danny wilcox frazier – detroit

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Danny Wilcox Frazier

A Detroit Requiem

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Detroit…the word alone incites many emotions within America’s conscience.  Detroit was the epicenter for economic equality in the U.S., the home front for the ideal of well paying jobs for the masses and a political force behind a strong middle class. Henry Ford made Detroit a boom town.  Five decades after he started, the boom began to bust. Many reasons are at the heart of Detroit’s decline: postwar industrial policies, urban planning, the 1967 race riots, UAW and auto industry management, Detroit’s political cronyism, Clinton era trade deals, and quit possibly the mobility of the automobile itself. It was the 1950’s when Detroit began the long decay that has brought the city to its present state, a time when Detroit, and America, was at its peak.

Today, Detroit is America’s poorest large city. To avoid being the nation’s perpetual murder capital, the police began cooking stats. In 2008, they claimed 306 homicides – until local reporter Charlie LeDuff discovered there were actually 375.  He also reported that in more than 70 percent of murders, the killer got away with it.  Detroit’s East Side is now the poorest, most violent quarter of America’s poorest, most violent big city. The illiteracy, child poverty, and unemployment rates hover around 50 percent. The shooting death of seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones by police on Detroit’s East Side brought national attention to this quarter.  But as the spotlight faded, the killings continued.

Detroit seemed off everyone’s radar until the collapse of the Dow and bankruptcy of GM.  As the nation and world looked for answers, Detroit came back in style.  Instead of Motown, this go around Detroit is exporting its misery. Reality TV, television dramas, the movies – all selling Detroit’s murder and despair.  The night Aiyana was accidentally shot by police, a film crew from A&E’s true-crime series The First 48 was along for the show.

Detroit is a city that still has much greatness to offer. That was not the story Charlie and I were assigned to cover for Mother Jones magazine. With 103 kids and teens murdered in Detroit between January of 2009 and July of 2010, Charlie and I were sent to cover the failure of political and civil leaders in Detroit, the failure of industry in Detroit, the failure of the federal government in Detroit, the failure of America in Detroit.

While I was in Detroit, 17-year-old Chaise Sherrors was shot and killed while giving a haircut on a porch.  We met his mother, Britta McNeal.  Britta was broken, often lost in memory while her eyes filled and sometimes tears flowed.  From her porch, she stared across the street that ran in front of her humble one-story on the East Side. She stared at a half-burnt skeleton of a house, gutted inside and out, and a constant reminder of her misery.  Britta’s grandson played in broken glass and garbage that littered the driveway of the abandoned house next door.  Gang graffiti added the only touch of color to the black and gray left behind by a fire.  Britta showed us the urn containing the remains of her 14-year-old son, De’Erion.  He too was shot on Detroit’s East Side, killed a year before his older brother.  After Chaise’s funeral, Britta will have two urns to decorate her mantel.

“I know society looks at a person like me and wants me to go away,” Britta said. “‘Go ahead, walk in the Detroit River and disappear.’ But I can’t. I’m alive. I need help. But when you call for help, it seems like no one’s there.”

Charlie LeDuff’s accompanying article in Mother Jones



Danny Wilcox Frazier focuses on issues of marginalized communities in the U.S. and abroad. He is a contributing photographer to Mother Jones magazine. His work has also been published by: The New York Times Magazine, TIME, Newsweek, Fortune, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, Der Spiegel, and Frontline (PBS). In 2006, Frazier was awarded the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography. His book, Driftless: Photographs from Iowa, was published by Duke University Press and CDS in 2007.  Frazier then directed a documentary that confronts issues highlighted by these photographs, premiering the film in New York in 2009.  The film was nominated for an Emmy in 2010 and won a Webby for Frazier and MediaStorm that year.  In 2009, Frazier received grants from The Aftermath Project and Humanities Iowa, an affiliate of the NEH.  He was named a finalist for the W. Eugene Smith grant in 2007 and 2008.  At present, Frazier is working on his next book, Lost Nation, a look at economic and geographic isolation across America.


Related links

Frazier’s essay of abandoned Detroit homes

Redux Portfolio



127 Responses to “danny wilcox frazier – detroit”

  • MW..

    do not have too much time right now, so i will get back to you with more thoughts…..just got home from the longest short trip on the planet and gotta now fix all kinds of things…..but in any case did read quickly one of your comments….you always always seem a bit hung up on only one aspect of a fine essay being just a fine essay…and you were exactly the same with the Mexico piece…you always want to be “told” something or see something you did not already “know”…INFORMATION seems to be your general mantra…correct me if i am wrong please……yes, sure we all intellectually know Detroit is a mess…we have indeed been told a thousand times before…your are quite correct, yet to what do you literally refer in terms of an essay that has been “here” in Detroit as Danny? besides Gilden foreclosure piece which we discussed here with Gilden… you keep referring to “Detroit has been covered”…”coverage”..my least favorite word often used in connection with photography…..whatever is “covered” is for sure something photographically in which i have zero interest…in any case, where have you FELT it like this essay before?? maybe there is one…just tell me where to look please…i miss a lot of stuff….

    cheers, david

  • Danny’s greater talent is that of a narrator and the ability to piece together the silent moments of contemplation and fear.
    As for the subject well stuff like affects huge swathes of the world’s population. Detroit is something that Americans seem to use as a metaphor.

