• February 11, 2016

Looking the People of Flint in the Eye

Alexa Keefe

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.”

Picture of a woman in Flint, Michigan
Sherry Joy stops for a portrait on her way to collect a case of bottled water—her daily allowance—from Fire Station #3.

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.”
Picture of two women in Flint, Michigan
Myra Looney, pictured with her mother, Betty Looney, says she appreciates “all the water that’s coming into Flint.” But there has to be more, she says, including more information on the health-related affects of the contaminated water on all of the city’s residents. “[T]here needs to be something in place to find out if it really has been detrimental to our health,” she says.
“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.”
Picture of a woman in Flint, Michigan
Nisa Lanoue, a mother of two, says many people are forced by their circumstances to use the contaminated water. “There’s people out here that feed their kids formula,” she says. “They’re feeding their babies and stuff with this water. They have no choice because they don’t have a car to get out and go get the free water that’s being given. They don’t have the money to afford it, and these kids are getting sick.”

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.

Picture of a man in a red hat in Flint, Michigan
Working with friends and members of his production company, Team 810, community activist and entrepreneur Yusuf Bauswell has been delivering cases of water to the elderly, handicapped, and others unable to personally collect water from distribution centers.
Born and raised in Flint, Bauswell is hoping his actions will help him to transcend a troubled youth. “It’s a lot of poverty and a lot of crime here and … when I was younger and growing up, I was a part of it,” he says. But now, Bauswell says, “my motivation is to right all my wrongs. It’s to do as much good as I can before I die.”
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.

Picture of a woman in Flint, Michigan
Mary Ida Barnett-Pierce stands outside Fire Station #3 on Martin Luther King Avenue. The station is one of five in Flint dispensing bottled water to residents.
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.”

Picture of a man in Flint, Michigan
“The day of judgement for the oppressor will be far worse than the day of oppression is for the oppressed,” says Chris Millard, a Flint resident who was on his way to collect a case of bottled water at Fire Station #3.
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.”
Picture of people standing in snow in Flint, Michigan
Clint Williams and a few of his friends—all raised at River Park Apartments in Flint—helped distribute free cases of bottled water to community residents.

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.

There are 14 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. bill R
    February 19, 2016

    I blame Obama. He is the President and instead of running to Cuba, he needs to go to Flint and see what the situation is there, AND do something to correct it. Also, all the candidates, Democratic and Republican, need to actively pursue solutions to the disaster in Flint. If these assholes want to be the President, it is time they stopped sniping at one another and showed some leadership.

    February 17, 2016

    You comments “I respect every human being no matter what your walk of life,” You also added that “Most of the people I meet feel like family.”
    If at least 50% population believe in oneness / member of a single family and try to do something for the help of others according to his/her own affordable capacity and ability, the World would have been completely different.

  3. Dave
    February 15, 2016

    For a country so rich its hard to believe that some residents of Flint are still not getting clean water to drink.

  4. Tonya
    February 15, 2016

    Thank you for showing the faces of Flint during this time. We have become like a big family and thank you for noticing. It’s sad that the Army Corps of Engineers had not been here to help. We have fought and fought and dealt with a tyrant government! Transparentcy apparently doesn’t apply to our state. Thank you again and would love for you to speak with others that have been severely affected.

  5. Erika Pitts
    February 15, 2016

    Thank you for bringing this man made crisis in my beloved hometown to light. There’s no way one of thee once richest cities in the world should be going through this ever.

  6. Karin
    February 14, 2016

    I can’t believe this, it is so overwhelming, we are talking about human beings, for God’s sake! What else has to be done to make the authorities react?! I am so sorry about this situación, I live so far away from Flint, but my prayers are with you. All muy love to this community, God bless you and protect you from this terrible moment.

    • J. Everett
      February 15, 2016

      What were the victims of Hitler’s holocaust, human? How about Vietnam and Bosnia and Syria and Cambodia? Take your narrow mind and view and read some history. Have nots are not of great concern to politicians. Open you eyes and begin to understand how politics and power work in this country.

  7. jay dorfman
    February 14, 2016

    Permission to take a photo does not constitute a collaboration, nor does showing up in a deplorable situation mean each person you photograph is a ‘family member’ I suggest you loose your ignorance arrogance and view you job to report with objectivity and stop thinking you are bringing some special gift to the table. You are a National Geo photojournalist on an assignment, thats it, loose the make believe warm and fuzzy. these people are suffering a heinous outcome at the hands of other arrogant political entities. Cool the nonsense and just report,

  8. Lisa
    February 14, 2016

    I served in the US Peace Corps and had the kind of access to water in Africa that should minimally be available in Flint. I hope the Army Corps of Engineers is working on it.

  9. Laurene
    February 14, 2016

    THIS IS the face of America. How dare we turn away?

  10. Jack
    February 14, 2016

    Having just watched a movie about the cold war I am reminded that those living in Flint during that time all knew that we were the number one target of war because of the concentration of industrialization. We had an assortment of factories that could go from building cars to making .50 calibre machine guns and airplanes in a matter of days. Moreover, was the legions of skilled and trained workers who could and would do the work. That has changed, for sure. Worse is the politics that made it happen, is the same politics that made this water crisis happen.

  11. Stephen G. Spicer Sr.
    February 14, 2016

    I can not not believe we have people in Flint Michigan living in poverty, crime and now contaminated water. We have the greatest country and government in the world. this story shows a different picture of the United States. what is this great government doing for these people, the ones who do not have cars to get to the free, or who are physically unable to get out. God bless those volunteers who helped others in a time of need, I will pray for you and the people of Flint Michigan. I hope the government will open it’s eyes and start helping the people of Flint Michigan.

  12. Rebekah
    February 14, 2016

    I thank you for this story to show the hardships of the people of Flint, Michigan.

  13. Danielle
    February 13, 2016

    thank you. this is haunting and beautiful and necessary.

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