Page 23



ll too often, photography about struggling American cities devolves into—or, perhaps begins as nothing more than—ruin porn. Such work reduces complex

The history of documentary photography representing

issues, major problems we must collectively grapple with,

poverty is long and storied but also intensely problematic.

to the deterioration of buildings. Decontextualized images

Some of the most iconic and impactful images of the 20th

of crumbling schools and rusting factories serve simply to

century emerged from the WPA photographers working

distract from the human impact: the students transferred

during the Great Depression. Many of their subjects

into another crowded classroom, the auto worker left

however, were granted little agency in the way they or their

without a job. Rather than communicating the nature of

families were represented. More recently, the efficacy of

life in these cities, work like this implies that there is no

photography as a means to prompt social change has

longer any life to be found. Out of sight, out of mind.

been called into question and even dismissed outright. This is a history Juan Madrid is acutely aware of and one

Juan Madrid takes a different tact. The boarded-up

whose pitfalls he works to avoid.

businesses, the lots overgrown with weeds, the visual hallmarks of the ailing American city, are certainly there


to be found but, they are not the ultimate goal. Madrid

own writing as well as interviews with people from



presents us with such elements not for the sake of


aesthetics but for the symbolism and context they can

photojournalistic narrative that simply tells viewers a

provide. These signs of blight are not arbitrary traces of

story, Madrid seems more interested in pushing his

destruction but thoughtful allusions to the larger forces

audience to think critically about broader issues. “I

at work in contemporary America and to the future

want people to think for themselves when they see the

prospects of places like Flint, Michigan.

photos,” he says, “to really think about what this country



will away

include from

Madrid’s traditional

is all about and how it functions.” Madrid is clear in his Madrid has been photographing in Flint since 2012 when

intentions but has no illusions about the limitations of

he first visited his friend and fellow photographer Brett

the medium. He is forthright about his own uncertainty

Carlsen. Madrid and Carlsen have been collaborating ever

but appears committed to continuing his work in Flint.

since, each approaching Flint with his own photographic

A conversation he had with a man named Flint offers

voice but editing together and producing a combined

insight into Madrid’s aims. “After I took this portrait,”

Welcome to Flint color newsprint publication, set to be

Madrid says, “Flint explained his lost soul tattoo. He

released in August 2014. There’s a certain matter of

wanted to make it clear that he’s not a lost soul, but that

factness to the title, a tone that is reflected in the work

‘we’re all lost souls if we don’t try to change what’s wrong

itself. Madrid’s depiction is unflinching but does not

in the world. We’re better off dead if we don’t care.’” •

lean on shock value. His images are smart and nuanced without feeling inaccessible. They are undramatic in their color and composition but avoid the cold, dispassionate tone that so frequently accompanies this style. Madrid’s photographs of memorial murals or of howling pitbulls establish a compelling context but it is his portraits that make us care about this context and motivate us to investigate further. Imbued with humanity, these portraits emerge as the true heart of Welcome to Flint. Madrid’s portraiture suggests a genuine compassion toward his subjects. The portraits appear neither callous nor patronizing. Madrid allows those he depicts to live within the frame, to address the camera directly and on their own terms, or not at all.


ISO Magazine #11: TRACES  
ISO Magazine #11: TRACES