Sunday, January 18, 2009

Flint Portraits: Justin Clanton

Justin Clanton, Self Portrait.

Anyone from Flint knows how easy it is for a city and its residents to get lost in the economic shuffle. Sure, we may take a certain pride in being from a place like Flint. After all, you earn some street cred coming from a town famous for its catastrophic fall from prosperity — when little kids could learn to drive at Safetyville and there was so much cash in the city coffers that free harp lessons were available to anyone who wanted them — to the unofficial capital of the Rust Belt, a strange netherworld where the locals sell rabbits for "pets or meat." But deep down, I think most of us are still wondering how the hell all this was allowed to happen. It's the same feeling the residents of New Orleans had in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Outsiders seem to forget there are actual people living in Flint with stories to tell. It's not just an abstract example of economic decline or some sort of urban planning cartoon. I think that's one of the reasons why I was instantly drawn to Justin Clanton's photos and writing. He has a series called "A Walk in the Park" that chronicles the people he meets in downtown Flint. Over beer and cigarettes, he manages to gets their stories. With this collection of photos, along with his other portraits of friends and family, this kid from Mt. Morris shows that Flint is still there. It's not exactly doing well, but it's alive and kicking.

Here's a brief interview with Justin with a few of his photos:

How did you get started taking photos?

I got into photography because I was pretty pumped on a skateboard photo I saw that a buddy of mine, Kevin Saari, had taken back when I was in the 11th grade. My father, Bruce (pictured at left with Kristy the dog) was excited that I was interested in photography. It had also been a great hobby of his, so he seemed eager to back me on my decision to start shooting photographs. He taught me the basics and pretty much anything you see in my photographs today. My father has been the best teacher I've ever had in the field of photography.

Do you have a grand vision for your work? An elaborate artistic manifesto?

As for my "approach" and "artistic vision," I don't think I really have one. I just go out and photograph people that interest me. (Whitney LaBarge, left.) I'm not a fan of shooting trees, flowers, clouds, and parking lots. I prefer the breathing subjects such as people, and well, just people. Had I stayed in college I probably could have answered this question better but well, I just do what I do.

How do you prepare yourself for a project like this?

I'm not enrolled in any colleges right now. I'm not exactly sure on what I want to pursue in life, so I'm not too keen the idea of spending a load of money on classes that I may not even need. I did however do a few courses in photography at Mott Community College, which I feel was a complete waste of time and money. Although I don't live in Flint, I think I have a pretty good understanding about how things work downtown and in the “rougher” parts of town. Buddies of mine and I started taking the bus (MTA) downtown in the summer between 8th and 9th grade just to skateboard. Now we've grown up and drive down there, but it's a pretty much constant thing to do whenever the weather permits. Skateboarding, walking around, exploring, getting into a little trouble, etc.

How did you come up with the idea for "A Walk in the Park"?

I was just having an off day and bummed out, so I went downtown to the River Bank Park with my sister because she wanted to walk her dog. I saw Neal Peterson throughout the park sitting here and there but didn't give it much thought. When my sister left, I had a few beers in my backpack, so I offered him one and we just got to talking. A few moments later I asked if I could photograph him and he said sure. After that we continued to talk and exchange stories for a good two hours.

For about two months straight I had been working six days a week — pretty much non-stop — so I didn't get out to do much. After I got a break from working, I just had a bunch of money saved so I would just go downtown most everyday, even if I had to work. I'd get a couple beers or something and go to the park and just relax — enjoy the sun and the weather and the trees. If you're down there enough you start to recognize familiar faces and they start to recognize you.

It was a nice balance of an attitude of "I wonder if this person has a story to tell" and boredom. I would be the only one of my friends that really enjoyed just sitting on a park bench, so I didn't have anyone to talk to. A little bit of beer helped to loosen me up and to relax the nerves. Of course, there are always those uncomfortable times because you don't know this person or what they'll do, I mean, it's hard times right now. I met a guy that told me if I had done this (talking, listening, and photographing) two years ago he would have robbed me for any money I had, even if it were a dollar. So there's always that thought in the back of my mind, of what could happen. But then again, you only live once, and I don't think I'm really ready to give up my camera. My father tells me I have a strong judge of character, and I feel I know what some people would and wouldn't do.

