Brett Carlsen: A positive picture doesn’t have to be a kid on a new playground or a college graduate. It could be a woman working her first job since kicking a crack addiction or a young man worshipping in church or people partying in a club because they have work off the next day. These things are positive and they matter a lot more, I think. I don’t want to stick on a bandaid of happiness when I know a kid has to walk 10 blocks to go buy candy for dinner because he can’t get to a grocery store. I’m sorry, that makes no sense to me at all.
R&K: You’ve photographed Flint for more than a year now. How have you seen the place change?
Juan Madrid: I’ve been in and out of the city on short trips. I was there in June for the whole month and actually just left this past Thursday after a two week stay. It doesn’t seem to be changing a whole lot (at least the areas I usually haunt). An abandoned building at a bus stop where I always hang out got burned down. That was kind of a strange experience. Most of the people I interact with are stuck in the city and they know it, so they just try to make the best of what they have.
Flint served a 10 year prison sentence for a gang-related murder he committed at the age of 18. Now in his late 30s, he tries to help youths stay away from the drugs and violence. Photo by Juan Madrid.
R&K: You’ve shown a strong desire to involve the community in the Welcome to Flint project. Can you talk about why that’s important?
Brett Carlsen: I’m real sick of masturbatory photojournalism, the whole ‘hey everyone, look at these pictures I made, they are great, let’s all talk about how great this book will be!” And then we all buy it and we all put it on our shelf or reblog it or whatever and nothing happens and that’s it. I hate it. I want to make work that people can hold and see and talk about and get pissed at or be pumped on. It needs to be a discussion point on multiple levels, and accessible to all.
Juan Madrid: I went through the fine art photo program at RIT so I got more of a taste of the art world and what that means. I’ve really grown to hate it and the idea that money needs to rule everything you do. I think involving the community in some way creates a much easier path to conversations about what’s wrong and what can be done to fix it. I agree with Brett about getting people pissed too. A lot of photo books these days get dissected and talked about conceptually and I hate the abstraction of photography further than it already is. I want to try and bring it closer to having a tangible affect on physical reality, not some metaphysical wanderings of academics.
Nubbz and his son. Nubbz lost his hand and forearm from saving his daughter from a firework. Photograph by Juan Madrid.
R&K: So, in a little more detail, how are you guys planning to achieve that?
Brett Carlsen: Mostly through self portraits and still lives of our girlfriends. No, that’s sarcasm. I think by photographing real life to start. We aren’t illustrating things or conceptualizing. I’m shooting people’s lives unadulterated. Juan is finding real things, landscapes, portraits, still lives. Then, we want to deliver it in an affordable manner. Our product will be distributed for free in some manner to people in Flint, whether through the art museum or something else. But it needs to be in the hands of people in the city, not in a $30-$100 book that is sold somewhere else. The iPad app will be highly affordable, but no official discussion has been made yet.
Two young men on the east side of Flint. Photograph by Juan Madrid.
Juan Madrid: I’m in contact with an organization that goes to underprivileged cities and teaches children photography. An idea was to do a split exhibition where we would show our photos but also have the kids show theirs. Unfortunately that won’t happen in the immediate future because the organization is tied up with other cities but I’m hoping we can do that at some point. We’ve also given a lecture at Yale. I think that kind of platform is a good way to actually get practicing artists thinking about how their work can actually have an effect on the world around them rather than aim for gallery shows and cater to an art world more focused on profit.