• April 15, 2015

It’s All About the People: Framing the Human Story of Detroit

Todd James

This video is part of our Exposure series, in which National Geographic photographers share the stories behind their images. Listen to photographer Wayne Lawrence talk about his assignment photographing the people of Detroit.


If your portraits are not as good as Wayne Lawrence’s, try this:

• Care about the person you are photographing as much as you care about your photograph of them.

• View every portrait as a collaboration.

The beauty of my job as a photo editor is that I learn something new with each story. Once in a while there is an aha moment that brings about a shift in the way I think about photography, like what it takes to make a really good portrait. I think the answer may be caring and trust.

Picture of a family standing in their yard in Detroit
Morgan, his wife, Robin, and their children, Gary Effler and Kenneth D. and Korey Morgan, are renovating a duplex they bought on the East Side for $1,800 plus back taxes. Click or hover for full caption

When I look at Wayne Lawrence’s portraits from the Detroit story in the May issue of the magazine, I don’t need anyone to tell me that despite the city’s ups and downs Detroiters are tough and proud. I can see it for myself—because Wayne saw that so clearly.

Picture of a woman in a red dress sitting at the bar in a jazz club in Detroit
Shervette Michelle Standford celebrated her 46th birthday at Bert’s Market Place, a jazz club in the Eastern Market neighborhood, by singing karaoke selections from Gladys Knight and Whitney Houston. Click or hover for full caption

Sometimes you know exactly how you want to approach a story from the start. At other times, you get there by deciding what you don’t want to do. With Detroit we knew what we wanted to avoid. Too many photographs and stories about Detroit have portrayed the city as a beautiful ruin or a real estate miracle. We wanted to avoid both extremes. But more than that we wanted to acknowledge that it is the people who give this city its character.

We wondered how the silent investors in the city’s future—the ones who call Detroit home—viewed the changes going on around them. So we headed for the neighborhoods where they live.

Picture of a man sitting on his bicycle, wearing all black and looking at the camera over his shoulder, in Detroit
Eddie Chrzan (aka Bullethead) was born and raised in Detroit. He gets around the 139 square miles of the city on his bikes. Click or hover for full caption

A few years ago, at our annual photography seminar, Wayne showed his portraits from Orchard Beach. We were all very impressed with his work and with Wayne. There was an intimacy and honesty to his portraits that made all of the editors in the audience want to work with him.

Detroit offered us that chance. If Wayne could bring the sensibilities of his Orchard Beach work to our story it would match our desire to let Detroiters portray their city in Detroit style.

You can’t really single out one thing that makes Wayne’s Detroit portraits so appealing. It is not simply the fact that he used a bulky 4×5 camera that is slow, deliberate, and requires collaboration. Though that probably helps. It is not only that Wayne is respectful and humble. Though that probably helps too. It is not just that he is genuinely interested in the people he photographed and their stories. It is all those things and the trust they engender between Wayne and the people he portrays with his photographs. That trust makes all the difference in the world.

See more portraits, explore maps, and read the full story from “Taking Back Detroit” here.

See more of Wayne Lawrence’s work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

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There are 18 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Michael Johnson
    July 21, 2016

    Your portraits are very human. Very nice.

  2. Mike Robertson
    September 4, 2015

    Wow. The Morgan family photo epitomizes so much of urban SE Michigan. Every detail is dead-on.

  3. Jacqueline
    June 13, 2015

    Thank you for recognizing Detroit for its true beauty, its people. They are the beating heart of the city and are what’s kept it alive all these years. Truly a beautiful and unique city to be celebrated.

  4. Carl Jones
    May 6, 2015

    Great work. Really admire this approach. Will also say look at the images of Dave Jordano, another portrait photographer who comes out of the tradition of slow, collaborative, documentary large format, portraiture, who works in a similar vein.

  5. Lorne Logan
    April 27, 2015

    My father, from Nova Scotia, worked for Ford in the 1920’s in Detroit (the great depression sent him packing). He was a life-long Detroit Red Wings fan and always spoke well of Detroit.

  6. Carol Zalek
    April 26, 2015

    I believe in Detroit’s comeback. Born there in 1941, I think I saw some of its finest years. Moved away in 1968 but I love what I hear is happening there. I hope the city is as strong in the future as it was when my ancestors immigrated to Detroit, seeking freedom and willing to work for it. So much soul there – heart and soul….

  7. Curt Ryan
    April 25, 2015

    Thank you! I grew up in another tough Michigan city (Flint), and I love this place. I have the perspective of living in other places in this country (Southern California, Seattle), but I haven’t been able to completely figure out why I have always wanted to come back to these tough Michigan cities (I grew up in Flint), but I have a better understanding after seeing and reading this outside perspective. This toughness, this ability to thrive in a place where others fear to tread, it gives meaning and purpose to an otherwise pedestrian life. Long live Detroit (and hopefully my beloved Flint, too). Comfort and ease may drive the life choices of many, but struggle and perseverance are the benchmarks of truly living.

  8. Raina
    April 18, 2015

    Real recognize Real…Thank you !!

  9. Allan Barnes
    April 17, 2015

    Thanks for your beautiful portraits of my hometown, which is certainly worth capturing on 4 x 5″ !

  10. Maida Millan
    April 17, 2015

    Thank you for showing great work. As a life long photographer I so appreciate GOOD work. Curious, is it film or digital??

  11. davida paul
    April 17, 2015

    Finally someone has a heart & MIND for what’s really REAL HERE. The soul of our city rests in the people. We place this city on the potter’s wheel for global observation. Old things are ALWAYS made New AGAIN.

  12. Luis
    April 16, 2015

    Detroit is a lost paradise. So few outside of the city realize the amazing things happening and the people that make the wonderful possible. Let’s hope the ones that have stayed behind ultimately reap the benefits of all good future things to come…

  13. Janice
    April 16, 2015

    Loved the pictures.They do represent the true Detroit,the people that make it home.Yes its great that there’s a great entertainment part,but thats mostly suburb money, seeing real people that make up the real part of Detroit was great. I loved your pictures.

  14. Edward Chrzan
    April 16, 2015

    Thanks for allowing me to display my club in a positive light. Thanks for coming to Detroit…. We LOVE THIS CITY if no one else does. Thank you Wayne Lawrence for holding it down for a Knight and ANYTIME YOU COMETO DETROIT I GOT YOU.
    Knights of the Roundtable V/C Det, Mi
    Sgt@Arms Bullethead

  15. Renee
    April 15, 2015

    Thanks! I love Detroit and its people and talent! Your positive words help us be heard correctly.

  16. Amy Sacka
    April 15, 2015

    I appreciate your photos of Detroit. Nice work.

  17. Hanane
    April 15, 2015

    Thank you very much.

  18. Gina Martin
    April 15, 2015

    THANK YOU for showing another side of Detroit. These beautiful portraits celebrate the real people and humanity of Detroit.

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