  • ………and that just makes the narrator more accessible to the American public

  • I suppose it’s a case of answering “It’s been done many times before” with “Yea; but not by me” :-)

  • …….despite all this most of the world’s population get home safe and have a good night’s sleep

  • Maybe a story has been told before; but there are many ways of telling a story. Danny’s story gives you more of a “feeling” for the situation, rather than an “in your face” literal photo-journalistic piece. Like the difference between journalism and poetry; they could both tell the same story but in totally different ways. Cheers :-)

  • Yes David, that’s probably not a bad insight about information. I get the different types – language based and visual – mixed up when I start doing art crit. And experiential as well. So to answer your question, language-wise I’ve read a lot about Detroit, as well as speculation regarding its causes. Visual wise, Gilden is all I can name, I know I’ve seen other pics, but yes, I think it’s safe to say nothing approaching the quality of Danny’s essay (please note that nowhere so far have I said anything negative about the quality of the essay). Experientially though, yes, I have felt it like this essay. So I can entertain the idea that I am a freak and that normal people, or even other freaks with less knowledge of these specifics, need to see this. I can see that. But still, and I think it will always come back to this, I’d like to see someone with this kind of talent show me something I don’t know. Is that really such a bad thing? Can’t you relate, even a little? Had Danny focused on Saint Louis instead of Detroit, would the quality of his photos be any worse? Or Louisville? Akron? Pretty much anywhere that hasn’t been a popular subject? The church photo would be essentially the same. As would the baby in the doorway. And the closed factory. And the gunshot victim. But it’s the inevitably different scenes that could be enlightening. How do these regional variations relate to the big picture? What have we been missing? What aren’t we seeing? Right under our noses?

    Where are the uncomfortable truths?

  • Just about every story that is ever told has been told before and will be told again. It is how the story is told, how the nuance is put on it and whether or not it brings some new revelations and understanding to the viewer.

    Yes, I knew about Detroit. I knew things had gone to hell there and that it had become the murder capital of the nation, but this essay caused me to feel it in a way that I never had before.

    Plus – the photographer is just truly masterful.

    That opening shot – flash on the leaves in front of him – who the hell would take such a picture?

    I sure wouldn’t – in part because you almost have to put a gun to my head to get me to put on flash, but he did and he made it sing, “Requiem.”

  • MW…

    laughing..i did not say you were a freak, and i did say that you were not wrong about information…i guess i am just not expecting “information” per se in a photo essay…if i want information, i am going to BBC or something…a photo essay that reaches even half a million people is not really information media anyway…so, i think we just have different expectations…i see the work we do, even as documentary photographers, as being in the category of “think pieces” rather than “news/info” blasts…as Bill just said, it is about nuance and how it makes you “feel” rather than giving new “facts”…as he says, all stories have been told…what you expect Michael is not wrong, it is just different from what i expect from either a photographer, writer, film maker etc……i think if you went back and looked at all of the most classic essays from Frank, Smith, Duncan, Davidson, etc etc etc, you would probably feel all of them lacked enough information..i could easily blast any of them for not much information….and for me it has nothing to do with the literary vs. the visual..not at all…the very best writers often do not give much “information” either…they just make you feel it…tweaking my “feel it” button is always something “new” for me even if the subject matter is something i already “know”

    cheers, david

  • Hey David. I don’t fit neatly in the information box, but yea, I can see that it’s a tendency. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. Be on guard. I’ve always been a believer in the general principle of fighting one’s tendencies.

    Concern about story is another big one. I like a good story. It doesn’t have to be a story one can verbalize. I’m sure we could put up a good argument that the best photos are ones that tell a compelling story that in no adequate way could possibly be verbalized. Like the best work of Cartier-Bresson. But a lot of photos, particularly journalism related photos, are open to verbal explication. The picture of the factory in this essay is a good example. The automobile industry’s relentless downsizing is universally acknowledged as an important catalyst for Detroit’s downfall. It’s an integral part of the story. If you are doing journalism, of course you have to have a picture of an abandoned factory. I don’t dispute that.

    But I’ve found that I do question the church photos. What is their purpose in the story? What do they communicate? They strike me as a checklist item. Doing a story about inner city black folk? Church? Check. If photojournalism were an Olympic sport, something along the lines of figure skating, there’d no doubt be an inner city black church competition. And Danny would score a ten, or damn near, his photos are that good technically, but still, from a story perspective, what the hell are those church photos doing? Does the standard black church photo convey something that is true? Or is it just showing us something we expect to see? And even if it’s true, isn’t there some different way to tell that story? Are these church photos cliché’s? Ultimately I don’t know, but I can say without reservation that I don’t trust them. If you’ve got to show me churches, can’t you at least include one that’s not exactly what I’d expect. I know they exist.

