MISSY ZIEBART // BRIGHTMOOR PORTRAIT PROJECT                Interview by Andrea Kaminski, DCCP Director of Online Media

AK: How did your view of Detroit change after your first visits? What did you find to help shape your new opinion?

MZ: As a Milwaukee native and very unfamiliar with Detroit, my only impression of the city came from major media outlets and the work of other artists; many who were primarily focusing on urban decay and the ruins of the city. After witnessing the city for myself, I was inspired by the tenacity and perseverance of the people I was meeting along the way. I met people who were not going to stand around and wait for change to happen, but instead took it upon themselves to make the changes they saw needed to be done. I even had the pleasure of meeting Grace Lee Boggs on her 99th birthday and she shared with me that true change has to start from the bottom and that was what I was seeing firsthand.

AK: Why did you decide to venture into Brightmoor and what inspired you to return and create this series? Why did you choose Brightmoor rather than another neighborhood in Detroit?

MZ: I had visited Brightmoor, specifically the Brightmoor Farmway, on my second visit after doing some research about individuals who were reshaping their immediate environment and the Farmway was a place where urban ecology and community intervention was flourishing. Initially, the project was going to incorporate environmental portraits of people reshaping the spaces around them. I sought out people from all over Detroit, and in so doing I discovered Riet Schumack, who works with Neighbors Building Brightmoor and the Brightmoor Alliance within the Brightmoor Farmway. I appreciated how this neighborhood took issues into their own hands and did not wait for city officials to address the blight and public dumping. Through the efforts of volunteers and neighbors, colorful murals were painted on boarded up vacant houses, areas victim of illegal dumping were cleaned up, and parks, gardens, theaters and other public spaces were created in many of the vacant lots. It was inspiring to see a community come together in such a way for the greater good. My portrait project could have been done in a variety of neighborhoods, but I felt such a connection to Brightmoor that I chose to focus on the people of this place.

AK: Throughout Detroit’s history, there has been significant resistance to outsiders. How did this affect your project and did you find any difficulty in your interactions as a result?

MZ: This was an issue that was constantly on my mind. I had many conversations with Dave Jordano, who is a photographer doing great work in Detroit, and he told me if I was going to tell a story about Detroit it had to be one that hasn't been told. As I was working on a community piece, especially one that was going to remain in their space after I left, I had to make sure it would be something the community embraced and appreciated.

AK: Why did you choose portraiture to be the medium of this project?

MZ: The people were the source of my inspiration. I wanted a way to interact directly with the community and give something back for how I was affected during my first visits. I wanted share with others the spirit I encountered in I chose a simple, neutral background for the portraits in order to focus solely on the individual, without any competing elements.

AK: Tell me a bit about your photographic process. Where were these portraits shot and how did you go about gathering these subjects? Were there any obstacles in achieving your vision in this project?

MZ: Living in a different city and having to travel back and forth, while still being in school and having to work part-time, this part proved to be the most challenging. I had to rely on the relationships that I made, as well as help from others to organize opportunities for portrait sessions. It really became a group effort and it felt wonderful to be welcomed into these communities. I held portrait sessions in Brightmoor, Hamtramck and Redford during existing community based events there, so then it became a matter of generating awareness about the sessions.
The project was open to anyone who wanted to participate and everyone was included in the final installation. During the sessions I had a space set aside, big enough for a backdrop, chair, softbox, and tripod, and I made the portraits there.

AK: There is a wide range of people photographed for this project. Did you find any challenges in your interactions from person to person?

MZ: I would say that the biggest challenge was to wait to allow the true nature of the person to show through. When put in front of the camera, many would naturally perform, so with the little time I had with each person, I wanted them to feel as comfortable as possible which allowed them to relax. Although this did not occur in all of the portraits, with the ones that did, something extremely special starts to occur and you really see the person within coming through.

AK: Did you form any relationships with the subjects during your shoots? 

MZ: I did form relationships with many of the participants. Early on, I made a Facebook page for the project and I posted a new portrait each day, using that platform to share a small bit of our interaction during the shoot Social media proved to be a great way for the participants to reach out to me, and to share their portrait with their friends and family. Everyone was very easy to work with and happy to be there. It was because of the relationships that I formed, especially with Riet Schumack, the ladies at the Java Motor City Java and Tea House, as well as John George and the Motor City Blight Busters.

AK: Where were these photographs installed around the neighborhood? Did you receive any feedback from the community regarding the installations?

MZ: The project is currently installed in three locations that represent community or once did. In Brightmoor an old carwash and ice cream stand were used and the location in Redford is installed on a wall across from a community garden/park. All of the final portraits are cropped hexagonally and wheat pasted in honeycomb patterns at the locations. The number six can be symbolic of communication, balance, strength and unity, which were all traits I found prominent within the people I encountered. I was approached many times by curious residents during the installation process. After I shared the project’s intentions with them, they indicated that it tapped into the hopeful spirit so present within the people of Detroit.

AK: Do you have any future plans for interacting with this community or continuing this project?

MZ: I am working with Hamtown Farms, a community garden in the Hamtramck neighborhood, to create a new installation on their property next summer. I would certainly love to continue the project and welcome the opportunity to spend more time in Detroit.

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