In our HOME issue, we featured photographer Bruce Giffin’s poignant, heartrending collection “The Face of Detroit.” Shot over 30 years, this project – focused on capturing genuine slices of life from Detroit’s homeless and street communities – won Giffin a Kresge Visual Arts Fellowship in 2011. During these times of social crisis, we feel it’s extremely important to revisit this special photo essay. We hope the experience is as valuable for you as it continues to be for us.
1/2 of these images portray a homeless person…
1/2 of these images portray persons who are not homeless…
It’s not important to know which.
Many words and pictures have been published about the state of the economy in Detroit. Photographers and writers are flocking here from all over the world on assignment or on “spec” adding fuel to this discussion. Every student of photography has a picture of the train station, the Packard Auto plant, and the grand piano in the lobby of Lee Plaza. Many student images are as good or better than the hired “guns” from out of town.
These buildings and others are being used to show the world how the collapse of the local and national economy has affected our lives. The truth is that many of these buildings sat empty and abandoned years before our economy came crumbling down. The Packard has been mostly empty since the ‘50s and the train station was abandoned in 1988.
I’ve been shooting pictures in the city for 30 years, when the train station wasn’t fenced in and you could freely walk in and out without bother. Lately, I’ve been studying the faces of the people of Detroit. This the real story of our city. In my corporate work I shoot portraits of CEOs, vice presidents, and all kinds of management people who are gainfully employed. There is a stark contrast between the people I’ve met on the street and the folks I meet in corporate America. The street people seem happier than the corporate types. They smile more easily and their eyes are bright. Maybe it’s like the song “Me and Bobby McGee” says: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose!”
I spotted her walking on Michigan Avenue like she owned the place. I know little about her except that she is of Greek descent and about 80 years old. She appeared to be sober the two times I bumped into her, and she certainly had a flair for makeup and fashion.
I see him around the city. He travels with everything he owns. His fashion sense is interesting. Although dirty and torn a bit, he has this blue suit, and a red one, and a white one. There is always a vest, a pocket handkerchief, and some plastic jewelry, and a hat. Billy is always smiling and good natured. I get the sense that he was once a corporate guy who got fed up and walked away.
Kenny is permanently wheelchair-bound. He squats in an abandoned three-story building with an old wheelchair on each floor. When he has a purpose on a particular floor he crawls on his hands and knees between floors. He was a self-proclaimed thug as a younger man, but has mellowed with age.
BROKE, YET NOT POOR
One may discover a random piano on a curb in Detroit and occasionally play it for a while. I saw this while driving by and immediately jumped out of my car with a camera. It has become one of my most requested images. No explanation necessary.
Michael has movie-star good looks, but most people look away when engaging him, so they will never know. He is wheelchair-bound—he lost both feet from gangrene—and has become a fixture at his regular spot near the freeway. He has a huge following and many donate every time they see him. Sadly he was killed by a hit and run driver who has never been caught…
GERALD T. GREEN
The first time I saw him he was ranting “Take that wedding dress back to your Mother. Your money is no good here!” He did this over and over. Every time after that he ranted another saying over and over and over. Gerald was afflicted with schizophrenia, and cancer of the brain along with a few other types of cancer. He was a kind and gentle soul and I would meet him for breakfast occasionally. I rarely had a clue what he was saying but I felt a level of communication with him. He has passed away, probably from brain cancer.
RODERICK AND POSSUM
Roderick and Possum squat in an abandoned church. Possum has a broken leg and Roderick drives him around on the handlebars of his bike. Roderick loves this dog and takes good care of him even with his limitations.
A 7-year-old girl with beautiful, blue piercing eyes. Her family has fallen on hard times and she amuses herself by rolling a tire or playing with a stick. If her family was doing better they would just write a check and buy something. Under the circumstances, maybe she is more creative than if they had more money. She appears to be happy.
Where is your 18-year-old son at 9:00 A.M. on a Saturday morning? Asleep in bed is the correct answer. Yet, here is Jamal hustling for a job in the middle of Michigan Avenue.
I spent less than a minute with Chuck. He was passing out shopping fliers and I’ve never seen him again. He welcomed the few bucks I passed him.
TYRONE AND VICKI
With a couple of exceptions, we’ve had brutal winters in Detroit for the past seven or eight years. In spite of that, Tyrone and Vicki have survived in a tent near the freeway somehow. They are cheerful and survivors and nice people.
Bruce Giffin is a photographer based in Michigan who describes himself as “a painfully self-taught freelancer for 30 years.” His project “The Face of Detroit” won a 2011 Kresge Visual Arts Fellowship and was nationally lauded.
**A version of this article appeared in print in Honeysuckle Magazine’s HOME issue, spring 2017 edition. Read the entire issue here.