    So again, I come back to the same wish to be shown something I haven’t seen. But that’s not entirely accurate. As Bob and David so eloquently point out, this essay has shown me things I haven’t seen. The work with the unclaimed body bags and x-rays is outstanding. So I guess my advice is to take a very long, a very cold, a very hard look at the parts of the essay that don’t surprise us, the parts that fit so perfectly our expectations, and ask yourself if those are really true, and if so, how to communicate what’s really going on in a way that hasn’t been done over and over already? You’ve accomplished that with most of the essay. Why not go for the whole enchilada?

  • MW…

    tell me, exactly what part of documentary photography DO you appreciate? it seems like it would be awful to never just be able to sit back, relax, and let a fine essay just BE….

  • Thing is, I can do both at the same time. I can enjoy a great artistic effort for what it is on one viewing and consider it critically on another. I can’t tell you what part of documentary photography I don’t appreciate, other than when it documents questionable truths. If I go out this far a limb in comments, you can be sure I’ve watched the essay many, many times and looked at it from several different angles. Maybe I’m misguided, lordy knows that’s always a possibility, but I want to think it’s important to try to help people become better, even help the profession become better. I honestly don’t get what good it could possibly do Danny or anybody else to get nothing but laudatory comments if any aspect of the work could possibly be better? Couldn’t that encourage complacency? He’s really fucking good. Why not encourage him to be even better?

  • “Why not encourage him to be even better?”…

    whose ‘better’?…your ‘better’ Michael?….David’s ‘better’?….Burn’s audience’s ‘better’?….the Profession’s standards of ‘better’?….

    that is a remarkably presumption comment to make about another’s work, though I know you aren’t writing that from a view of condescension…..

    besides do you really think that a blog’s comments encourage complacency in a photographer who has struggled and worked hard to tell the stories about people that (very often) much of the journalistic photoworld has bypassed ….i don’t know about you Michael, but I think that’s overvaluing the comments….if danny were to become ‘complacent’ that would happen because of his own photographic life and not as a result of accolades….let alone comments here…

    and while YES, it is important for viewers and for photographers to be honest and critical of one another’s work as a form of dialogue, this doesn’t mean that all critique is helpful ….i’m not suggesting your critique isn’t helpful to danny or others, but that it does seem remarkably odd at times….i say that as both a photographer and a writer and one who has written photographic critique for publication….

    if i may be so bold, i think your legitimate concern (as also articulated by Preston) is for a body of work (danny’s or the community has a whole) that describes the fullness of Detroit (or urban blight) and the lives lived….but again, i think you’re critique too wide….one must look at the essay for what it does/wishes to accomplish….

    by the way, laudatory comments make each of us smile for a moment, maybe even reinforce a sense of accomplishment, but in truth they do NOT make us as photographers work harder or reach deeper…..that must and always comes from one’s own critical self-examination…and with good dialogue…

    i think, as usually, the points you’ve brought up are important aspects to consider (for this work and for journalistic work to begin with), but again, i think it is as important to remember than many many photographers/viewers here come to ‘learn’ about what constitutes good/compelling/informed/authorial work as to enjoy the photography…be challenged by the photography….

    i dont write, personally. laudatory words as a way to congratulate or praise for its own sake,…i try to write as a way to articulate the strength of work, as a framework by which others can consider….it’s partly the photographer in me, and partly the teacher….

    ironically, tonight i’m off to meet some young photographers to look at their new work….which will, i’m sure, mean critical discussion, not just praise….but it’s situational….

    partly of doing a good critique too is how you talk to the photographer/writer….talking about black folk being screw up (even though in jest) and irony doesn’t always bode well….it’s not about humor but about pretension….

    ironically, i’ve never thought it my role here, as a photographer published or as a writer, to make another photographer be even better….but about chatting…

    now, can we discuss your walk-about slideshows?? ;))….i’m willing not to be so nice for once :)))))

