danny wilcox frazier – detroit

Hover over the image for navigation and full screen controls

Danny Wilcox Frazier

A Detroit Requiem

play this essay


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”

  • Well Panos, since you put it that way: predictability. But we’ve been over that. In short, Preston generally agrees with my basic point. David and Bob have made very articulate and convincing arguments that I’m wrong, that the church stuff is not predicable and so what if is. My ultimate position is that this is an issue about which reasonable people can disagree. Unfortunately, I had another knee jerk kinda reaction when accused of having absolutely no knowledge of slavery, as if that had anything to do with my point. That was my bad… Shoulda just let it slide.

    So now is the place where I tell you what I really think and want to say to everybody: Peace, good wishes and happy holidays to one and all… and a happy and productive new year…


  • “good wishes and happy holidays…” absolutely

  • Michael, nothing really wrong with predictability…Its another way to tell s story , “straight” approach maybe, but not to be alarmed , i think…:). Church actually IS A STRONG element.

  • Michael maybe it’s time for you to put your great knowledge to a test and produce a an essay of substance………. not just a daddle in the park type

  • Well Imants, it’s not really about me. Whether or not a piece of art is predictable and/or whether that predictability is a good or bad thing are questions independent of my personal strengths or shortcomings. To argue otherwise is clearly a logical fallacy.

  • And regarding my vast knowledge, as I mentioned, I got the 400 church statistic from Google, simply typed “how many churches in Harlem.” But it’s true that from my actual experiences walking around Harlem, I know for a fact that it contains more than one church. If not for that personal experience; if I were just judging by stories I’ve seen in the media, I wouldn’t know that. As far as I’d be able to tell, the Abyssinian Baptist Church would pretty much be it for churches. And Sylvia’s the only restaurant. The Apollo the only music venue. Or maybe the Cotton Club?

    This is probably the best illustration of my personal picture of Harlem. It’s a place I know quite well, but one I’ve never physically visited. Great art on several levels.

  • Well the essay isn’t predictable nor is it typecasting for those who have never been there, I don’t think all these essays are created with you in mind.

    To argue otherwise is clearly a logical fallacy. …. other than you who else is in agreement sound like an assumption on your part

  • I’ve never been to Detroit, nor implied that I have. Probably wouldn’t have asked the evil question if I had. I don’t know the answer.

    I’ll let Bob or maybe jimmyb explain the invisible man reference… or better yet, read the book yourself. Just because folk in other parts don’t recognize local stereotypes doesn’t make them any less stereotypical. Why doesn’t your work include more kangaroos? How can anyone do a story about Australia without any kangaroos?

  • You sure are an angry man …… yes my work has the odd kangaroo in it plus Mick from Bullamakenka …………….
    How can anyone do a story about Australia without any kangaroos? …easy my neighbour is not a kangaroo

  • ………… and just to make sure you now know something else my work is not about place nor region , nor country…… a misconception on your part if you saw it that way.

  • No dude, just demonstrating how easy it is to throw out demeaning misconceptions based on diddly squat psychological twaddle. Point is to keep it impersonal. Deal with the ideas, not the imagined psychological failings of the individuals expressing them. Pretty much everything that goes on here falls into the category of propositions about which reasonable people can disagree. No?

    I like your work. Find the personal attacks mildly irritating sometimes though.

  • Yes you are that bloke who threw one too many hand grenade and finally one went off in your hand ………….. not a personal attack an observation. Now I am off to waste some of my time on something just as trivial

  • MW, Imants :))

    ok, i’ll wade in :))…’cause i didn’t go to sleep last night, and have been madly running around town trying to get ready for the trip (24 hrs) and to finish a writing shit, only to find tonight that i don’t have enough film for my trip, so tomorrow, back down to pick up some film and pack and then off…and i’m in a damn sweet mood, tired, but electric….been listening Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy which absolutely drops large….i’d thought LCd’s album was the vinly of the year….but god damn, that is a major righteous souring mad lick….i want both of you guys to listen…anyway, more about that at the end here…

    so, here goes:

    First Up, Mw:

