A Fresh Perspective on Detroit: Q&A with Stephen McGee

Since arriving in Detroit in 2005, photographer and filmmaker Stephen McGee has been documenting the city’s momentum.

Stephen McGee taking rooftop photos in Detroit.
Stephen McGee in Detroit | Photo Courtesy of Stephen McGee

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McGee is capturing Detroit’s ongoing evolution in his documentary film, Resurgo – a project that spans almost two decades – and he’s partnered with poet jessica Care moore on multiple occasions. Here, he talks about how Detroit first captured his attention and the narrative that he wants to share about his adopted home city.

Where are you coming to us from today?
I’m at the Detroit Historical Society. It’s an institution I love partnering with because the depth of their archive is still being realized. I also just love that these institutions in Detroit are so accessible to everyone.

What brought you to Detroit in 2005?
Detroit, to me, was just another adventure. I had traveled the world for nonprofit and humanitarian groups and seen the depths of the human experience. When I landed back in California, I realized I didn’t want to take pictures of surfers and the mountains; I felt like I could make a difference in peoples’ lives through photography and filmmaking. The next day, the Detroit Free Press called.

What was the reaction when you told people you were moving to Detroit?
Everybody was like, “No, don't go to Detroit.” Even if they didn't use words they would step backwards and be like, what? Based on the experiences that I had just had around the world, it drew me even more to the city.

What went through your mind when you arrived in 2005?
At that time, the emptiness of the buildings spoke to me. I found comfort in them, and the warmth of the people kept me here.

How did your perceptions of shift as the city evolved?
I fell in love. We had these really well-established institutes, and foundations began heavily investing in the city. In 2015, we were named the first American City of Design by UNESCO, and that became another steppingstone. I started working for different groups that were focused on broadening the narrative arc of Detroit.

At one point in your career you were traveling around quite a bit, but now you’re rooted in Detroit. How does having a community impact your work?
If I had parachuted into Detroit, it would have been a completely different narrative. In my photographs from 2005 to 2010, the people were really small and the buildings were very large – that was my personal approach to life. There wasn’t the warmth or knowledge of getting into people's lives here. But as a white male traveling around this area, I’ve become extremely sensitive to and proactive in having people from local communities telling their own stories. Now I can go anywhere, and I know great people on different blocks. You keep adding on, and the depth of time allows that.

You’ve said before that if you can make it to the inside of Detroit, then you really get the most out of it. What do you recommend for someone who is just visiting for a few days?
You might have to rework how you go about life; if you’re really nice to the waitstaff or bartender or barista, you might get some information about what's going on that night. This is a city where the event flyers on the coffee windows matter, and if you show up you might see the guy who invented techno.

As a dad, where do you like to go out to eat with your family?
We love the places we can walk to in Corktown: Johnny Noodle King, Grandma Bob’s Handmade Pizza and Alba Coffee. Selden Standard is where my wife and I go for date night. I pick up cookies from Sister Pie before we all go out to Belle Isle. On the East Side, Coriander Kitchen & Farm is incredible – I mean, you can paddleboard from there to Belle Isle.

Are there local events or spaces that you recommend?
Paramita Sound has this great event where up-and-coming DJs can sign up for an hour to play; that’s especially cool in the city where techno was invented. There’s an artist named Bryce Detroit who's doing incredible community work on the North End. He and a guy named Jason Hall founded Slow Roll Detroit, where thousands of bikers would come together every Monday to ride bikes. Now that’s changed to Electric Thursdays, where they meet every week at Electric Avenue bike shop to ride around the city.

Do you have vacation spots in Michigan that you like to go to?
When I worked with jessica Care moore for Pure Michigan, I decided I would absolutely bring her to Point Betsie Lighthouse because that’s a place I love from my childhood. When my parents were looking for a place to retire, I suggested Michigan – and they found Elk Rapids on Grand Traverse Bay. I mean, we have more coastline than the entire West Coast, and we have so many wonderful beach towns. I was up in Traverse City and there was this little stand with pies made from all local berries and fresh-baked bread – all you had to do was pick up what you wanted and leave the money. I mean, come on! And then you get to see the fresh water and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and meet all of these nice Northern Michigan locals. When you start putting all of that together, there isn’t any other place that I would want to live.

Find Stephen McGee and more of his incredible work on Instagram.