  • Good points Bob. Guess I get caught up in the workshop mentality sometimes when it’s not appropriate. But of course there’s no one easy answer or explanation. Selfishness is no doubt involved. I gain by the thought I put into these things, as much in response to the back and forth with people like yourselves as to whatever I initially think of the work at hand. But it’s not all selfishness or misdirected workshop leftovers. I do care about the profession and sometimes I think it’s good for its aspiring practitioners, particularly the very talented ones, to get a more old fashioned J-school critique. What don’t I appreciate about documentary photography? I don’t appreciate dishonesty. Or better to frame it positively: I appreciate its ability to tell the truth. Not the whole truth. Certainly not the literal truth, but truth nevertheless. Unfortunately, photography also has great power to communicate truths that are not true. I saw this nightly when I worked as a photo editor at an agency during a presidential election. Every night dozens of spectacular photographs came across the wire that had the candidates looking like epic heroes against dramatic backgrounds — just as the PR people had calculated. Those were not honest photographs. The essays I’ve been most critical of here fall into the same category, though not so neatly. Work that frames a story just as the PR department would have it. It’s corny I guess, but I feel it something of a duty to the profession to challenge that kind of thing. That’s not the case with this essay, but it relates. No, this essay falls into the category of being really, really good but could still be better. And yes Bob, it also inhabits the category of potentially clichéd stories about inner city blacks, as I alluded to in my original, ill-thought out quip and more substantively in the critique of the church photos. But perhaps I should just keep that kind of thing to myself.

    Regarding your question of better, I just mean better than it is, not better in relation to anyone else. Do I fancy myself as better? No Bob, I don’t. I haven’t published any documentary photography even remotely approaching the quality of this work. That’s a fact. But I don’t see what it matters? Either the critique has some validity or it doesn’t. Whether I’m a total ass or not is an entirely different question.

  • MW, you say earlier that this is ground well-trodden and that you have seen Gilden’s work and others – but later say that you can only remember this essay and Gildens’. You say that you “don’t appreciate dishonesty. Or better to frame it positively: I appreciate its ability to tell the truth. Not the whole truth. Certainly not the literal truth, but truth nevertheless. Unfortunately, photography also has great power to communicate truths that are not true”. Your comments seem to be all over the place and are becoming ever-distanced from Danny’s essay. This is not propaganda.
    I can’t see how this essay can be considered in the context of untruths. Of course it does not tell the whole story of Detroit but is seems to capture the unease and despair of living in the area covered by Danny.



  • I don’t see any reason why this essay cannot be viewed as a novel ,fiction! So called dishonest photos can fit into a storyline, I really don’t see anything wrong with taking a exert out of lets say Chicago the essay retains it’s it integrity of intent. After all each frame here has been removed from it’s original context and placed within a new narrative.

  • I don’t see any reason why this essay cannot be viewed as a novel ,fiction! So called dishonest photos can fit into a storyline, I really don’t see anything wrong with taking a exert out of lets say Chicago and placing it within the Detroit essay as long at it stays within the framework intent. After all each frame here has been removed from it’s original context and placed within a new narrative.

  • This is what happens when one writes on two computers uses too many screens and posts a draft

  • Imants, like MW, you seem to be writing for effect, almost to shock. I understand your reasoning but I’m sure that the family of Chaise Sherrors: shot and killed, or the families of the unclaimed dead in Wayne County morgue, unable to claim the bodies due to poverty would.

    The whole point of essays of this genre, in my opinion, is to show the Human Condition; my fellow man / woman.

    I could be there. I could be the victim. I could be the murderer. We are all capable of great – heroic acts. We are all capable, under circumstance, of utmost barbarity. Poverty is a curse and a waste.

  • Imants, just read your next post. Welcome to the Internet: a moments thought captured forever! Imants, The Demon of Detroit (laughing).


  • MW…

    you said in reference to this essay and in reference to honesty and integrity:

    “I saw this nightly when I worked as a photo editor at an agency during a presidential election. Every night dozens of spectacular photographs came across the wire that had the candidates looking like epic heroes against dramatic backgrounds — just as the PR people had calculated. Those were not honest photographs. The essays I’ve been most critical of here fall into the same category, though not so neatly. Work that frames a story just as the PR department would have it.”

    now to the best of my recollection you have been most critical lately of these three essayists…Dominic Bracco “Life and Death” , Michelle Frankfurter “Destino”, and Danny Wilcox Frazier here with “Detroit”…right so far? with pretty much the same or similar wishes for all three…not complete, need to show more, perhaps telling you what you already know…am i close?

    now it seems to me the readers of Burn can either be critics, which is surely some of the fun of hanging out here, or become better photographers by seeing some of work here as either inspirational or at least thought provoking and relevant to an upcoming project of your own…aren’t those the two options here? Michael, i would be willing to bet that all three aforementioned photographers feel their work is not complete, needs to show more, and their work is probably not considered by any them to be a tome of empirical knowledge…again, this is a guess…which in no way imo has anything at all to do with their power…has nothing to do with their specialness and pure visual literacy…this kind of work is hard to come by…perfection? of course not…but quests well defined…i toast them now, and await books from each..

    my point is i suppose that if being a critic is going to be your primary function, then i think you might want to eliminate the one size fits all critique pattern…and the things i just mentioned are things we all know already as do the artists , so you are falling into your very own trap of being critique redundant…to use your words, tell us something we do not already know…

    worse, you have essentially accused the artists above of somehow not being honest (read your own statement) and paralleling your critique of these above mentioned essays in there referencing some photo agency job you had and photos of election night candidates and not so slightly inferring that those of us here are somehow presenting work “just as a PR department would have it”..or , who else exactly are you talking about? this would be upsetting critique if it just were not so damned silly…

