Southwest Detroit's neighborhood of Delray has been in the news a lot lately, due to a long-rumored new bridge to Canada that appears to be finally starting to materialize. When the bridge is built, though, ramps and a planned welcome center will radically change the landscape of the sleepy, post-industrial neighborhood. So photographer Kenny "Karpov" Corbin and journalist Laura Herberg set out to gather the stories of the people who live there, and the results have been gathered into Delray: Beyond Isolation — a multimedia exhibition that takes a close look at Delray before the bridge.
According to Corbin, the media hasn't been telling the whole story of Delray. "They'll send a photographer and grab like one image, and they'll try to get Zug Island in the background, and try to create this, like, Gotham atmosphere," he says. "It's just fake. Like, this person has nothing to do with Zug."
Corbin and Herberg aimed to take a more intimate look at the neighborhood, with Corbin spending almost two months and up to 12 hours a day walking around and meeting people. He admits many initially regarded him with skepticism, but eventually opened up.
"I would say 90 percent of the time they were very understanding to what I was trying to do, and very open to tell their story," he says. "A lot of them would say, 'Oh, I told this story to the Free Press, and nothing happened.'"
Many explained to Corbin and Herberg the ordeal they've been through for more than a decade as officials began to talk about building the bridge — "You know, being bought out or not being bought out," he says. "Like, 'We're going to give you $80,000 for this house' in 2005, and they come back in 2010 and it's, 'We're gonna give you the $80,000 — it's gonna come soon,'" he says.
Some people died before ever seeing the money. Others got tired of waiting for the buyout and moved, only to see their house immediately and mysteriously burn down. Conspiracy theories are plentiful. If Delray residents are skeptical, there's good reason.
Corbin's photos are stark, black-and-white images that convey a lonely community. They show quiet streets, and a cityscape dotted with the remains of disappearing industry. Corbin admits they're dark images, but he thinks they're truthful. "When you walk around ... every resident said that it's very depressing, it's very quiet," he says. "They like that quiet side, but they always talk about how depressing it is. You would just hear the hum of the factories, or you would smell something. You would never hear, like, kids playing."
Corbin shot the photos using only two cameras — a 35mm film camera and a digital camera outfitted with a 35mm film lens. "It's a fixed lens, so there's no zooming," he says. "You really have to get close to your subjects, and I love that."
Corbin says he prefers to photograph people in their homes if possible, even if people are initially shy. "I always try and push it a little bit more because I feel like they'll open up more inside their home, or inside their business," he says. Naturalistic environmental details like that, Corbin says, tell more than any interview ever could. "With that background, I can really tell that story with them," Corbin says.
Originally from Detroit's east side, Corbin got his start with documentary photography in his late teens and early 20s, when he moved to New York for five and a half years to work for promotions for Atlantic Records — a gig he quit after just one year. While there, he became close with the Russian immigrant community, who he found were eager to share their stories with him about leaving the Soviet Union for New York.
"I met some really interesting Russian guys, like playing chess in the park, and I just kept hanging out with them and photographing them," he says. "They would take me around and introduce me to people, bars, restaurants, little bakeries. They'd introduce me to little old ladies, take me down into cafés that had a secret floor, and they'd all be gambling or selling caviar. They let me go into this little world, and I would photograph it."
When he moved back to Detroit, he kept at it. The 29-year-old has paired with WDET before (this project will also be shared on WDET's channel), and he's recently worked with the BBC, covering Detroit's water shut-offs this summer.
Including the community in the project was top priority for Corbin and Herberg, so they've staged two exhibitions. One was held in the People's Community Services Delray Neighborhood House, and another opening will be held at Detroit's Galerie Camile.
"I always try and have it come back to where it's like a blue-collar story," Corbin says. "To me, that's what built Detroit, and that's what I want to keep telling, because I feel in the next 10, 20 years I don't think we'll have those jobs anymore here."
The shots Corbin took of Delray's factories that are still in business were especially interesting to him. "I love having the people sort of submerged in the machinery they're around, or their environment. It's greasy, it's old, it's beautiful," he says. "To me it's so raw."
The pursuit of that sort of intimacy is what drives Corbin. "I love being in the field. I love talking to these people, and I love hanging out with them," he says. "I feel like I'm closer to my subjects than my actual friends sometimes."
Check out a slideshow of 15 photos from the series here.
Delray: Beyond Isolation opens from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 21 at Galerie Camile, 4130 Cass Ave, Detroit; 313-974-6737; galeriecamille.com. Runs until Nov. 29.
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