Photojournalists discuss their project on a ‘sacrificial city’

There’s a city in America that looks like a third-world country, according to photojournalists Brett Carlsen and Juan Madrid, who in a recent campus talk shared their hope that a project they have undertaken will inspire the American public to start talking about it.

In a Poynter Fellowship-sponsored classroom lecture at the School of Art, Carlsen and Madrid discussed their ongoing collaboration documenting life in Flint, Michigan.

They described the troubling conditions in Flint, which Madrid called a “sacrificial city,” stating his belief that “some cities have to die in order for others to thrive.” Carlsen showed the classroom video clips from documentary filmmaker Michael Moore’s film “Roger and Me,” which contrasts the flourishing Flint of the 1960s with the impoverished city it has become.

For their collaborative project, Carlsen focuses on taking photos of people in Flint by gaining their trust and getting access into their homes, businesses, and personal lives. Madrid shoots more exterior and “happenstance” photos. Both said they feel they are able to create a more in-depth and dynamic product together than either could achieve on his own.

Via a Kickstarter campaign, the two hope to achieve financial support to produce a pictorial chronicle of life in Flint. They talked about the possibility of a newsprint book, which would be more affordable to a greater number of people. “The idea is to get it into peoples’ hands and start discussions,” said Carlsen.

One of the project’s challenges, according to Carlsen, is achieving a delicate balance between what he wants to convey in his photos and what his subjects are comfortable with.

 “I see a drug dealer with his kid in the room or just outside the door while he’s smoking crack. I kind of want to show that but at the same time this dude is not my friend but I have a really close relationship with him, and I don’t want to piss him off. I want to make my pictures without making him mad,” he said.

Another challenge is getting people interested in Flint, Carlsen told the students. “A lot of times if you care about something, other people don’t.”

“The problem with Flint is that is it’s not Detroit,” he continued, noting that Detroit is a bigger and “more newsworthy” city.

The duo, both recent graduates of RIT, also offered some advice to art students planning careers in photography. Carlsen shared a favorite quote: “Half of photography is doing it.”

Madrid added, “You can talk about concept and argue how valuable it is and whether or not it actually does something, but in the end it’s not reality.”

He asked the budding photographers “Are you willing to push people farther just to get a photograph? Would you do it if the photograph could actually have a huge impact?”

Whatever their answers to those questions, Madrid told the students, they should be daring. Art, he concluded, should be “dangerous.”