    Michael, i think what you might want to do is: (a) get out there and shoot…put your money where your mouth is as my grandfather would say or (b) make your critique so good that you do not need to shoot…become a really fine critic which is indeed a totally respected art in and of itself…

    while i absolutely 100% defend your right to say what you want to say here, you have set yourself up as the resident devils advocate…a good house position and i suggest you keep it BUT where you are now is in an untenable position…you have no work that matches what we show here, and no thought provoking critique either…you are in “workshop mode” as you say, yet nobody needs this critique more than thee…so you are dishing out that which you need to have dished to you….nobody is ever beyond reproach..nobody…and there are no ivory towers…certainly not in my life…

    now, maybe i read you all wrong…but, i went back and read your comment several times…it was convoluted , but without reading too much between the lines, i think most of us would interpret about the same way…although interpretation is never what you want when doing critique….

    having said all of the above, i do always look forward to your comments…however, my overall recommendation for both of us is that we should at some point stop having the same conversation…make sense??

    cheers, david

  • Imants, like MW, you seem to be writing for effect, almost to shock…….. That’s something you just made up
    I spent a lot of time reading studying history etc and used both original documents and novels as means of understanding. It’s all no different to say looking at the Middle east conflict and jumping from Iran to Kuwait within one sentence to get a point across.
    Maybe you just don’t see the point in fiction

  • To sate a few accessible works Rembrandt’s “Night Watch, Picasso’s “Guernica”, Goya’s work, Guan Wei’s “A mysterious Land”……………http://www.pastemagazine.com/action/article/7645/feature/culture/dummies_in_the_attic

  • OK, well, I wanted to get out of this, but clearly have to clear up a few things.

    Mike R. writes: Your comments seem to be… becoming ever-distanced from Danny’s essay. This is not propaganda.

    Yes, at that point I had moved on to thinking about David’s question concerning my appreciation of documentary photography. Had you read what I actually wrote, you would have caught the part where I explicitly said that dishonesty wasn’t the case with Danny’s essay. You seem to be too caught up in pseudo-psychological speculation as to my dastardly motives to consider my actual points.

    David writes: now to the best of my recollection you have been most critical lately of these three essayists…Dominic Bracco “Life and Death” , Michelle Frankfurter “Destino”, and Danny Wilcox Frazier here with “Detroit”…right so far?

    Ummm, no. I liked all of those essays and was just attempting to offer constructive criticism. The ones I didn’t like because of PR/Propaganda concerns were the Afghan thing that I felt was like an army recruiting commercial, the piece on Kashmir that was unabashedly one sided and the first Mexican murder spree essay that showed the Mexican cops and armed forces as heroes in the war on drugs. Big, big difference. Destino, in particular, was one of my favorites. And if you go back and cut out just the good things I’ve said about Danny’s work, you’d see that I was practically gushing.

    As for your advice, David, well thanks, I respect it and mostly try to live by it. I’ve no desire to be known primarily as a critic. Most of my critiques are either meant to be helpful or are some aspect of me fighting with my own demons. For example, I shoot a lot in various black communities and am constantly confronted with these very same issues. I don’t always know what’s right. But to your other point, I do shoot a lot and I do apply the same critiques, harsher actually, to my own work. And of course it’s possible I’m kidding myself, but I do feel that much of my work is roughly as good as what you show here. Not as good as the best, frankly not close technically, but interesting artistically and intellectually. But regardless, it’s that thought provoking element and how those insights relate to my own work that make burn relevant for me.

    Sad though, I’d like to be able to publicly work out my thoughts on honesty and truth as it relates to photos of black churches, particularly in Danny’s essay. Imants, I agree with what you say about fiction and truth. My point is something else. And it’s a fine one, especially for blog comments. I’m sorry I can’t manage to communicate it without stepping on so many toes. I’m curious what Danny thinks? What is the purpose of those church photos in the story? What is he trying to say with them? Is that an effective approach? I don’t doubt that those photos are true on their own merit. But how true are they in the overall context of the story? How do stereotypical inner city black churches relate to body bags stacked up in the morgue? Are those not fair questions?

  • I was referring to seeing things as pure fiction like a novel………..not about truth

  • I was referring to seeing things as pure fiction like a novel………..not about truth

    I have no idea what you’re saying…how are things that are pure fiction like a novel not about truth? That makes no sense whatsoever.

  • It ain’t reaL it’s made up

  • It ain’t reaL it’s made up

    um yea, your point?

  • Don’t mean to be contentious or obscure, just don’t see any contradiction between fiction and truth. Could easily argue that good fiction is more true than straight facts. It certainly can be. I thought that’s what you were saying a few comments back. Maybe I misread you?

