Kansas City-based photographer Dan White has won a Pulitzer Prize and traveled the world photographing people and places. From his home and studio in the West Bottoms, he's preparing to set out on his next trip into the field.
But his latest trip isn’t taking him off to some far-flung location. White is headed to his troubled hometown of Flint, Michigan.
There was much to like about Flint when White left for college at the University of Missouri in 1975.
“There’s this fondness, particularly for people of my age that grew up there in the '60s and '70s," says White. “Flint was a blue-collar town but it also had great art and culture. It was a good life. If you wanted to work at General Motors, your parents worked there, you automatically had a job there. A good-paying job.”
Nicknamed “Vehicle City,” Flint tied its fortune to General Motors and the thriving mid-century American auto industry. In 1978, GM employed 80,000 workers. But by 2010, that number had dwindled to 8,000 and Flint became known as one of the most dangerous cities in America.
When the water crisis hit Flint in 2014, White followed the coverage closely and decided he wanted to find a way to help. Most people, White says, saw Flint as “this downtrodden, destitute place.” He thought he could show the resilient residents of Flint in a new light.
Locally, White is known for his portraits. Some Kansas Citians might remember his 2010 “The Fine Art of Jazz” exhibit, a portrait series of Kansas City Jazz musicians at the Kansas City Public Library.
Last September, White traveled to Flint to make the first of 30 portraits there. He wanted the people to be from all walks of life.
“It’s everyone from Congressman Dan Kildee to Willie Woods, who runs Woods Ribs and Fish on the North end," he says, "and everyone in between.”
The finished project will be an ambitious exhibit of some 60 large-scale portraits (44 inches by 60 inches) with interviews that reveal more about each person. (White recently launched a Kickstarter appeal to help him cover the expense of travel and printing.)
Now, White's going back to spend another nine weeks in Flint finishing the portraits and interviewing his subjects.
“I’m looking for heartfelt thoughts and feelings about the community,” he says. “They aren’t all going to be good memories, necessarily, because it’s been tough for a lot of people.”
White sought out regular folks like Norm Bryant, who worked for GM for 40 years and now holds court in the barbershop he owns. He photographed the Bradley sisters, who teach tap dance to kids in the inner city. Other subjects so far are Joel Bye, the lead singer of The Blue Hawaiians, and Eva Douglas and Emery Elston, two sisters who posed with their pet pig “Ethel Merman."
For White, it was important that the work be shown in Flint first. So this September, the exhibit is scheduled to open in the newly renovated Capitol Theatre in downtown Flint. Later, he plans for the images to travel to other venues around the country.
It's been a chance to explore his hometown with new eyes, he says.
“When you go back to a place that you’ve grown up in, you realize how much you don’t know about the place,” he says. “Because growing up as a kid, you have your own little neighborhood and your friends. You didn’t really — at least I didn’t — get to certain areas of town that are really fun to discover.”
But the best part of any project, he says, is meeting different people and getting to know them.
“You just start asking around and you meet people that you didn’t know were there.” says White. “One of the things I wanted to show in this project are the stalwarts. But I also wanted to celebrate those every day folks who are just living their lives, going to work, going to church, staying in this place that they call home.”
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.