    Michael, I would NEVER say you were ‘wrong’ about your ideas or your reaction…there is no right/wrong to view a piece of work, no way to carve out 1 meaning, 1 story from a body of work that plays both to the strengths and contradictions of a story….the inherent contradictions in Danny’s piece is the same contradictions and confusions that exist in that community and that is not cliche….but more importantly, i value (and need) your bomb throwing, if for nothing else, to get my juices ribbed ;)….you are a smart cat, with thoughtful and often penetrating questions, even if sometimes they appear to be deliberately contrarian ;)…but, that’s the ripeness we need, to pick up the sticks and bones to toss against a wall in order to think and to, ultimately, feel one’s way through the heart of a piece….so, i’m always game when your questioning…as long as those questions come from a place that hopes for a honing of insight, or rather, for rumination that opens something else….so, i never meant to write ‘we’ were right, you were wrong, only that i think i wish you to take the next radical step: to question into rightness ;))….so keep it up, and i’ll try to offer an response, here goes:

    CHURCHES. HERE…they MUST be part of this work, not because it’s cliche to show folk praying in a community riffed by sorrow, or because that is the typical paint swabbed on the African American community, but because it has important thematic resonance. This story is about both Death (kids, boys, men, dying, mom’s suffering) and life. If you’re going to do a story on folk being shot, show the funerals, then you must show the fullness and importance of that: that these folk are in church not only to bury but also to console and come together…Even if the church weren’t historically such an important part of the community (which it sure is, always has been), this essay would still necessitate churches, because they ARE PART of that city experience, just as the graffiti and zoo suits and broken homes and bottles of fifties and forlorn mattresses….cars exposed, prom celebrations: it is the detail and the detritus….the church here is both an important narrative component (funerals and liturgy, song and psalm) but also for verisimilitude. Now, i agree, that the community aint just about baptist churches, but about mosques and 7th days and and lutherans and RC’s and Mennonites, etc….but, you see, danny isn’t making a visual claim for denomination, but rather about prayer, service, song, community…sure, those pics are in mosque, their christian, but the deeper take on those images is that their houses of worship and houses that haven’t been eroded, but are rather supports….so, they MUST be here, because of the face that churches, or rather, houses of worship, serve the community, are a part of the community, just as b-ball courts and empty lots and corner parties and pawn shops and beauty salons and corner stores…they’re there, they must be a part…but they also serve as spiritual posts for this essay: points of reflection and points of hope, points of community that make this essay, and make that community, not solopsistic and death-kneeled, but the opposite: still filled with light of living….burying the kids and going back for solace and hope and to move beyond….now, an essay on the diversity of the houses of workshop in the community would be another topic (a buddy Omar S, a great photographer, a muslim has done a great body of work on the african-american muslim community in nyc, post 911) but that is not THIS essay….again, i just want to say, or rather, suggest, that I think you’re asking Danny’s essay to be all encompassing, it is not and it cannot be…we must approach it for what it is….and while, you may think/feel (a reasonable thought) that church images are obvious, well…Go Tell it on the Mountain ;))….know what i mean….it must be here…shit, i’ve criticized the shit out of essays that deal with detroit and violence and show funerals but never deal with the important healing and community power of those houses….as i told Justin M, there is just no way to get around shooting the community without dealing with his, for historical and contemporary reasons….a place where a killer and the mourner, ironically, can (and do) come together….THAT is critical to understand and to appreciate here…

    As for Harlem…well, i know a bit about harlem…one of my closest friends was from harlem, spent some time there and no, not in the places you name or what others associate…shit, to me, harlem means 2 things: running up there as a kid and then going to visit my friend’s hood and family….as i wrote here a couple of years back (road trips?), he was later gunned down off of Strivers Row….told dah the story, told rufus the story on top of david’s loft….i don’t associate Absynnians Baptist with Harlem as the only church, rather i associate that the way i dont associate the Met with THE nyc….it’s a landmark, historical, tours, history, but, anyone that has spent time there knows that there are 100’s of churches there and the folk that speak of Abyssinian seem to be the visitors….in danny’s essay, it’s just simpler….it’s about showing, detailing…make sense?….i think danny’s essay is an evocation and not a journalistic approach, just as justin’s essay was about yielding spirits, channeling, not necessary describing…make sense?….

