When Andre Terrell McWilliams was about 15, he was helping his best friend’s family move when he found a Kodak Reflex S film camera while cleaning. He asked his friend if he could have it and he went home that day to take it apart and figure out how it worked. That started him on a lifelong love of photography. He took classes at Crockett Vocational and Mumford where he attended high school and got a job at a studio coincidentally named AM Photography.
But life has a way of leading “you down different roads,” says the Detroit native, who has worked in a wide range of jobs in different industries from city government to transportation, his most recent job where he was recently faced with a “layoff situation” as a result of the pandemic sweeping through Detroit and the nation.
“The layoff forced me into high gear,” he says. Over the years while he held down the day jobs to pay the bills, he also ran his own marketing and communication company Street Pass and website streetvision.com, which he describes as a community hub with a directory of events and businesses. He also continued to take photos as well as DJ.
“I've been really hitting the pavement trying to make this thing work over the past decade almost in various forms,” says the northwest Detroit resident.
With COVID-19 affecting his business (there are no events now and small businesses are struggling), he launched the Front Porch Project. Through the project, he goes to Detroiters’ homes and takes their portraits from at least 6 feet away and up to 10 feet to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
“We want to hear about the stories,” he says. “We want to know what you're doing, how is this impacting you? What does your new normal look like?”
Amber Hunt, who lives in the University District with her family, is one of the featured subjects in the Front Porch Project.
Hunt says she, her husband, Nate, and their two daughters Magnolia, 4, and Penelope, 2, were walking around the neighborhood when they saw a neighbor and fellow parent from the local DPSCD school getting their photos taken by McWilliams.
“We shouted hellos from across the street, and then our girls started playing on a big stump across the street and Andre ran over and took a couple pictures of them. My neighbor sent me the pictures he took and info about the project,” says Hunt, who is a content strategist and works with local businesses through her agency Magpie Strategy.
“Once I read more about what he was doing, and how he was using his skills to support others in the community I knew it was something I wanted to do. I also had been wanting to get some photos of us done to document this very crazy time we are living in — so it was kind of like kismet the way all of this kind of came together.”
McWilliams takes the portraits for free but says people can donate on his website so he can do more and expand the scope of the project to a podcast and an exhibit. He also hopes to give back to the community through his project. Aside from helping small businesses, which has always been a focus for him, he recently partnered with Detroit Has Heart to raise money for PPE for the frontline workers. 50% of the sales from The Street Pass V.I.P. membership will go toward the fundraising efforts, he says.
Communications and information technology, including news media, is considered essential under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, which was extended until May 15. To critics who say what he’s doing is not essential and goes against the order, he says he’s documenting history as it happens.
“I'm documenting what the new normal is. That's why I'm telling the story. [The Front Porch Project has] a reporting aspect,” he says, adding “I'm not doing a [paid] service. I'm telling a story, and [the people photographed] fit certain narratives. And so it is community-based, this community outreach.”
He also points to the social connections forged as a result of the project.
“Through these social connections, we can grow, we can develop, we can build communities through these social interactions. So I think that social interaction is really one of the paramount things for me,” he says.
McWilliams lives on the west side near Six Mile and Wyoming in the 48221 ZIP code, one of the hardest hit by COVID-19. For him, the virus is taking its emotional toll. It started to hit home when one of his friends, community leader Marlowe Stoudamire, passed away.
“It was almost unsettling. Marlowe’s a healthy guy. And then I had several other friends, people that started getting it. It's been very emotional. … It's affecting so many people in such a rapid pace, socially, economically, health-wise. It's really a very sad, very, unfortunate, very scary time.”
That’s why he’s hoping his project will show how everyone is connected.
“We’re all in this fight together, it doesn't matter where you are, where you come from, you can be affected,” McWilliams says. “Whether you know somebody who's had it, maybe you've had it, but we're all affected by it.
“So at the very least, we'll be able to see our differences, but also see our similarities.”
He knows his project is not a “cure-all” but “I hope it can unveil some things that kind of keep us apart. And maybe this can be something that can bring us together.
McWilliams will start hosting a virtual DJ set Rare Grooves + Remixes + Money on his Instagram beginning Sunday, May 3. The set will help raise money to promote the StreetPass app, which is listing local restaurants that are open at the moment, and help local retail businesses by running a contest to give half of the proceeds “to a lucky winner in the community.” For more information, check out his Instagram profile.
For more information, go to McWilliams’ website at andremcwilliams.com or download The StreetPass app.