  • Nope I was just stating that an essay me y be viewed as fiction and photos can be sourced from anywhere.

  • Okay, well, I agree.

  • MW…

    ok, well now a bit more clear, but we were both evidently referring to different essays where i felt your critique was getting a bit cookie cutter predictable…..and i could only remember the more recent…and please do not worry about stepping on toes per se …but, for heavens sake Michael, you drop a bomb regarding honesty and integrity and then come back saying “gee, what did i do?…sorry if i stepped on toes”….just expect a rejoinder that’s all…no problem

    however, if you make a statement questioning integrity and honesty, you had better be able to back it up…even in the other Mexico piece and in the Kashmir piece i do not see how POINT OF VIEW is being somehow twisted into being dishonest…those were your words Michael…i did not make that part up…everyone read them….

    on your other criticism, i am not quite sure why you are so hung up on the church pictures by Danny…are black churches just too much of a cliche for you? how exactly would you have played the churches on every corner of this community and others like it?

    i think, but not totally sure, that what you are trying to say is something like this… you are dropping in some hints that like in Mexico where you are not just another gringo and have spent so much time there and somehow know just a bit more than all the other gringos ( i know the type well), and now you are also not just another white boy who has spent some time in the hood and are making a call about what is and what is not cliche for black people?? or for the digestion of white people who are viewing pictures of black people??

    Danny will not respond to you for sure. Nor will i answer for Danny. But as just another white boy who has spent many days and years photographing in black communities , but with NO INSIGHTS and only humble appreciation for acceptance to photograph, my impression is that the church is so so central to the lives of folks in these communities that it might be a bit strange if one did not see church…when i saw the church pictures in this essay it did not strike me as anything different than any of the other pictures….i have been with drug dealers and prostitutes out on the streets late at night in a world where there was no salvation and yet with the same folks going to church with “my mama” the very next day before going back out on the street and then back home to take care of family…just part of inner city life and perhaps contradictory for those who have not really lived it….so is this cliche or just the way it is??? mostly , why the seemingly angry rant about it? seems off key…

    cheers, david


    fiction is of course the only real way to tell the whole truth…i am actually waiting for a photographer who would do fiction in what would otherwise seem like a journalistic “truth” essay…and just label it fiction as in the bookstore…

  • Not sure if I have seen anyone bit there may be ………..probably not the easiest task unless you are used to writing/compiling children’s’ stories. All my stuff is fictitious but not in a journalistic “truth” essay genre

  • Probably most people here are familiar with “The Wire”… one of the finest attempts to talk about the Truth through fiction.

  • Hopefully this will be my last word on this. I just re-read everything and other than the original quip that about common depictions of inner city black folk, I don’t see that I’ve said anything out of line. The part about dishonesty was in response to David’s question about my thoughts on documentary photography in general, not specific to this essay, which I stated explicitly.

    And what’s wrong with asking questions about story elements? I’m curious about the thought processes behind the decision to shoot, and later include the pictures of the church. I’ve just asked questions, not passed any judgment. Anger? Where do you see anger?

    I don’t mind getting feedback, it’s just frustrating when the feedback is largely unrelated to what I wrote. I’m pretty sure I never said that any of those three pieces were dishonest, I know I didn’t in this thread. I said they were propaganda. That’s not the same thing. Go back and read the bit about dishonesty. It only refers to your question about documentary photography in general, not any particular essay. And it’s frustrating when the feedback gets personal, like psychological speculation. I ask questions about the church photos for effect? I fancy myself a magic gringo or honorary ghetto dweller? Might there be a simpler explanation? Isn’t it possible that I might just have a sincere interest in these issues and a curiosity about the artistic process as it relates to decision making in these areas?

    And, to be redundant one last time, is there really no way you can read my comments about these three essays as helpful and constructive? Or at least intended to be that way? Cause honestly, that was my intent.


    please now…you wrote:

    “I saw this nightly when I worked as a photo editor at an agency during a presidential election. Every night dozens of spectacular photographs came across the wire that had the candidates looking like epic heroes against dramatic backgrounds — just as the PR people had calculated. Those were not honest photographs. The essays I’ve been most critical of here fall into the same category, though not so neatly. Work that frames a story just as the PR department would have it.”


    Michael, is that not exactly what you just said you did not say?

    i am not an analyst, so i will not go there…but you are first on the attack, then the victim…and a bit disingenuous on top of it.. ..hmmmm..just read again your quote above…i was keying off of that….and if you want i will go back and dig up prior quotes regarding your time in Mexico and in the hood that suggest a bit of an edge on the essayist..it is an impression you have left on me Michael

    of course i would never never never give you any kind of tough call for trying to help anyone or improve their work…that is why we are here…but, for some reason it just is not coming off that way imo….and of course curiosity and questions are why we are here, but you always frame your questions as answers based on your own personal experience…you are not asking questions as the dispassionate objective interviewer, but almost as the resident expert….your quote above and all the rest of that comment is not in the form of an innocent helpful question imo…

    yet, i will take you at your word on intent…and as i said before, the role of devils advocate is always an important one…

    cheers, david

  • IMANTS..

    we love your fiction..and nobody could ever accuse you of dishonesty….you are all about point of view and personal expression….that is all you need….

