Life through a lens

Tuesday 19 August 2014 by Aaron Waterman

A black and white image. A man glances sideways at the camera.

There are so many stories about Detroit being told from an outsider’s perspective. Back in 2009 there was an article in Time magazine that featured the work of two French photographers who came to the city. They celebrated its beauty and despair. That struck a chord with me; I really didn’t find it beautiful – I found it quite depressing. I didn’t feel that these people from the outside were in a position to come into our city and show people’s broken dreams.

Years later, I was approached by Belt Publishing. They wanted to publish a collection of stories and photographs by Detroiters, for Detroiters. It’s called A Detroit Anthology and it’s full of the types of stories you hear in the pub or during a long afternoon hanging out on the porch – life stories.

One of the editors of the book had seen my photography on my website and asked me if I would contribute. In the end, 14 of my images were included – a mixture of structures in downtown Detroit and the people of the city.

I take most of my pictures on photo walks, where I walk around Detroit and speak to people – and then photograph them. The publishers enjoyed my shots of people living and working in Detroit, which made everything seem so much more alive than just showing a building that’s abandoned or burnt out.

A bearded man in avatar shades, raising his index finger to the camera.

Ups and downs

Everyone knows that Detroit’s been through a tough time. It used to be known as “The Paris of the Midwest”. There was a period when it was one of the wealthiest cities in the country, particularly in the early 20th century through to the 1940s and 1950s. It was affluent and full of beautiful buildings and architecture. But in the 1960s, amid the race riots, people began to flee. Couple that with the collapse of the motor industry, that began a decade earlier, and it’s not hard to see why the city’s been in decline ever since.

But things are turning around now. There’s new business and people are moving back to Detroit. This book is about capturing that positivity – and that really aligns with my own photography style.

An image of Detroit's skyline.


I only took up photography in 2010. I was on a video shoot as an account manager for a client and there was a guy on set with a range finder. I had no idea what it was, but he let me play around with it. About a month later, I bought my own.

At first, I thought I might take pictures of the blight around Detroit. So I went downtown to an old abandoned mansion. But as I walked around, it saddened me. People had lived there, raised families there – but their dreams had died there. Instead, I decided to drive around and find interesting people living and enjoying their lives in the city every day. It wasn’t all despair. I started to gain access to rooftops over time to get a different perspective on things. I found that there was – and is – a lot of life in Detroit.

A man in a T-shirt looking away from the camera. Black and white.


I have developed my own style through the years. I like to shoot buildings in black and white – it’s how I see them. It allows me to highlight architectural details and contrasts – and really show them in a positive light. I prefer to shoot people in color. But the book is in black and white. The idea is to bring the dying coffee-table book back to life. People look at images online now. The concept of an $80 coffee-table book struggles to compete with free sites like Flickr or 500px. But this book is at a lower price point in an attempt to entice audiences back.


The book’s been out for two months now and sales are going well. The publisher has hosted a series of talks and events around Detroit – and this month I was one of the guest speakers. That was a little different for me. Because of the deep divide that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s between downtown Detroit and the suburbs – where I grew up – I initially felt like an outsider. But I found that as I spent more time in the city and interacted with people, I felt much more a part of it. I shared my story at the book signing.

The project has opened a few doors for me, which is an unexpected bonus. One of the book’s other photographers is a professional and she’s offered to review my portfolio. I’ve also got a couple of magazine interviews coming up – and I’ve had an offer to appear on a local TV show! But I’m not actively looking for new photography projects; instead I’m looking to hone my craft. I want to attend some workshops to understand more about the inner workings of editorial and fine art photography.

I’m looking forward to continuing my education. My only rule in photography is this: if I’m not interested in it, I won’t shoot it. I’ve certainly had many thought-provoking and rewarding moments since I first picked up that range finder – and playing a part in writing a new chapter in Detroit’s story is right up there.


  • Photography
  • Detroit