrayals of the city. The one that sparked the idea for "People of Detroit" was a 2010 "Dateline" special about a Detroiter who hunts raccoons and sells their meat, which received criticism for its misrepresentation of the city.
"When 'Dateline' implied that circumstances in Detroit were so dire that people had been forced to consume wild 'coon meat as some kinda of post-apocalyptic staple food, I had finally had enough of misery-obsessed, sensationalized portrayals of the city," Stephens wrote in an email to HuffPost. "I started 'The People of Detroit' to call attention to a side of life in the city rarely examined in national or global media."
Stephens posts his widely varying portraits to his blog. Most are of strangers he meets around the city, and each portrait is paired with a short essay about the subject.
"I try to get a sense of what it is that drives them; occupation, hobbies, what are they passionate about," Stephens said. "I also like to find out as much as I can about the relationship the person has with the city."
What began as a response project quickly took on a life of its own. Recently, when Stephens started thinking about bringing his photography to an offline audience, he came up with the idea to show his photographs at the Renaissance Center during the 2012 North American International Auto Show. The big car event will be held at Cobo Center, but the nearby Ren Cen is General Motors' headquarters.
Stephens made a fascinating case for why his work should be shown to coincide with the Auto Show.
"As the only auto company based in the city proper, GM has a vested interest in how the city is thought of nationally and internationally," he said. "It makes business sense for GM to do anything it can to show potential recruits, investors, and partners that Detroit is a place where smart, attractive, progressive people have vibrant lives. The People of Detroit is solely focused on making that case."
In November, Stephens put together a petition appealing to GM to showcase his photography at the 2012 Auto Show. Stephens originally asked for 10,000 signatures to bring to GM. As of Dec. 30, the petition had 189 signatures from across the country and Canada.
Natasha Kosivzoff of Hines, the company that manages the Renaissance Center, said the space is currently blocked off for the Auto Show and unable to have anything on display.
While "The People of Detroit" won't grace the Ren Cen walls this year, Stephens is still looking to collect signatures for a potential 2013 show.
Stephens's goals don't seem impossible: At this year's Auto Show, GM will be showcasing the work of one artist whose work is aligned with Stephens's vision. Fillmmaker (and HuffPost blogger) Erik Proulx will be showing his 17-minute film "Lemonade" which looks at positive stories of Detroiters in the city.
When Proulx visited Detroit for the first time, he was bowled over by the optimism and resiliency he found among its residents, particularly those that were unemployed. For his project, he plans to film the city over the next five years, documenting its progress.
The Auto Show screening of "Lemonade" is a private event for GM's invitees. But it is meant to give visitors an understanding of the city, counteracting the media misconceptions Stephens talks about.
"We're trying to show them not only the great story coming out of GM," said Lisa Gilpin, a social media strategist for the automaker. "[Proulx's] story of renaissance mirrors a lot of what's going on in the city."
WATCH "Lemonade: Detroit" below: