Everyday Motor City: An Interview with Documenting Detroit’s Karah Shaffer

Filling a gap in serious documentary storytelling in Detroit, Alan Chin and Karah Shaffer eschew big city living in New York to become catalysts for a new generation of photographers. In this week’s edition of Photographers in Detroit Getting Coffee (well, something like that), we sit down with Karah at the Urban Bean Co. to find out what motivated her to come back home to Detroit and understand why the Documenting Detroit fellowship is more relevant than ever.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your connection to Detroit.

Karah: My connection to Detroit is probably a little bit different from other people who grew up in the suburbs. My parents are both artists; my father worked at the Renaissance Center and my stepmother did as well. Both of my parents actually went to College for Creative Studies in the 70’s and early 80’s, so I came down here a lot as a kid, mostly downtown. But my teachers in high school were a little bit different than most teachers in the burbs. They actually led field trips to Pewabic Pottery and the Heidelberg Project, in addition to the Detroit Institute of Arts – and that was in 1998 when parents were up in arms about taking the kids to Heidelberg Street. At 14 or 15 years old I started to learn about Detroit techno, and started coming down here for parties. So the techno “avenue” was sort of my way in; I’d been around the city taking art classes, but the thing that really hooked me was music. That’s how I got to know Detroit and the neighborhoods outside of downtown – that was a major driver in me spending time here.

In 1999, I took a photography class. The class had an assignment to shoot architecture, and most people would go out into the farmland and shoot barns or Victorian houses. But me and my friends being techno heads, we came to Detroit and started shooting. At that point, I’ll be honest, the way that I was looking at it, I was like, “Wow, look at these huge abandoned buildings!” It wasn’t until a lot later that I learned how detrimental it can be if you put that work out there in certain types of ways.

I was 19 when I moved to New York, but it wasn’t until I started interacting with a lot of photojournalists in New York that I started to look at more of what Detroit was about. In 2011 I was living in the Bronx; reading a blog called Lightstalkers, I saw something that said that there had been a talk by Joao Silva at the Bronx Documentary Center as a precursor to their opening. We went to the opening and there were like 600 people there – every photographer that I had ever followed on Reuters, New York Times, Time Magazine – all of these photojournalists. It was so mind blowing. So the next day, after this opening happened I went back to the BDC and gave them my phone number and told them, “I live four blocks away; I don’t care what you need, please call me. I will be there.” I started babysitting the gallery during gallery hours, and ended up working with them for about three and a half years. In the course of that, there was a lot of conversation about where I was from. The conversation would aways be like, “Well, you’re from Detroit, why aren’t you doing something there?” But I didn’t really know what I would do or even where to start.

Karah Shaffer, 2018. Photograph by Brian Day.
Karah Shaffer, 2018.  Photograph by Brian Day.

How did you end up back in Detroit?

In 2014, I thought I would be a photojournalist, and I knew I needed to work on a couple of stories and build up a portfolio. I knew that the way the industry was working out at that time, if you were going to be a photojournalist, you had to know video and audio. I had a friend in Detroit who is a cinematographer, so I decided I’d come back for 3 months and assist my friend to get my feet wet and see if there was a story here that I was interested enough in to follow. And so, September 2014 I came back to Detroit and it was interesting; at that time we were just coming out of bankruptcy and we were starting to see all of this investment happening downtown. A lot of construction was starting, things that I’d never seen in 30 years of hanging out here. I started looking for a community that was centered around photography and the most that I could find was groups of people that were posting images on Instagram from inside or on top of abandoned buildings – and selfies with fists in the air – things like that. I realized that we were at this really pivotal point that, if that was the way our city was represented, it was an invite for people to come in to Detroit and do whatever they wanted. Having spent enough time at the Bronx Documentary Center, I realized that that’s not a constructive way to view a place – the ‘blank slate’ narrative is not good for anybody who has existed here and fought it out for years on end, and it’s not why I love this place. I don’t love this place because it’s a blank slate, I love it because there’s a lot of creativity and a lot of inspiration that’s come out of it, despite what our record has been for the last 50 years.

