Beyond the pain of a city in crisis

Zackary Canepari strives to capture the ethos of Flint, Michigan, in photos and videos


It all began with a boxer. 

Claressa Shields was a rising boxing star in her hometown of Flint, Michigan, where photographer and filmmaker Zackary Canepari was working on “T-Rex,” a documentary about her life inside and outside of the ring. The film followed her journey to the London Olympics in 2012, where she became the first woman to win a gold medal in boxing.

As Canepari wrapped up filming, he realized there was a much larger story to tell about Flint, a city that had not yet felt the full effects of the water crisis for which it is now known. In 2014, the city changed its water source to the Flint River, exposing residents to extremely high levels of lead through corroded pipes.

“At the end of that film, I felt that her story was so triumphant that it overshadowed Flint,” Canepari said.

From there, Canepari embarked on an audiovisual journey throughout the city. He collaborated with other filmmakers and photographers on short documentaries and photo stories about myriad aspects of life there — including prom, the water crisis, and the Genesee Valley Regional Center, a juvenile detention facility. 

Canepari also worked on a short documentary about Claressa’s younger sister Briana, who would often get mistaken for Claressa, but had her own story to tell.

‘A real journey’

“There were all these individuals that weren’t Claressa, but they still had a real journey that they were on in this city,” Canepari said.

Those photographs and videos are presented in “Flint is a Place,” a new multimedia exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Center on Courtlandt Avenue, on view until May 27.

The exhibition — which also exists as an episodic, cross-platform series online — presents a kaleidoscopic view of life in Flint. Clusters of photographs and text adorn the gallery walls, all of which are punctuated by video displays showing different episodes Canepari and his collaborators created over the last several years.

Canepari knew the story of Flint couldn’t be told through one medium alone.

“You have to adapt your brain to the story and what the best medium for that story is,” he said.

Water crisis

The city is in the public consciousness now for the water crisis that began four years ago, and while major media organizations have covered the crisis extensively, Canepari and his team were not that interested in presenting just another news report. 

The second episode of “Flint is a Place,” an interactive documentary about the water crisis, is deeply experiential with its languid, close-up shots of water dripping into a sink and pouring out of a faucet, of clothes in the washing machine, and of a woman washing a baby in a sink with bottled water. 

The effect is chilling, because while the water looks normal, it contains an invisible danger.

“We wanted to talk about the psychological space that the water created,” said Jessica Dimmock, Canepari’s co-director on this particular episode.

In times of crisis, people have to keep living. The part of the exhibition that perhaps best exemplifies this is the series of portraits on the far wall of the gallery of high school students in their prom outfits, which also is the third episode of the series. The stylized portraits have the feel of a magazine spread, elevating their subjects above their circumstances. 

Next to the portraits, a projector plays footage of the prom-goers. 

“Prom was never a short film,” Canepari said. 

“It was always meant to be this photo-video mix to create a collage, a quilt, that celebrates the style and tone of that tradition.”

Beyond the news

The exhibition presents a portrait of Flint that goes beyond what any one news story can reasonably tell. There are also found photographs that give the impression that no matter how comprehensive the story may be, it can never be completely told.

“What I’ve imagined this project being is a spider web that captures and drags people in through these different types of stories,” Canepari said.

“Flint is a Place” is part of a larger body of work Canepari has put together on the once dominant car manufacturing Michigan city, where he lived for two years. That includes the documentary “T-Rex” and the Netflix series “Flint Town,” which Canepari worked on with Dimmock and Drea Cooper that premiered earlier this year. “Flint Town” tells the story of the city’s embattled police department as it struggles with understaffing and underfunding while residents are coping with the water crisis among a host of other problems. It will have a screening and discussion with Canepari and Dimmock at the Bronx Documentary Center on May 20.

“Flint is a Place” is ultimately about the people who make the city what it is, and how they’re pushing through seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

“Flint is a place that doesn’t let up,” Dimmock said.