Flint is a Place

by Zackary Canepari
Finalist of the 2018 FotoEvidence Book Award with World Press Photo

For the last 5 years I have been working in Flint, Michigan on a project titled, “Flint is a place.” The project is conceived to be an immersive dive into a city that I find more layered, nuanced and important than how it’s commonly portrayed. The Flint work is comprised of portraiture, found photos and reportage and is punctuated by the intimate conversations I've had over the years with the residents.

I’m interested in how ridiculous and terrible what has happened to this city is. There’s something unbelievable and surreal about a place of 100,000 people snarled in this much drama. In the 1980’s Flint had the highest median income in America. Today it is the lowest. The city has consistently been on the FBI’s top ten most violent list and has the highest ratio of abandoned homes in the country. Over 4 decades the city went from being the American dream to the American nightmare.

The work here is meant to convey what it feels like on the ground. Flint no longer needs an introduction, after the past four years and it probably hasn’t needed one for the past 30. Everyone knows what to expect when they hear the name “Flint”. Economic, political and social dysfunction. In a perfect world, this project would be conveying some other reality. But these ideas about Flint are accurate. Flint is a place of struggle. It’s true. But that’s not all it is.

The work documents a community living on the fringe. A place where the abnormal has become normal.
 
Police lights shine on abandoned homes next a homicide scene. The shootout took place on Flint's North side, on a particularly ominous intersection. Police sirens lit up abandoned homes on each corner. Deflated balloons from previous homicide memorials hung limply from street signs. It was a windy night and the police cones meant to mark bullet casings kept blowing down the street, detectives trying to chase them down. This was the 46th homicide in Flint in 2015.

 
People in Flint are so used to just somebody being successful and then falling off. Flint has limits. No one wants to get in the sky and see whats beyond the clouds, type of thing. I think for some people they stop caring. They don’t get out the b.s. because they kind of used to it… and they don’t see no other way of life. Two time Olympic Gold Medal Boxer Claressa "T-Rex" Shields, 20, is arguably the best female boxer in the world. But in 2015, she had to leave Flint and all her family and friends to focus on her career.

 
There are almost always old photos lying on the floors of the abandoned homes in Flint, Michigan. Flint has the highest rate of abandoned homes in the United States. The locals call them "Abandos". They often feel like people left in a tornado. Things are tossed in all the wrong rooms. Cooking utensils are in the bedroom, clothing is in the bathtub, a mattress in the garage. Christmas decorations, clothing hangers and calendars always seem to be still hanging. Almost every house has a bible. I tend to collect things that I find in these houses. Especially photographs like the one seen here.

 
There are almost always old photos lying on the floors of the abandoned homes in Flint, Michigan. Flint has the highest rate of abandoned homes in the United States. The locals call them "Abandos". They often feel like people left in a tornado. Things are tossed in all the wrong rooms. Cooking utensils are in the bedroom, clothing is in the bathtub, a mattress in the garage. Christmas decorations, clothing hangers and calendars always seem to be still hanging. Almost every house has a bible. I tend to collect things that I find in these houses. Especially photographs like the one seen here.

 
"We’ve got like 8 people working at any given time.  For 100K people, there is no way to be proactive.  We’re just scrapping the bottom of the barrel, just trying to keep up.  You get one call, you handle that call, you do the best you can with that call, cause there is nothing you can do about the other 50 calls that are sitting there." Sergeant Robert Frost has been working in Flint for over 12 years and has been fired and then rehired three times do to cutbacks. Ten years ago the Flint Police Department had 300 plus officers. Today it has around 100. That's the least number of officers for any comparable city in America.

 
Officer Bridget Balasko holds a small child while her father is being searched and questioned. The suspect on the left claimed to have just lost his job and didn't have anywhere to go so he was just hanging in his car with his daughter until the child's mother got off of work. At one point, the child was crying and Balasko reached into the suspect's pocket to pull out a pacifier for her.

 
The first homicide I covered in Flint. The body just lay there for hours while the officers on scene waited for detectives and medical examiners. This was the 37th murder of 2015 in Flint and came during a particularly violent stretch where there was 11 homicides in under 2 weeks. There were only 29 in all of 2014 but most of the officers and even the former Chief told me that this was an anomaly. Flint is a violent place and often the police feel that no matter what they do to get the crime numbers down, the murders won't stop.
 
Police cadets train for civil unrest at the Mott Police Academy. It is only a 4 month academy and a handful of these cadets will be joining the Flint Police Department right after graduation. The 4 officers joining Flint PD are the first new officers the PD has had in over 3 years.

 
Two dogs are the victims of a drug raid on Flint's north side. Dogs are extremely problematic during a raid. The barking and the potential of being bitten are often neutralized right away. In this raid, the suspect was found outside sitting in his car. He seemed much more broken up about the dogs than he was about going to jail. While talking to another officer he said, "I knew this day was coming and that was the only thing that I feared. I hate to have it happen to them like that though man. They didn't deserve it".


 
There are almost always old photos lying on the floors of the abandoned homes in Flint, Michigan. Flint has the highest rate of abandoned homes in the United States. The locals call them "Abandos". They often feel like people left in a tornado. Things are tossed in all the wrong rooms. Cooking utensils are in the bedroom, clothing is in the bathtub, a mattress in the garage. Christmas decorations, clothing hangers and calendars always seem to be still hanging. Almost every house has a bible. I tend to collect things that I find in these houses. Especially photographs like the one seen here.

 
I'm like, "I don't care for Obama." Everybody gets so mad. "How can you not care for Obama? He was greatest man, the greatest president, blah, blah, blah." And they all always bring up the fact he black, ain't got nothing to do with me, if he ain't did nothing for me, he's just like the rest of them… he just like them.” Mattek, 19 years old. Politically, Flint has been voting democrat for the last 5 elections. And while the same held true in 2016, the numbers were a lot closer. A big reason was that the number of voters was down. After 8 years of Obama, the situation in Flint deteriorated leaving the residents feeling even more disenfranchised.

 
On November 8th, 2016, election day, friends and family came to pay last respects to Montel Kenyatta Wright, 46, who had been killed in a drug deal two weeks earlier. It was a bust weekend in Flint. Wright was one of three homicides over the weekend.

 
Kamya, Mhy'angel and Jaziah hang at Bluebell Beach in Flint, Michigan. Bluebell is a popular summertime spot in Flint but it is also known as a place with high levels of crime and violence. The county has been working hard to improve the conditions and make it more family friendly.

 
Kamya, Mhy'angel and Jaziah hang at Bluebell Beach in Flint, Michigan. Bluebell is a popular summertime spot in Flint but it is also known as a place with high levels of crime and violence. The county has been working hard to improve the conditions and make it more family friendly.