So, toward the end of the second of my three months, I went back to New York to find a new roommate for my place and my friend Alan Chin called me up. He said “Hey, do you know how to drive a stick?” His brother lived in St. Clair Shores (a neighboring city to Detroit) and he didn’t want to make the long drive out alone. So we hopped in the car and Alan, who has been shooting all over the world for the last 25 years, was really interested in knowing what it was like in Detroit. “What was the community focusing on?” We started talking about doing a workshop, and that whole idea kinda spiraled into, “if we’re gonna do a workshop, how are people going to pay for it?” “Well, nobody should have to pay for it here, because everything that’s important is being ignored, so if we’re going to raise that stuff up, it should free.” So it became this fellowship idea.

You are now in the third year of Documenting Detroit. What’s involved in conducting a fellowship program and what are some of the outcomes that you hope to achieve?

Karah: When we decided we were going to host a fellowship, I don’t think either of us knew what that was going to take. We said, “First we gotta to let people know we’re going to have a fellowship, so we should have an event.” We should have a couple of people from Detroit and a couple of people from out of town to be examples of what documentary work is and what you can do in your hometown, and what it looks like for other people working in documentary everywhere else in the country. So we had my friend, the cinematographer Logan Siegel, present some of his work – which is very Detroit centric but has taken him all over the world. We had Alan do a talk about what he’s done, and we had Nina Robinson, who has been working in New York and Arkansas doing some really personal work on her own family, as examples of different things that you can cover that are important not only to you, but to viewers elsewhere.

A lot of people, when they think about photojournalism, they think you have to go cover a war. But more and more, the work that I’m seeing published is very personal. It’s very hometown centric, coming from people who know stories very, very well. It’s the opposite of parachute journalism, and that’s precisely what we were trying to avoid. Because that’s what we’ve seen in Detroit for years on end – somebody drops someone in to cover a story, and we just get the same five pictures of the train station and Packard, because that’s the easy, low-hanging fruit, and there’s no entry into the community. So that was the reason for doing a fellowship that was of and for Detroit.

How were the fellows and mentors were selected, and what impact have they had since the program began?

Two weeks before we hosted the event, Red Bull House of Art, our partner on our events, said “this thing really needs to be talked about; we think you should make it a series.” So the community around us knew even before we did what we needed to do and what was going to be important. We ran with it. We had a few events talking about what we wanted to do with this fellowship, showcasing work, and then we had a call for applications. Our first year 85 people applied; they had to submit a portfolio of 12-20 images. They had to write us a one pager talking about what they wanted to cover in Detroit – something that was important to them, something that they felt was either under represented or something they wanted to celebrate, something they thought needed to be changed, and send a resume so that we could get a feel for their background. We don’t have real requirements aside from those three things: a resume, a one pager and a portfolio, because getting into a community and being able to illustrate that you know something intimately doesn’t require a degree. It doesn’t require a PhD; you can still be out of touch, no matter how many points you have on your resume. There’s someone who was a forklift operator in our first fellowship who does beautiful work – totally self taught. I think that’s something that’s really beautiful. But building this whole fellowship, part of what I wanted to do was make it so that people who were from here could do what they were good at and not have to leave.

When we decided to host this fellowship, we thought that it was important that the people who juried the participants were not only from Detroit but from other cities; people who were really well versed in journalism. People that could ultimately assign stories to our fellows and who were kind of gateways to jobs, so that people in Detroit would start to be seen as being in control of their own stories and start to be seen as people who were competent to tell those stories. It’s silly to me that most of the work that was being done about Detroit was being told by someone who wasn’t from here. The only way to change that is to make the people who are assigning the stories aware of the people that they can call upon when a story needs to be told. So we structured our fellowship with people that were from in town and out of town, and I think that’s worked really well. We’ve been able to connect photographers that have gone through our fellowship with editors from LensCulture magazine, based in France. A couple of our fellows are working with or for National Geographic after having gone through our program; those are connections that they made within our fellowship. So the structure of it was thought out before we started with the meetups in our first year. And the people that are being published by these entities are still living in Detroit; they haven’t taken off and gone somewhere else. There are also people who are mentoring younger photographers and getting heavily involved with the photo community here, which I think is really important, because it solidifies what’s happening here on the ground, allows for what we’re doing to take root and helps other people to be successful telling stories that are important to them.

