Photographing the Real Detroit

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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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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