My commitment to social justice is the backbone of my documentary and teaching practices.
In early 2014, I moved back to the Detroit region, where I was raised. Due to the city’s bankruptcy proceedings, mainstream national media was regularly featuring stories on Detroit’s decline. This coverage, however, focused on two main narratives: that Detroit’s bankruptcy was due primarily to local corruption, and that the city was a “blank slate.” The stories omitted any historical or journalistic inquiry into who, and what systems gained (and stood to gain again) from Detroit’s long decline. The root causes of Detroit’s situation was well-established by historians like Thomas Sugrue and journalists like Curt Guyette, and intimately understood by activists. The reasons included long-term federal and state disinvestment from cities, redlining—both the more common understanding of barring of black residents from purchasing homes in the same areas as whites, and the lesser understood trend of bond rating agencies downgrading the city’s credit rating as its demographics shifted towards majority black, and subsequent predatory loans on a home and municipal level. All of this should have been obvious to New Yorkers in the wake of the 2009 mortgage foreclosure crisis and Occupy Wall Street, yet root causes remained mostly absent from narrative’s about why the city had hit bottom. I paged through architectural photo essays that aestheticized and naturalized post-industrial decline. I stomached lifestyle features about Dan Gilbert, one of the region’s most prominent subprime lenders, who was “saving the city,” as he purchased scores of downtown buildings at dirt cheap prices. Amidst the voices of artist transplants, tech workers, and real estate developers, the input of long-term Detroiters were no where to be found.
The republican governor had recently appointed an Emergency Manager to the city of Detroit. In cities with unbalanced budgets, Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law allows the state to usurp the power of all locally-elected officials, and appoint a single figurehead whose sole mandate is to balance that local government’s finances by any means necessary. Under Emergency Management, locally-elected officials are left with absolutely no decision making power. This often results in the privatization of public assets, and the layoffs of unionized city workers in favor of non-unionized contractors, and in many cases, increased expenses and debt. In 2013, half of Michigan’s African American residents lived in cities where their locally elected officials had no power. Detroit’s decline and subsequent usurpation of democracy was lubricated by local and national narratives that depicted the 80% black city as lazy, and unable to govern itself. This, I understood, served the best interests of the monied white regional power structure. My intervention as a documentarian was to work with long-term Detroiters to disseminate evidence: stories and facts that countered these narratives.
In January of 2014, I began by reaching out and offering my services as a photographer and videographer to grassroots activists working for housing, water, and economic justice. I entered these activist spaces informed by critiques of representation by Martha Rosler, bell hooks, and Susan Sontag, analyses of how art’s function as a means of community organizing, as articulated Douglas Crimp and Allan Sekula, and with a vision of artistic practices as a container for social relationships, as demonstrated social practice and socially-engaged artists.
I was acutely aware that my family’s wealth was directly connected to the economic distress of many other families. From their home in the exclusively-white suburbs, my grandfather and father had made a small fortune liquidating factories as they were closed.Thus, I developed a set of ethics: I was to listen, in pursuit of collective liberation, and to learn the histories I missed out on as a white kid from Detroit’s suburbs; I would share my skills and tools as a documentarian to aide in the narrative shifting work about Detroit’s history and community—a process that was well underway before I arrived. I would embrace participatory methods in developing works, and would train others in my craft in order to build capacity for self-representation; I would pay my collaborators; I would, however, not produce propaganda—my work would be well researched, and, as such, I would use my access to power structures to contribute to the body of knowledge about the city, for its residents. I would be transparent about my class background and suburban upbringing—in hopes it could inform the work of regional integration. And, I would try to seek out white, affluent audiences, and make them see what they had overlooked in forming long-held belief sets. I would do this with compassion by implicating myself.
During the four years I lived in Detroit, I produced short and feature length documentaries, satirical videos, storytelling platforms, video portraits, news features, music videos and campaign media. I worked in collaboration with legal advocacy organizations, scholars, block clubs, community organizers, investigative journalists, universities, high school students and other artists. My work spanned topics such as water rights, evictions, gentrification, uneven development, environmental justice, senior low-income housing, new economies, community benefits, and immigrant rights. This website archives some of the projects I developed while in Detroit. For non-visual projects, please see my CV on this page, and for more documentary film-based projects, see katelevydocumentary.com