Personal Project: Stephen Voss

A photojournalist brings the harsh realities of Detroit’s abandoned schools to harrowing light.

Detroit school district

Detroit school district

This gutted hallway was one of the first things Washington, D.C.- based photojournalist Stephen Voss saw while documenting Detroit’s abandoned schools. Voss felt the empty, destroyed buildings spoke volumes about the impact of a deeply troubled economy. He shot the images with his 35mm DSLR as if it were large format to lend “respect and a sort of formality to the subject, and not have the images just look like snapshots.”Stephen Voss

American Photo

When Stephen Voss finished a portrait assignment near Detroit, he didn’t catch the next flight home — even though his wife was expecting their first child. Instead he spent a long, chilly and unpaid April 2009 day shooting nearly 500 images in dank, dirty and abandoned Detroit schools.

A photojournalist drawn to dramatic big-city issues, Voss saw an emblematic story in the derelict school buildings. The report he had read of a frozen corpse in a closed school warehouse (in The Detroit News) was especially riveting, as was James Griffioen’s Vice magazine photo essay on the ravaged structures.

Voss, a committed Washington, D.C., city dweller with impending fatherhood and the troubled D.C. schools on his mind, couldn’t ignore these urban ills writ large. His curiosity, honed during 10 years as a photojournalist, made him want to see the destruction for himself. Months later, when BusinessWeek sent him to Detroit for the portrait, Voss, 31, knew staying in town to shoot the empty schools might be worthwhile.

He came home with a powerful personal project that plumbs the depths of Detroit’s decline. Once one of America’s greatest industrial cities, Detroit has seen its population fall, and it’s estimated that the student body has nearly halved in the last decade.

Unneeded schools were closed but left unsecured: A deficit — more than a quarter of a billion dollars — meant forgoing costly security. How bad is it? During the 14-hour shoot, Voss simply dropped by nearly two-dozen schools and walked right in the front door of most. It was not an upbeat experience. “They are undeniably sad places, open to the weather and vandals and getting more ripped apart each day. It’s the complete opposite of everything schools should be,” Voss says. “Schools should be places of safety and protection.”

Shooting conditions were also unsettling. “It was really creepy; you hear noises even with no one else there (or so you think). There was so much water dripping,” and many areas were completely dark. A sense of urgency moved Voss to “get it done and get out.” And while he never felt in danger, he expected to encounter homeless people who might feel threatened. But he saw only one other person indoors throughout the day.

While the deserted schools were unrelentingly depressing, Voss also found poignancy. “These are photos of destruction but with signs of life, like bright, smiley kids’ faces on covers of discarded math books. It’s a reminder of happier times, kids in class opening these books every day.” Now the books are “junk, marinating in water.”

Shot on spec, the haunting images quickly found an enthusiastic, paying outlet in Education Week (August 2009), with the empty hallway shot splashed across two full pages. “It was a good spread and paid for my extra expenses,” Voss notes with a pro’s pride.

But this shoot was about more than a successful personal project. “Schools are really, really important for the future of our country and kids, and this is outrageous,” Voss says firmly. “I thought if I could show it to enough people, something might change. I’m not naive enough to think these photos will change the situation, but perhaps they’ll start something on the road to improvement.”

In The Bag

• A globe-trotting photojournalist, Voss travels light. In Detroit, he used two Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLRs, with EF 35mm f/1.4L USM and EF 50mm f/1.2L USM prime lenses.
• He also shot six rolls of 120 Provia film with a Fujifilm GW690III 6x9cm rangefinder. (Digital prevailed; the ISO 100 Provia was too slow for the available light.) Voss is using film much more often, like some other pros.

He says: “With digital, I got a little careless thinking, ‘I can fix it.’ Getting it right in the first place should make me a better photographer.” He’s serious about film, shooting his next project about closed car dealerships entirely with the Mamiya 6 (6x6cm square-format) rangefinder, his favorite camera.

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For this ironic image of books with happy kids’ faces on the covers rotting in water, Voss circled the pile to find the right composition: “I took little half steps from side to side until it came together and made sense.”Stephen Voss
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Tires in a classroom mystified Voss but evoked the omnipresent chaos. Even though it was a dreary, rainy day, he used only available light for the shoot, never going above ISO 800 to maintain image quality.Stephen Voss
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The project is also about the people who are gone, and Voss felt the painted banister cried out with voices no one heard. He tried several shots of this scene to find the right balance of angles.Stephen Voss
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Beauty was found amid the destruction. White paint splashed exuberantly on a blackboard seemed pointless, but yielded Voss’s favorite image.Stephen Voss
Detroit school district

Detroit school district

This gutted hallway was one of the first things Washington, D.C.- based photojournalist Stephen Voss saw while documenting Detroit’s abandoned schools. Voss felt the empty, destroyed buildings spoke volumes about the impact of a deeply troubled economy. He shot the images with his 35mm DSLR as if it were large format to lend “respect and a sort of formality to the subject, and not have the images just look like snapshots.”Stephen Voss
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The painting of a child in a wet recess courtyard made Voss imagine his own child playing there.Stephen Voss