In an era of instant gratification on social media, how important are patience and persistence for a documentary photographer?

Karah: We definitely do live in the instant gratification era of photography. We’re all barraged with images, be it through the news we’re consuming or through having fun on Facebook or texting things to each other. There’s a million different ways that we consume, but the instant gratification element of photography to me really comes out of a need to be able to communicate with people that doesn’t require words. So when you take it into that context, it really becomes a way to reach deeper, even if it is ‘instant gratification.’ One of the ways this format is really positive is that if somebody throws a picture up that they’re just testing the waters with – and they get a lot of great feedback – they’re going to want to keep pushing it. They’re going to want to look harder at that story, or they’re going to really get more of it out and maybe post a whole series instead of one shot. So you’re kind of blowing the lid off.

If you’re looking at ‘instant gratification’ photography like Instagram in that way, you really can have a huge impact on the way people see a certain subject. I think that’s something that really is taking off; you see grants now happening through Instagram. Getty Images gave $10,000 last year – actually Nina Robinson was one of the recipients – awesome! This is how people are consuming their news – just as much as they are directly from a news platform. They’re consuming stories through this very democratic means.

Of course, that also opens up the field to things that don’t have integrity, or people faking images. So there’s a need for the entire community to be very diligent and make sure that what they are putting out there can be fact checked and be verified. That’s kind of a downside; if something gets put out there that is not truthful, it could be from here to Tokyo in 20 minutes and then you have to undo that damage. So it’s double-edged, a bit. But photography, at this point, is so accessible because there are so many people carrying a smartphone that have the means to communicate that way. We don’t set restrictions with our fellowship about what people are shooting with; we have people that shoot on an iPhone and we have people that shoot on a Leica. It’s really just whatever you think is going to allow you to access your subjects and tell their story the way you feel is appropriate.

In your time leading the Documenting Detroit fellowship, what have you learned about Detroit that you didn’t know before you started?

Karah: There’s a lot of things that I’ve learned about Detroit since starting this fellowship. So many that when I’m put on the spot about it it’s hard to articulate. I always knew that this was a place that cared about the arts, that cared about preserving its own history. In the three and a half years that I’ve been here I’ve learned a bit more about how hard that is, what a fight it is to preserve history and preserve culture. I’ve learned a lot more about the history of Detroit itself, about negative things that were going on in the not-so-distant past. So when you think about the city and think about the fact that we’ve retained as much as we have, despite how hard it is, that’s something that I’ve seen and discussed more in the last year than I ever have in my life. In a city like New York, history there is constantly being rewritten because you have this massive influx and exodus of people all the time. Detroit, a little less so; it doesn’t move quite so fast. So there’s time for people to talk about the changes that are happening, even though downtown we’re seeing things happen quickly. I think that scares a lot of people. It scares me, if I’m to be totally honest. We’re sitting in a building that, six or seven years ago certainly didn’t look like it does now, but I know that there are people in the city that don’t feel like where we are sitting is a space for them. And that, to me, is something that I hope to be able to address through the work we’re doing, to make sure that everybody feels like the program is accessible to them. It scares me that I would ever be viewed as exclusive, I don’t want to be that place that people feel like they’re not welcome. I think learning more and more about Detroit as I live here keeps that in the front of my mind.

What are some of the things we have to look forward to from the 2018 Fellowship?

