Interview: Romain Blanquart and Brian Widdis, Can’t Forget The Motor City

The global media portrays Detroit as a post apocalyptic environment, showing picture after picture of modern ruins, buildings that were once the pride of our city. What’s absent from these images are the people. What we see instead are soulless photographs portraying Detroit as an abandoned city with little regard for the more than 850,000 people who still call it home. Decay is compelling and easy to document – and first time visitors are often fascinated by these exotic ruins. Nevertheless, Detroit’s fall from grace and its current state is not the last or only chapter in the story of this great city. “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus”, Latin for “We Hope For Better Things; It Shall Rise From the Ashes”, is the motto written on Detroit’s seal. (introduction)

Romain Blanquart and Brian Widdis recently wrote us about their joint project Can’t Forget the Motor City. We want to share a small selection from the project and Blanquart and Widdis’ answers to some of Scott’s questions about their work.

dvafoto: Why photograph a project together? How do you balance both of your styles and approaches against and with one another? Why approach the project the way you have (one focus on people, the other focus on landscape/surfaces)?

Brian Widdis (photographed landscapes in black and white): When I first started thinking about the project, it seemed too ambitious to tackle alone. Romain and I had the same frustrations about Detroit’s portrayal in the media, so the partnership made sense. I was aware of other two person collaborations, so I started thinking about how we could make it work. For many of us, life as a photographer is a solitary existence – it’s been nice to step beyond that with Romain.
In the beginning, I was concerned with establishing our individual voices. Our styles are not overly similar, but we were interested in telling a similar story about Detroit. So if there were no parameters about what to shoot, we would surely duplicate the same scene. Structuring the way we have was also a kind of ego insurance. If we were to photograph the same things, I was afraid he’d outshoot me all the time and would have all the good photos in the project. By varying our areas of emphasis, I guaranteed myself half of the photos.

Romain Blanquart (photographed people in color): This project started about a year and a half ago over a telephone conversation. We both had just seen more images of Detroit in a publication I can’ t remember now, the Independent newspaper I think. Decay, desolation, abandoned buildings, more of the same, not a person in sight; important but so misrepresentative of our city. It pissed me off. Not so much the photography itself but the way it was used, a superficial and misleading representation of Detroit that is constantly drilled into people’s heads. I think that there is a place for photographs of Detroit’s destruction but it has to be put into context and these same images cannot be solely or prominently used by the media when talking about the history, the present or future of Motown.
My background is photojournalism working at American newspapers for the past ten years. Our life, I mean the world, is about people first. And it does not mean that photographs need to be of people. This is what I think brought Brian and I to work together. His photography tends to shy away from people but IS about people. Quiet and subtle moments where the human imprint can be felt. Perfect combination with my way of photographing that tends to be of people in a pretty straightforward way. We have the desire to tell a similar story. We always photograph together for this project to experience the same spaces, moments, people… We do not think or overanalyze our styles and what we photograph. We photograph what and who we are naturally attracted to.

dvafoto: What sort of response have you gotten from editors? I imagine you’ve had some difficulty because the piece challenges contemporary visual expectations of Detroit so much. Is that true?

BW: People in general understand where we’re coming from, but in some respects, a vision of Detroit that is not the same old thing is a hard sell, especially in a general news sense. We’re not doing a documentary project, so in the end, that’s not really our concern. Our project is different in that it’s a documentary style project that is a reflection of our two perspectives. Not a definitive look at Detroit, but different than what most people have come to expect.

RB: The feedback so far as been very positive. You can only listen to the same story told the same way so many times, unless it’s your favorite story! Our challenge is to challenge visual expectations of Detroit. I also want to say that this project does not intend to be an ultimate, statistically correct portrayal of a city. It is more the representation of what someone would experience and see if they spent the time to crisscross this city for a few months with, I would like to think, an open mind.

dvafoto: Many photographers separate portrait-style photo essays from landscape essays from documentary essays, etc. You’ve mixed styles together in the presentation. What does that juxtaposition accomplish? Same question, but for color vs. black-and-white.

BW: Since we knew that the scale of this project would be large, it made sense to have these limitations – only people in color and only surfaces in black and white. It’s a way of focusing the energy, while playing to our individual strengths. Our goal is to create a rhythm using the back and forth of the two individual visions to create a combined third vision. We have been experimenting with ways of establishing that rhythm and the specific medium will play a large part in how that comes together – the book may look different than the website, and the prints on the wall etc.

RB: The mix of portraits and landscapes is simply due to the fact that this is what each one of us is primarily attracted to. So we made it the rule of this game, stick with what you are best at for now! Similar for the color and black-and-white. What attracts me about working this way is that you can look at the project and see two voices conversing using a different vocabulary that once combined generates a third and I believe more powerful voice. And lets face it, the more the merrier.
Working together has many more advantages. It’s a great way to have twice as many ideas and I like the conversation we can have about Detroit and photography. It is also safer.

dvafoto: How are the people of Detroit responding to your presence when you are out working on this? Are your subjects appreciative or apprehensive? Do many of the subjects bring up issues about Detroit’s usual portrayal in the media?

BW: People in general and Detroiters specifically understand exactly where we’re coming from when we describe the project. Most folks have seen the same stories and have the same reaction that we have. Detroit definitely has an image problem – and it’s understandable – the city is a mess. We aren’t trying to fix that image or describe Detroit in its entirety. Our goal is to show that there is a complexity in Detroit that’s not usually seen.

RB: The people we photograph have always been happy about the fact that we want to show something else than decay. Many of them are sick and tired of the way their city is often portrayed.

dvafoto: What’s the eventual plan for the project? Have you finished the photography? Where do you see it ending up?

BW: The photography is about half way done, I think. Our ultimate goal is to publish a book. Romain and I believe strongly in the photobook. We would also like to show the work in Detroit and elsewhere.

RB: The first phase of the project was photographed by walking around the city making random encounters. Now we are looking to get more intimate in the space and people we photograph. We are starting to explore Detroiters in their personal space, their home. The final presentation of this story will be in book form. We also want to share the work through exhibits in Detroit and other cities.

dvafoto: What photography/journalism/art/etc. is getting you excited right now?

BW: I have been really enjoying Mark Steinmetz’s three books South Central, South East and Greater Atlanta . He’s an outsider in the communities he photographs, and his encounters with his subjects are random and brief, but there is still a remarkable sensitivity that he gets to. I’m also really interested in how photographers navigate their personal space and relationships. Two books that I have been enjoying are Doug DuBois’ All the Days and Nights and Nigel Shafran’s Edited Photographs: 1992-2004. Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a collection of essays about being lost and the unknown.

RB: Photography books that I have been liking lately are South Central by Mark Steinmetz, There Is Something In The Air by Cuny Janssen, I Am – Paradox Identity by Ilse French. I used to look at a lot of photography online; there are so many great photographers in this world but I realized that I should be doing my own work instead so I now avoid looking at photo blogs as much as possible! I also feel inspired by my friends from the photography department with whom I work at the Detroit Free Press.

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