Noah Stephens Plans Photographic Tour Of Detroit Grocers, Looking for Fresh Food

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Noah Stephens' photo of the Honey Bee Market in Southwest Detroit

Detroit is a food desert. Or so says the conventional wisdom.

Photographer and blogger Noah Stephens, creator of The People Of Detroit, intends to test the notion that Detroiters lack access to fresh and healthy food with an intensive photo study of all 111 grocery stores within the city limits. 

The question of food access is a deeply personal one for Stephens, as he explains in his proposal for The Food Desert Project.

The People of Detroit: I remember how The Price is Right played as [my grandmother] made eggs and bacon for breakfast, I remember how the Young and the Restless played as she made porkchops for lunch. How the Wheels of Fortune spun as she soaked ham in collard greens for dinner.

I remember how delicious it all was.

I also remember my grandmother's heart attack. I remember her triple bypass surgery. I remember her stroke. I remember her death.

I remember all of this when I, as an adult, eat oatmeal for breakfast.

But Stephens isn't entirely sold on the idea that Detroiters lack access to fresh and healthy food. Maybe people "just like potato chips," as he puts it. 

This effort is an extension of Stephen’s nationally-recognized The People of Detroit project, which aims to photograph Detroit on a human level, so to speak. The People of Detroit began as a response to the numerous photographic projects documenting Detroit’s abandoned buildings that often ignores the city's residents.

Stephens began The Food Desert Project at Honeybee Market in southwest Detroit.  He's got 110 more markets to go. He’s currently raising funds to pay for the production and display of the entire 111-grocer trek. The project has secured a microgrant from The Awesome Foundation and has a KickStarter campaign underway.

Deadline Detroit talked with Stephens food deserts, his goals for his new project, and next steps.

Noah StephensDD: Food access seems like one of those issues that’s talked around, are their any assumptions or preconceived notions that you hope this study, not necessarily debunks, but tests or challenges?

NS: I hope this challenges the notion that people in low-income areas have an unhealthy diet because they lack access to healthy food. Perhaps this is true. I've set out to create a visual survey of every grocery store in this city to provide a definitive look at the food options available to people in a post-industrial city commonly regarded as a food desert.

DD: What are your own assumptions that you hope this project tests?

NS: I grew up on welfare in Highland Park. I've lived in Detroit for the majority of life. I've never been rich. Yet, I've always managed to find healthy food to eat. I assume that people who come from the same background I do, don't eat healthy food because they don't want to eat healthy food.

I also recognize that assumption could be wrong. Maybe people really, really want apples and oranges throughout Detroit but only have access to potato chips and cake. I'm excited to actually go out and see how other people in Detroit experience shopping for food and to see how their experiences compare to my own.

DD: What about the visual medium makes it the right way to your mind to tackle this subject?

NS: My goal with this project, is to provide a visceral sense of what its like to shop for healthy food at any given store. I can think of no more arresting way to do so, than through the visual medium. Well, smells would help too, but my camera doesn't do smells.

DD: You say you hope to “photograph every grocery store in the city of Detroit, the produce selection therein, at least one patron of each store, and the path that patron takes to get to the store.” How did you decide on those aspects of the food experience to document?

NS: I want to create an overall sense of the store, the community it inhabits, the food it offers, and the people who shop there. I believe I can represent those things fairly accurate by photographing and writing about those four things. I especially think the path taken to the store is important, as it gives you a sense of what it means to actually get to the store if you do not have a vehicle.

DD: Are there any comparable photo projects (not necessarily food or Detroit) that you've modeled this effort on?

NS: There may be. I am not consciously aware of any. I say "consciously aware" because so often we see something in passing, file it away in our subconscious only to subconsciously be motivated by it later on. That said, I think photographic series focused around a unifying theme make for compelling projects. I think there is something about the human psyche that likes to organize and compare things to similar things. Grocery stores are the "thing" in this case.

DD: With 111 grocery stores in 56 days, that’s basically two grocers a day, how many hours will be needed the photography portion of this project, never mind editing, writing, etc?

NS: I'm planning a 5-day work week, so it would actually be 111 grocery stores in 40 days. That works out to about three stores a day. I anticipate spending at least 2 hours on each store and each store's representative patron. That rounds out to about 240 hours just dedicated to shooting and traveling between shoots.

DD: When it’s complete, what the plans for publishing, showing the finished product? Will it be on The People Of Detroit or will the project have its own web home?

NS: Over the course of project, select essays and photos will be published to TPOD. When it is complete, the entire project will live on a dedicated website. From that website, people will be able to vote on the stores they would most like to shop for healthy food at. The top three and the bottom three as determined by that vote will have their respective images printed and shown in a public exhibition.

As funding permits, I would also like to do a short-run coffeetable book.

DD: What's the timeline to start the project and publish?

NS: Once the budget is secured, I'll start the eight-week production schedule. I hope to spend at least four weeks in postproduction. Thereafter, I hope to have the dedicated website up and running.

DD: How does this project affect the evolution/growth of The People Of Detroit?

NS: The People Of Detroit's mission has always been to cause people to rethink what it means to live in Detroit and be a Detroiter. I think The Food Desert is a natural extension of that mission.

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