Every Picture Tells a Detroit Story

Light streams down between buildings rising against a clear blue sky. Some of it bounces off glass facades and intensifies, becoming so bright that it is impossible to look at directly; other streams splatter against old brick, altering the appearance of 80-year-old skyscrapers from their original earthy tones to something that resembles a vivid blood-orange.

A group of seventh- and eighth-grade students from Friends School looks up. The students are in downtown Detroit on a late-April morning with Model D's Dave Krieger, getting a hands-on lesson in architectural photography. Their eyes are on the massive Compuware building, which squats on the north end of Campus Martius. Some have cameras ready, another is videotaping, and all are listening to Krieger talk about finding "dynamic imagery" in the reflecting light.

"Look through the viewfinder, zoom in and find a piece of the building that no one else really notices," Krieger says. He's talking to student Joshua Brooks in front of the main entrance to Compuware. "Bring back something that people don't instantly recognize. Locate the abstract and come back with beautiful accidents. Find something unique that people take for granted every day."    

The students are downtown attempting to capture Detroit revitalization in progress. Krieger, who has been Model D's principal photographer since this newsletter launched two years ago, volunteered his time to lead the project from the professional end. Friends teacher Damien Yambo is also along on the field trip providing academic oversight and supervision. The students are getting a crash course in the mechanics of documentary photography for a reason: with more assistance from Krieger and Yambo, they will prepare the digital photos on computers back in the classroom and print the best of them to be auctioned off at a school fundraiser.

Building tension

Weeks later at Friends, a private school guided by Quaker principles of non-violence and respect for all, seventh grader Eleanor Carey looks dismayed as she ponders a photo she took of downtown buildings.

"Mine looks crooked," says Carey, 13.

"Crooked is good," Krieger says. "Angles are cool. It builds tension, making the buildings look like they're tipping over."

Carey and the other students are sitting around a table in the school library. Laptops are open to reveal images of buildings, statues and people. Faces are serious, in focus. Muted sunshine pours in through the window of the school, which is on St. Aubin near Lafayette Blvd in Detroit's Elmwood neighborhood near Lafayette Park.

Three other students — Jordan Harvey-Morgan, Ellen Lezotte, and Kirsten Lee — are huddled around computer screens. A picture catches Krieger's eye. In the foreground yellow flowers appear to sway in the breeze. Behind them, downtown Detroit's built environment, some of it old, some new, glimmers in the morning sun.

While Krieger points at the picture, he talks to Jacob Higle-Ralbovsky, the seventh grader who took the shot.

"This says something compelling. I love this. It's more than an image," he says. "It's an allegory. It has meaning beyond the photo. The picture tells a story of hope and resurrection in Detroit."

Yambo, a native New Yorker who graduated from Harvard and earned a Master's Degree at the University of Michigan before taking a job teaching at Friends, tells the class that the goal of the project is to "become involved in Detroit, an important place to know." Yambo teaches social studies and human rights classes, a requirement for all students at Friends.

Meeting deadlines, raising money       

The students began work on the photography assignment in late winter and worked on it until late May, when they finished editing and printing the pictures in time to get them ready for auction. Yambo and Krieger treated it as if it were a professional project, complete with deadline pressure and critical interventions. The strategy paid off.

The photos were on display at the 14th annual Wade McCree Jr. Scholarship Fundraiser. The event was held June 2 at the
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American HIstory.

Over 300 people attended the fundraiser; the auction brought in over $1,000. Another Friends student, eighth grader Aaron Tyson, showed a short documentary video that he shot during the field trip.

A week later, with the project completed and school winding down for summer recess, Yambo appears in a happy, reflective mood.

"I am quite pleased with how everything turned out," he says. "We wanted the students to get the benefit of working with a Detroit photographer who does this work every day, and to get our students to see how things get done in the professional world."

But Yambo says another motive was behind the effort.

"We wanted to get students to get the experience of doing this kind of work in a great American city," he says. "I was happy to see them get so invested. They went out looking for Detroit, and they found it."

Walter Wasacz is editor at large for Model D and Metromode.

All Photographs Copyright Walter Wasacz    

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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