Wayne Lawrence views every portrait he makes as a collaboration. His genuine interest in people is immediately apparent in the way his subjects look back at him—and at us. There is an openness in their gaze, an expression of character in their body language. “I respect every human being no matter what your walk of life,” he says. “Most of the people I meet feel like family.”
For the 10 or 15 minutes he might spend with each of them, Lawrence becomes the catalyst for their story, allowing for a visual conversation. “My work is a way for them to get their voice in front of as many people as possible.”
“It’s All About the People” was the title of the Proof post we did last May about Lawrence’s portraits of Detroiters shot for National Geographic magazine. As his editor, Todd James, wrote, “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.”
Lawrence’s portraits of the residents of Flint, Michigan, give us this same clear-eyed view—an immediate, intimate look into a community living through hard times, though in this case the crisis is acute.
Among the people Lawrence photographed are fathers afraid to give their daughters a bath in contaminated water, parents worried about brain damage in their babies from lead poisoning, and a woman with a passion for Kool-Aid who ingested so much of the water she ended up in the hospital with stomach pains. Many people in the community live below the poverty line, he says, and can’t afford to escape this reality—whether it be by driving to another town to do laundry or leaving altogether.
The mood he encountered in Flint was one of anger, though Lawrence found it particularly easy to connect with the people he met at water distribution centers because they wanted their stories to be told. His respect for “I am approaching people as if I am preserving their history, making a legacy portrait,” he says. “This is an important moment in American history, in their history. I want these portraits to stand the test of time. These are human beings who don’t deserve to be treated this way.”
In showing us the human side of this crisis, Lawrence hopes to get our attention and for the story to stay in our minds, even after the initial coverage dies down. “Something needs to be done ASAP,” he says. “People are steadily getting sick … This needs to be more than another hashtag.”
Read more about the Flint water crisis and Wayne Lawrence’s portraits of Flint residents in the story “Intimate Portraits of Flint Show Frustration, Fear, Perseverance.“
For more on Lawrence and his unique portraiture style, including his photographs in the May 2015 magazine story “Taking Back Detroit,” watch this video on Proof.