28 September 2016

Living With Perpetual Dysfunction

28 September 2016 - Written by Veronica Sanchis Bencomo

"But still, people here just keep going.  It’s a real resilient place.  I imagine it’ll be here still, long after I leave with my cameras".

© Zackary Canepari, from the series Flint is a Place

Zackary Canepari is an independent photographer and filmmaker represented by Panos Pictures in London. He began his career working as a photojournalist before joining forces with Drea Cooper to create California is a Place, a documentary film series screened at a number of international festivals including Sundance and IDFA. The pair then went on to launch their first feature documentary, T-Rex, which follows Olympic boxer Claressa, before producing Robotica for The New York Times. Zackary is currently working on his long-term interactive web project Flint is a Place; a series which explores the economic, political, and social dysfunction that abounds in Flint, Michigan.

How did you begin to work on your project, Flint is a Place?

This project actually began with another project about Flint. T-Rex ( is a feature documentary about a teenage girl from Flint co-directed by myself and Drea Cooper. Claressa is her birth name and she’s a boxer. In fact, she might be the best female boxer in the world. Any time you make a long form project like that, you leave with the feeling that there was more to discover and look into, so I did.

First, I started working with Claressa’s sister and then from there the project just grew. At this same time, not all of the things I was seeing lent themselves to traditional story telling models. Photo essays and films, but also installations, virtual reality and interactive elements were also necessary to make this project about Flint the way I was seeing it.  

© Zackary Canepari, from the series Flint is a Place

How did you gain trust and access during this project?

Time time time. It wasn’t particularly hard. The people there were always pretty open to what I was doing. But I wasn’t trying to crack into an unknown secret society. I mostly just wanted to hang out and take pictures with people. People are generally receptive to that if you communicate with them. At this point I’ve been here for a while, so lots of people know me.

In your statement you mentioned that Flint is a failed place, but with a lot of character and that was the part you wanted to focus on. Can you elaborate more on that?

I don’t know. It sounds like a cliche almost, or like I’m trying to sugar coat it. But I just found that people were just switched on here. Funny. Street smart. Tough. Open and honest. Quick to talk and crack a smile. Flint certainly has a bruised exterior, but the people were nothing but cool and friendly.  

Then again, I think the water crisis and the work we’ve been doing with the police department has really opened my eyes to the level of poverty here. So many people here are on the fringe. Lately, it’s been getting harder to stomach. And it’s been going on so long, its begun to feel like the norm. Crime and addiction and jails and poverty and welfare and poor governance and mistrust of the system are just part of the social fabric. And since the water crisis, it just feels worse. A lot of the trust has eroded. Not with me necessarily but sort of with everything.  

But still, people here just keep going. It’s a real resilient place. I imagine it’ll be here still, long after I leave with my cameras.  

© Zackary Canepari, from the series Flint is a Place

Why do you think this community in Michigan differs from any other you have photographed in before?

Lots of other communities are dealing with similar problems as Flint but in Flint, it always seems like everything is happening at once. Decades of systematic dysfunction has left the city with deep wounds. And its easy to track the connections. Automative manufacturing leaves and jobless, crime and instability settle in. Politicians and governments mismanage the resources and it leads to a health crisis. It’s all so contained here.

The city is surrounded by freeways on all four sides and beyond those highways are functioning communities. But inside that circle is about 100k citizens with about 100 years of incredibly difficult American history under the belt. But somehow, that history has kept many people from leaving here. Like a magnet. For better or for worse, they stay here.  

© Zackary Canepari, from the series Flint is a Place

You have covered quite a variety of fields as a visual artist, such as film making, commercial, photojournalism, and documentary photography. How do you separate one from another?

Its all storytelling at the end of the day. You find a story you want to tell and then you find a medium that feels like the right fit. Learning the medium is the hardest part, especially for a technical knucklehead like myself. But I’m a willing collaborator and always trying to bring in people to help tell the story. I make it sound easy and of course, it’s not. But honestly, I really truly love doing this work. Which helps. The camera or tool I use to do it is becoming less important to the experience I have and the story I tell.

To learn more about this project, visit Zachary's PHmuseum profile.

Written by

Veronica Sanchis Bencomo

Reading time

6 minutes

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