Karah: Headed into our third year with the Documenting Detroit program, it’s going to get interesting because we’ve got some standards to live up to. That’s interesting in itself; we have two years of fellowships behind us, we have 34 photographers that we have worked with. We’ve done in two years what was our five year plan. I’m a pedal to the metal kind of person; Alan is very community focused. We’ve had 34 photographers go through our program in the last two years; some of them are showing in galleries, some are working on projects collaborating with some of the most renowned photographers in the country for some of the most widely published entities in the world. We showed at Photoville last year. We were a part of Dlectricity here at home. I think in two years we’ve done more than either of us thought we’d do. A lot of people were skeptical about our program and what it was going to do for them. Hopefully it’s been worth it for everybody that’s been involved. We were lucky enough to get a grant from the Knight Foundation which is a matching grant – which means we have to raise an equal amount of money to what was granted to us, which is $150,000. There’s something to be said in the fact the first monetary grant that we’ve ever gotten was six figures. It’s insane. I just wanted to be able to tell the story of the place that I’m from from it’s own perspective, and that just exploded around me. I say all the time that I feel like I’m chasing the ball down the street, so I’m sure whatever we do in this third year is probably going to reflect that a bit.

We’re hoping to open our application period in mid-March for our third year fellowship program, which will be open for about a month. We usually run a couple of critiques where we ask people to bring in photos on a thumb drive, put it up on a projector and collectively talk about work. That’s how people get better. You don’t get better by being the canary in the coal mine; you have to be able to talk about your work. Some people are great photographers, but they can’t articulate why they do what they do and why it’s important to them. That’s a discussion that, as a community, we’ve been able to spur a little bit more. Even if people don’t get into the fellowship they still get that platform to talk about their work or hear about other people’s work.

Our fellowship will probably end up choosing about 15 photographers this year and get them going by May, so they’ll have the entire summer to work on a project that they’ve pitched to us. We’ll pair them with photographers from Detroit and elsewhere in the country, and hopefully other countries as well. Two years ago, we had Zun Lee from Toronto; this year, hopefully we’ll have Zun back again and people from elsewhere in the country and the world. Brian Palmer, I’m hoping he’ll be back on the ground here for a third year. He’s actually joining our board as well and I’m really excited, because the passion that he brings to everything is infectious. I can’t say enough good things about that guy, he’s just fantastic.

We’ll have three months of people working on the ground, having people shoot, giving feedback. We’ll have an intensive in the middle of it where we have a whole bunch of mentors taking office hours with our photographers and presenting their work and just really getting into the nitty gritty of things. By September, we’ll have completed bodies of work from those fellows, but I don’t really know if we’ll present with the DIA again; I don’t really know, things kind of just come about. When I first thought about this, I wanted to do a projection downtown for two weeks on the back of the building that we’re sitting in right now (the First National Building in downtown Detroit). That didn’t happen, but the second year, we held the intensive for the fellowship in this building, so that was cool. Things don’t always happen the way that I think they’re going to, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t happen in a very public and engaging way.

One of the things that I would love to pull off this year – somewhat at the mercy of judges for some of these festivals – I would absolutely love to take this work to Europe. Or, take it to Asia, and have the work that we’re doing here be exhibited on an international platform that can inspire people, wherever we’re showing it, to get involved on a local level and do something similar to what we’re doing here. So I hope that this year that’s accomplished.

Ambitious plans, for sure. Is it worth it?

I’m a little bit insane and I come out guns blazing, so I’m crossing my fingers that that happens. If nothing else, we’re going to have a new batch of photographers in Detroit that are telling stories that we haven’t seen. The things that people pitch to us that get followed, like Jeremy Brockman last year covering the Church of the Black Madonna, that work was stunning. It’s something that is just so ‘everyday’ to people in Detroit – but that gives it a reason to be documented. It’s like: this is what we do everyday, and it’s beautiful.

For more information about Documenting Detroit or to support the cause, view the 2016 and 2017 projects or apply for the 2018 Fellowship, visit DocumentingDetroit.org.

Photograph by Jeremy Brockman.
“Chakras Aligned”, photograph by Felicia Tolbert.
Photograph by Damon Adams.
Photograph by Cydni Elledge.
Photograph by Samantha Otto.
Photograph by Rosa Maria Zamarron.
Photograph by Mishira Davis.
Photograph by Jon DeBoer.
Photograph by Jarod Lew.
Photograph by Corey Turner.
Photograph by Amy Sacka.
Photograph by Ali Lapetina.
Photograph by Gabriela Baginski.
Detroit From Above, photograph by Brian Day.