  • Ha, well you got me there.

  • MW:

    Michael, I will not jump on and add more to what David has written with regard to the PR/dishonest/propaganda comments. I too was floored when I read it and wasn’t sure whether or not to respond. I took the afternoon/night off from reading/writing after that, and since David has waded in, there is nothing for me to add with regard to this dialogue (Danny’s essay). But, if possible, i’d like to talk about what I did last night as a means to frame future discussion on ‘critique/criticism.’

    Last night I spend 4 hours meeting with looking at the work of 3 young, talented free-lance working photographers here in Toronto. I to this often (though not as often as I once did) as a way to help, give back and encourage young photographers. I try to help in any way i can because when i started making pictures seriously there was no one to help me and in fact I often ran into a photoworld defined by walls/ceilings and arrogance. I wish I had met someone as giving and thoughtful as david 12 years ago, it would have saved me alot of stress and sadness, but I believe in doing what david does: give back.

    So, I try to look at alot of work and offer advice to young (or old photographers). Often, i get requests to look/edit work (Windup, still haven’t forgotten you, believe me). So last night, i did this for more than 4 hours. It was a fruitful, and fun evening. The reason why i mention this is because I want to offer one way to see about the process of discussion/criticism. So, to use one examle. I looked at an essay of a young photographer last night (about 35 pictures). Then we looked at a wider version + ‘b’s. about 150 pictures. I looked at all the versions about 4 or 5 times and then i told him what i thought worked. I went thorugh picture by picture and talked about the qualities/strength of the powerful ones and how they seemed to work (visually, narratively, metaphorically, technically) vs. the ‘weaker’ (or throw outs). We also talked about story and narrative. I NEVER (not ever) tell another photographer what they SHOULD do. I still with what they have and suggest strength and encourage them to build from STRENGTH. to see the strength. Most importantly, i never compare that essay i’m looking for with another, or rather, with what it lacks. I focus on it’s strength and we try to figure out what needs to be done to strengthen it.

    The reason why i am suggesting this to you is that because 1) you are an intelligent and thoughtful viewer and 2) you have articulated that you are interested in criticism, art/photographic criticism. The point is that THIS ESSAY is NOT (Danny’s) lacking anything. It is a powerful, solid, beautiful, intelligent body of work. Now, it focuses on an idea and it is true to that idea. That must be understood. So, when critiquing work, i think the ‘art’ of the critic is not only to bring insight in the analysis (what to you see that others do not) but also what makes a work strong…or weak. ASking this essay to show other aspects of the community is not a criticism on Danny’s body of work, but a request to understand the subject wider: meaning: more variety of work. That is where I think your ‘criticism’ here failed. You made the mistake of critiquing danny’s work through the prism of what you, as a viewer, want to have when dealing with detroit/urban blight.

    Also, one of the MOST IMPORTANT aspects of criticism is RESPECT. You must approach the work with respect and honor. It is the only way to establish a good dialogue. I think you started off poorly by joking about poor black folk and just dug a deeper more entrenching hole. It is good (and important) to be fun and not to be overly serious, or synchophantic, but you must remember that we put our lives out there, we share our work with the work as a way to communicate and foster communication/community. when you approach a body of work from the angle of flippancy, whatever you may have to say will not be heard.

    Playing devil’s advocate is also an important part of dialogue, but it must be done within the gesture of community: otherwise it sounds harpish and like a tired crone. Again, discussing last night, I didn’t like all the photographers (not at all) that the photographers showed me, but i liked the essays and I worked hard with them to figure out what makes sense, from where to build. Had you contextualized Danny’s essay within the environment of a general need you (we all) have to know as much about these people, their lives and the city as possible, a great dialogue may have ensued. Your (or my) needs or failure as a viewer does not, a priori, mean the essay itself failed, far from it.

    All good dialogue involves discourse and respect, not full agreement. I think that is the only thing I wish to really say. It is not only HOW you write (and you are a strong, articulate writer) but what fires the engine behind the prose and thoughts. A good writer (in terms of criticism) is one who brings to the table not a premeditated discussion to teach the creator what they need to know but rather a good writer (in terms of criticism) is one who brings a generosity of vision to bare on work that is created. YOu need not like work or even get it/feel it to write intelligently. Tearing work up (as, for example Robert Hughes does often) can work if it’s born of from the generosity of the mind, not from a paucity of insight.

    You need NOT praise work to be consider an excellent critic but you must be able to separate yourself, for long enough, to know that it must always begin and end with the work at hand in it’s complexity.

