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.

You can learn more about Can’t Forget The Motor City, and stay in the loop for updates, on facebook and Tumblr.

Revisit: The Eagle and the Dragon by Alec Soth

Alec Soth’s work from the US and China from last summer seems downright prescient in hindsight. Time and the New York Times Magazine have been playing catch-up with recent pieces on Cleveland and Detroit. And of course, there’s Anthony Suau’s excellent work from Cleveland, which we’ve recently written about previously, and which just got the Digital Journalist treatment.

And while Soth’s work was created for the Telegraph, the pictures seemed to have vanished from their website, except for a couple of instances. I grabbed the video above, created by the Telegraph, from Exposure Compensation. And a few pictures are available in the Magnum archive.

The news is still big. It’s the newspapers that got small.

Lots of news over the past few weeks about the plight of American newspapers. Here are some of the links I’ve been reading:

  • Editor and Publisher reports that several cities could have no daily paper by 2010, according to a newspaper credit rater.
  • The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press have just announced 9% job cuts and, perhaps more alarming, that the papers will stop daily home delivery. A daily edition will still be produced and sold through newsstands and coin-boxes, but will only be delivered to home subscribers on Thursday, Friday and Sunday. The move is being billed as a way to shift focus to online readership, and an exact copy of the daily edition (hopefully not a pdf…ugh) will be available to subscribers online everyday. Analysts wonder if it’s a big enough step to forestall the papers’ problems and whether readers will continue to read the papers. David Hunke, CEO of the Detroit Media Partnership, which operates both papers under a Joint Operating Agreement, says that there’s no possibility of Detroit becoming a one paper town.
  • Like many other papers, the Newark Star-Ledger recently cut half of its newsroom staff. The paper has since announced that they are doubling their internship program, hiring up to 20 interns for one-year positions, paid but without benefits. From the NPPA’s coverage, there’s something strange going on here: “Some journalism professionals might see it as ironic that the Star-Ledger’s owners are comfortable with inexperienced interns as reporters and copy editors, while at the same time advertising for experienced advertising sales people for jobs that include full medical coverage and a pension, a 401K, and salaries with earnings in six figures.”
  • Tina Brown opines in her Daily Beast column about the layoffs hitting newsrooms and wonders why the “feckless bureaucrats who are running the place” (and who likely made many of the business decisions that got us here today) aren’t getting pink slips.
  • The Tribune company, which owns the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, has begun the early stages of bankruptcy proceedings. There’s coverage all over the place, but the Guardian has some good perspective I hadn’t seen elsewhere, including the weird nugget about the Chicago Tribune’s spelling policy from 1934 to 1955 when it was published by a man referred to as the Colonel who thought “frate” and “altho” and “burocratic” worked better in the paper.
  • The multi-pulitzer-winning, and beautiful-photo-running, Rocky Mountain News is up for sale and will be closed if a buyer isn’t found by mid-January. Current and former staffers have started a website,, as a community focal point for the effort to save the paper. The CEO of the paper’s owner has said that closure isn’t the only option for the paper, but that as early as Nov. 19, the E. W. Scripps Co., had plans to close the Rocky “as soon as practical”. There are vague reports of a “handful” of potential buyers for the paper.
  • The New York Times has mortgaged its new building in order to borrow $225 million dollars and ease cashflow problems in 2009. The New York Times Company expects one of its “most challenging years” next year. Gawker mentions the horrible timing of the New York Times: its old building tripled in value between when it was sold in 2004 and when the new building was ready to use in 2007.
  • Associated Press writers and photographers have staged a 3-day byline strike to protest the company’s proposals during contract negotiations. Striking staffers have also stopped using personal equipment (cell phones and cars, for instance) during the strike. The Associated Press is a non-profit owned by a coalition of 1500 newspapers. A number of newspaper companies, including the Tribune Company, have announced plans to drop their AP contracts. A group of Ohio newspapers intend to create a statewide news-sharing agreement because they feel the AP’s new fees and reduced coverage of local issues don’t take into account newspapers’ current financial hardships. Interestingly, many newspapers are going up against a conflict of interest with this because their owners are often represented on the AP’s board of directors.
  • The great film critic Roger Ebert sees the disappearance of newspaper film critics as a bellwether of the industry. He blames the cult of celebrity for bringing down the journalism business. I don’t know if I buy it, but his last line is great. “The news is still big. It’s the newspapers that got small.”
  • Oh man. That’s a lot of bad news. Go to Cute Overload for a while. And here are a few examples of why people feel newspapers are necessary.