young blood photography documentary portraiture documentary portrait usa america michigan detroit flint in frame inframe dan farnum aint-bad book photobook

Interview Dan Farnum

Could you explain what « Young Blood » is about?
Young Blood investigates children, teenagers, and young adults raised amidst a backdrop of economic decomposition in the neighborhoods of Michigan’s auto towns. Adolescence and early adulthood are characterized by both fragile uncertainty and exciting potential. I see these same characteristics reflected in the rebuilding process of the region. My project takes a regional look at the process of becoming an adult in economically challenged communities that incorporates places like Saginaw, Flint, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and Ypsilanti, as well as the Detroit metropolitan area. All of these cities were part of the auto industry at some point and have dealt with parallel challenges

How and when this project started? :
I started this project around 2008 or 2009. This project was created over a ten year period. I was working as a professor in Missouri and in Tulsa during this time so I would travel home to Michigan a few times a year to take pictures. It is a large and slow project. There were multiple reasons I started Young Blood. One of the primary impulses to start the project was a response to other photographic work being done in the region. Detroit was primarily being shown as a deserted wasteland, which I found problematic. Most projects also didn’t include other towns in the region. When I started Young Blood, my hometown was also going through a rough time period. For nearly a decade, Saginaw had the most violent crimes per capita in the country. This was calculated by the percentage of the population, but most people didn’t think about Saginaw since it’s smaller than Detroit and Flint. Also, Detroit, in particular, was sometimes shown as a new wild west where anything could happen and was a blank slate for outsiders.

« I felt it was important to do a project that primarily focused on people and portraiture… I enjoyed growing up in Michigan and I wanted to counteract the way it was being portrayed… »

In some ways, there are opportunities for innovation, but I also found this mindset problematic if the existing residents were not included in the changes. Given all these issues I felt it was important to do a project that primarily focused on people and portraiture. There are good people living in these cities, but this was not the national narrative. The way the news depicted issues in the region really isolated residents from receiving reliable support and perpetuated stereotypes. I enjoyed growing up in Michigan and I wanted to counteract the way it was being portrayed. I started this project without thinking about a time frame to complete it, but I am ultimately happy I worked on it for so long. It allowed me to watch the way communities were evolving over time.

You met the youth of Michigan in different towns, How do you approach them?
I find most of my subjects out in the streets, parks, skateparks, and in front yards. More often than not, they actually approach me first. I mostly use a 4×5 field camera and most people haven’t seen one before so they talk to me about it. This is a nice entry point to ask people about their lives and what they are up to. I usually wait to ask to photograph people until we’ve talked about something else for a while.

The young people that you met are they sharing a bit their life with you? Are they hopeless, Full of hope? What do you feel about it?
I think most of my subjects are optimistic and energetic. Most people seem like regular kids with universal interests and hobbies, but they are sometimes living in hard situations. It’s pretty easy to talk with them as a result though. I grew up in one of the towns that I photograph called Saginaw. My family’s situation was stable and I was in a regular middle-class neighborhood. I spent a lot of time skateboarding throughout the city. My dad was a dentist, but he also had an office in a rough neighborhood. He would trade dental work for other things like artwork, hunting equipment, or sports tickets if people didn’t have insurance.

« I think some of my subjects do not completely see the bigger picture regarding their experience until they grow older, which is common for anyone as an adolescent. There are some teens and young adults who do recognize their city’s situation though and are very active in changing it. »

Large parts of my hometown were in challenging circumstances though. It took me moving away for college to be able to see the town for what it actually was. I think some of my subjects do not completely see the bigger picture regarding their experience until they grow older, which is common for anyone as an adolescent. There are some teens and young adults who do recognize their city’s situation though and are very active in changing it. I do find moments of distinct hope as a result. Usually, this is in relation to neighborhoods that have community organizations or ventures like urban farming involved with teenagers. There are also areas that have been sheltered from some of the large financial adversities for one reason or another so not every community is in a dire situation.

What camera did you use? Can you explain more about your daily organization and process?
The majority of this work was shot with 4×5 Toyo and Shen-Hao field cameras. I usually shoot 200-300 sheets over about a week or two on a trip. Some of the early images in the project were created with a Pentax 6×7 camera. It’s been a while since I used that camera, but I’d probably use about 10 rolls of 220 on a trip alongside my field camera. Later in the project, I sometimes used a digital camera with a 4×5 aspect ratio in addition to my field camera. I tried to use mostly large format film, but some situations need to be shot without a tripod and with faster shutter speeds. So I used a full-frame Nikon DSLR for some of the recent images.

What is your favorite or a special moment/photo that still touches you today?
I did this project for so long that I met a lot of people. There are a lot of people that could’ve been in the book, but I had to slim down my edit to fit into a publication. One of the memories that sticks out to me is the portrait of a young urban gardener in my hometown. He had been unemployed for a while. One of his friends had also been murdered during that time span. This guy talked about finding a way to make a better life and improve his community. He started a community garden downtown and also did workshops at the local YMCA. His name was Padraic and he made it into the book. His story was powerful.

How this book « Young Blood » comes to reality? did you contact them?
I met the owners from Aint-Bad a couple of times in person at portfolio reviews. The first time was at Filter in Chicago and the second time was at Review Santa Fe. One of the most important aspects of coordinating this book was working with an agent. Melanie McWhorter does professional consultations and has industry contacts. I worked with her for several months and she helped facilitate the agreement with the publisher. Melanie also runs a bookstore called Grenade in a Jar Books. Melanie was a huge help in making this happen.

What are your photographic influences? back in the days and today?
I have a pretty broad range of influences including documentary photographers and beyond. One of the primary influences is my main graduate school advisor Henry Wessel. I tend to like all the New Topographic people as a result. I also like people like Christian Patterson, Kelli Connell, Doug Dubois that push the boundary of straight representation and documentary truth. Concerning portraiture, I am a big fan of Alec Soth, Paul D’Amato, Rineke Dijkstra, and Dawoud Bey

« My desire to photograph is directly related to caring for people and places. I want to change people’s perceptions of misunderstood communities and humanize them. »

Can you tell me what makes you want to shoot? meaning what draws you to take a photo of someone or something?
I am usually photographing things I deeply care about. I am passionate about photography as being a tool for change and equality. My desire to photograph is directly related to caring for people and places. I want to change people’s perceptions of misunderstood communities and humanize them. My individual choices are linked to those concerns. I like learning about people and sharing that with viewers.

What are your top 5 books?
In no particular order, these are my 5 favorite books. This was a hard question since there are so many books that I love.

Robert Frank’s The Americans
Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi
Dana Lixenberg’s Imperial Courts
Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX
Dawoud Bey’s Class Pictures


Interview by Kalel Koven

Photographer’s Links: Website / Instagram
Dan Farnum’s book « Young Blood » published by Aint-bad