    Imants: :)….invisible man, necessary reading….that book and baldwin and zora neale hurston opened my eyes, not to what i didn’t know, but to what is possible….but than again, my dad gave me Cleaver’s Soul on Ice for my 16th birthday…and i’m a fucking white guy….

    ok, so enough about crit, can i share a song instead….

    here is Kanye’s Monster….it, to me, is exactly part of what this is about….and i just ask you get through it….get to the last 1 minute and that ending…and that says all…the full complexity and brilliance of that song….and what that says and stands for and ends with….and that song, is for me, a way to cadence this work…

    listen to this song…and after the end, which comes after all that shit, tell me it aint so…


    no right, wrong…just ways to get home….

    peace and love…

    booging out of here soon…


  • I will have search for the books ………. thanks

  • Imants…

    email coming (about your pa and this year)…just writing something for the christmas post….haven’t forgotten ur emails…give me 2 hrs….:)))

    christmas card sung me a smile….

    i promise, time we skype…u want to skype tonight?…send me an email…i should be done in 1 hr writing this post for david…


  • …invisible man, necessary reading….that book and baldwin and zora neale hurston opened my eyes, not to what i didn’t know, but to what is possible…

    Don’t forget The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

  • MW: NO DOUBT! :)))

    Imants, fell asleep on the couch just after i wrote the comment for David….will try again tonight, sorry ;)

  • Jimmyb, I looked at your Harlem work and I like it a lot. It could do with an edit, but what photographer’s work couldn’t do with an edit (laughing). Like me, you show what you have. Like me, need to show the best of the best that you have – but what you show now displays great access and empathy for your subject.

    Good light, Jimmyb,


  • MW…

    just for the record, i NEVER said you were wrong nor that churches in a story on the hood were not predictable…i did say their predictability made no difference to me just as the predictability of a dead body in a war essay would not bother me either..predictability of content has nothing to do with the value of the art imo…in any case, please note that in every comment i made i might have been asking you to at least look at something from a different perspective, but at the same time totally respecting your right to view it any way you want..and i did say several times that what you are expecting from photography is not what i am expecting…but again, no right or wrong to it….hope it is clear this time…

    Merry Christmas Michael…and looking forward to our meeting in January…

    cheers, david

  • That’s ok Bob I will see you when you get back………. meanwhile you need a pair of these , they sure help with the running. My Xmas is nice and easy since I got these http://www.etrouko.com/im.htm

  • MW…

    Just a word of support. Hang tough.

    For whatever that’s worth.

    Happy Xmas.

  • Yep David, I noted all that. And I always respect and take your advice to look at things in a different perspective. Honestly, I respect your opinion much more than my own, especially about the quality of individual photos. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at your work in NatGeo. How could I not respect what you have to say? Still, gotta be myself. I don’t really know what I expect from photography. I guess a big part of me expects the level of quality you’ve managed to achieve in your own work. If that’s not the goal, why bother?

    Perhaps I am a bit contrary at times in the hope of getting a well-reasoned rebuttal? Or maybe I’m just pissed off about something else and it works out that way? Hard to say for sure. But it’s a good thing when you or Bob or whoever does such a fine job of explaining your point of view. I know it’s those kind of exchanges that turn a lot of people off on comments, but it’s the more argumentative threads where I see the most truly enlightening insights. Outside of the photos themselves, of course.

    Anyhoo, if jimmyb’s still checking in, I too hope you continue to comment here. If you let it, burn will help you become a much better photographer, no matter your starting point. And you can help us become better photographers as well.

  • WOW, best work I’ve seen on BURN. finally something different…yes, DIFFERENT…better yet, UNEXPECTED!
    “two thumbs up” ;)

  • Magnificent, beautiful, BEAUTIFUL!
    What else to say?

    Maybe one tiny thing … with so so many different subtopics whirling together, I would try to relate the begining and the end of the essay so you get some sort of visual “clamp”. To take away the feeling of a random order – IF you want this kind of thing. I personally often prefer it – albeit sometimes the feeling of randomness is important to the subject. Maybe you feel this is the case here?

    I do not know if I should congratulate you on being published here, or BURN on having your publish here :)

Leave a Reply

You must login to post a comment.