Getting a photograph isn't always what I have set out to do when I talk to people. Sure it was the first one or two times, because it's what I went down there for. Then I met Michael (left) and when I left the first day to go skateboard around he thanked me and said "You know man, thank you. Thank you for just listening to me. Us homeless people, we don't have many friends, so we don't have many people to talk to." After that, my only intention was to go down there and help these people, even it wasn't giving them money or food, but just something as simple as listening to them talk and laughing with them. I've only got seven portraits for this series but I've probably talked to at least a dozen people. A few didn't want me to photograph them but I still stayed and talked, and I talked with them the next day. A few people I didn't even bother asking as I was just pleased enough to have the conversation and hear about New York bars and wild stories of how some people live. But even after I get the photo, it doesn't stop there. I was downtown a lot then and I'd see most these people on the daily basis and they'd talk and I'd listen. It didn't stop just because I got a photograph.

What does the future hold for Flint?

I don't know how to really describe the city to be honest. I love it, like I actually really enjoy Flint. There's always something going on and you can get away with pretty much anything considering the police have much, much larger things to worry about — murders, drugs, and crime. As for the general outlook and future of Flint, I don't see it doing well. My mother works for the Flint Schools and every year I hear about more job cuts they're having to make because kids just aren't going to school. If the kids aren't in school, the state doesn't give the district money; schools have to close leaving people without jobs, and without jobs, people go to the streets. Once you're in the streets, I can see that it's hard to get back on your feet. Worried? I don't know if that's really the word I'd choose to describe it, but that's just because I'm not the type of guy who worries about things. I just let things roll out and happen how they happen.

A Walk in the Park

September 2008
Flint Michigan
Neal Paterson

This is Neal Peterson. I saw Neal while walking downtown w/ my sister and walking her dog; He was sitting on a ledge and I later learned he was charging his phone on a public outlet because it had just recently died. He lives off Colorado Ave. on the east side of Flint where he so desperately wants to move out from. When I asked him where he's been in life he said he's responded w/ San Francisco, Florida, Atlanta, and Flint. He said he always ends up back in Flint and doesn't know why.

When I gave him a beer he was more than pumped and started to roll a cigarette. I ended up giving him my lighter because he was using matches and frankly, I don't even smoke.

We had got to talking and I found out he was thirty years old, he has one sister that is thirty-four years old and one that is forty years old and lost his mother in 2004 to Lupus. He told me "insurance is very important and that there are so many people w/out it." Neal told me his mother lived thirty-one years longer than doctors had expected her to.

When I had asked Neal what he'd do if he won the lottery or just got four million dollars he had said he'd buy a large building, renovate it and open it up to the homeless or anyone that wants to come through; "You know, feed the homeless and help people out in hard times." I then asked him where he'd do this at and he responded w/ "Right here man. Flint. The government spends millions of dollars a month on war to help these other people and yet they can't even help the people on their own land." I wish I could have helped this man out more than I could at the moment.

I ended up giving him my last beer, then leaving just to return w/ a forty of PBR for Neal as well as for myself and we continued to talk. He said his grandpa drank PBR religiously (I couldn't blame him). Neal asked me how Kalamazoo was because he had the offer to live there w/ a buddy and a job lined up. I told him it was like a Miller Road area (nice houses, nice neighborhood, etc) and told me that is what two other people had said and that sounded nice. Much nicer than the east side of Flint. I didn't disagree.

When we took this photograph he had the beer behind his back saying "Wait, you don't want the beer in the shot I know." and I replied w/ "No, it's cool. It's how we're living" and he put on a little smile.

For information on purchasing Justin Clanton's work, go to his Flickr page here. You can also email him for more information: justin(dot)clanton(at)gmail(dot)com.
"A Walk in The Park" series prints are $40, with half going back to the subject themselves. Justin writes: "I've got phone numbers for some people, and addresses (mostly to their parents' home, as they themselves don't have an address) for others. If I have neither, I try my damnedest to look for them downtown and around the vicinity to get them their money to help them out. Other prints go for various amounts depending on if they're mounted, size, and all the other variabilities"


  1. hey, Good for Him! I LOVE this kind of interaction between people. But, Justin should be aware that not all of the street Peoples are as hospitable as the few encounters He's had. yeah, sure the word gets around amongst the regulars, but shit can happen. Bon Chance, Hommes!

  2. You're doing good work, Justin, and it's fantastic to see your efforts and your interest so keep at it! But I gotta go with bustdup: keep your eyes open.

  3. Hey thanks guys (and gal). I am well aware of what can and could happen out there.

    Throughout the years of going downtown I've seen some wild situations erupt and can kind of predict when things can happen again.

    I feel people out before asking to take their photo, and I watch them from a distance well before I even talk to them. I try to get a respective as to why the person is down there, if they seem to be on anytime at the time, and just gather general knowledge.

    I know anything can happen at any moment and I try to stay safe. Getting mugged isn't in my agenda. Thank you for the concerns though, as well as the kind words.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at