    If i being with the premise of failure as a starting point, those 3 photographers (nor any of us) would arrive at any meaningful terminus…..

    hope that makes sense….


    i wrote “last night, I didn’t like all the photographers (not at all)”…GOOD GOD…i meant:

    Last night, I didn’t like all the PHOTOGRAPHS…

    i loved all three of you guys (if you’re reading here)….:))))

  • sorry, CORRECTION 2 (i’m tired form the wine and from looking at so many pictures and editing stories)…

    ending should be:

    If i began with the premise of failure as a starting point, those 3 photographers (nor any of us) would NEVER arrive at any meaningful terminus……..

    begin with strength and work on the strength of work…that’s alot easier to do, and to foster dialogue, than focusing on the failings…

  • I do not know how many of the person’s commenting on Danny Wilcox Frazier’s documentary project are white but what I find, troubling as much as galling is a total disregard for the effort he put in to document African American suffering in Detroit. I am an African American and I am documenting my beloved Harlem community. After seeing his work in Detroit, Harlem, with the onslaught of white gentrification has transformed this once renown ghetto into one of priciest neighborhoods to reside in Manhattan, made me sigh with relief. Yes, there is much poverty, unemployment and crime still in Harlem but not on the human misery scale as in Detroit.

    That said, reading comments about why is the black church in his essay tells of absolutely lack of knowledge of slavery. In addition, the essay mentions appalling statistics on black illiteracy. During slavery, blacks were lynched for teaching others to read and write and so, here we see in 2010 a sickening parallel, oppression. Next, the church was used by slave owners to pacify slaves from rebelling on their one day, Sunday, from toiling on plantations from sun rise to sun down. The belief in Christianity and the stories told in the bible were all slaves could hope for: freedom from tyranny of bondage and the lash.

    Yes, some of the criticism from an academic or plain critic’s perspective may in deed be warranted but from my perspective, what is informative is that the critical comments here are heartless, based on what I have read. The nation elected a black President which is a monumental achievement yet places like Detroit still exist. Sadly, how little has changed for black people in this country. Even photography, is a white bastion where few blacks can gain entry either as positive subjects or as working photographers. My work is dedicated to exalt images of black people yet show warts as well. I expect criticism of my work will focus on the weakness of my images and story telling in my essays and giving short shrift to the lives of black people who struggle everyday for a better life. Danny Wilcox Frazier you did good! Bravo!

  • Jimmyb! :))

    straight up…..danny is a seeker…no way ’round that! :)))

    the thing, too, bout churches….they’re still often the one place that all the community can kick it, and go the toe without judgment, it is still the place where community lay….a place where an oldg and can still hope for a damnbighug from a mother who has lost her baby….and that why the inclusions of the churches here is NOT cliche but is document and testament and cause, for real, they’re still the place of not just worship and to lay the dead to rest but to sing and to get out of the boxed feeling of struggling alone in a room/house/apt…..:))

    but i’ve written enough already here about the importance off his work…


  • jimmyb, hi, I have no idea either how many here are white or whatever other skin colour, but I disagree with you when you write that there ‘is a total disregard for the effort he put in to document African American suffering in Detroit’.

    On the other side I agree with your last sentence. :)

  • Jimmyb, I don’t know whether Danny is white or black and it makes no difference to me. I personally considered the inclusion of churches to be a valid counterpoint to the violence shown in other photographs, basically showing that a community exists even through dark days. That is not to say that one has to have a religious background to be a good person and a member of a strong community.

    Religion, oppression and poverty are often partners, and not just as a palliate to the oppressed but often as a vehicle of defiance and resistance to oppression – as witnessed by the work of the church in Central and South America and in Poland at the time of the fall of Communism in Europe. In each of the quoted examples it is ironic that the oppressors may have hoped to quell rebellion by allowing religious gatherings but only succeeded in bringing people together in a strong opposition.

    Poverty is a curse and a waste as it stifles joy and fulfillment and robs the individual and society. I’ve had a quick look at your website and your beloved harlem does indeed look vibrant. I’m going back for another look. Incidentally, I’m white, although I’ve never even considered the racial background of anyone here.



  • I’d ask the same question, make the same point, if I saw an essay about Harlem that featured familiar looking photos from the Abyssinian Baptist Church, images I could easily see for myself simply by plunking down $39 for the tour. Meanwhile, Google tells me there are over 400 churches in Harlem and that denominations include Roman Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, Black Muslims, Episcopalian, Methodist, many flavors of Baptists, and many others. Isn’t it possible that some of these churches might tell us something, perhaps something a bit more nuanced about the community? Or at least communicate the same message through more innovative imagery?

    Not holding my breath for an answer, but not apologizing for the question either. I think it’s a good one.

  • MW,
    Ok, I wanna play too…!
    Let’s say I missed a lot of “episodes”..on this one,
    what exactly is that bothers you around those “church photos)”…
    What is “it”? Really?

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