Jacques: British artist looks to tell Detroiters' stories through his lens, their voices

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News
British photographer Marcus Lyon

British artist and photographer Marcus Lyon is about to embark on what he says is likely the biggest challenge of his life.

That challenge? Telling the stories of 100 Detroiters who represent the soul of the city — where it’s been and where it’s going. Lyon’s project, which begins in earnest in September, will revolve around the intersection of art, science and personal histories.

He will make portraits of all the individuals. But this is about more than just beautiful photographs.

Lyon wants to paint a full picture of who these people are, so he will include audio recordings of each person highlighted, along with DNA analysis of each individual, to trace their ancestral journey. When the project is completed and on display, visitors will be able to use an app to listen to each Detroiter’s voice, while looking at their portrait.

Portrait from the Somos Brazil project

By bringing a powerful cohort of change agents to a broader audience, Lyon wants to inspire others to do more in their communities, neighborhoods and families.

“You really connect with someone, looking at them, listening to them,” Lyon says.

And Lyon is listening. He’s partnered with the Kresge Foundation, which is a funding partner for the project, as well as the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Lyon didn’t select the individuals to highlight on his own. Those names came from a Detroit nominating committee. He wants his work to reflect how the city sees itself — not his own personal view.

“My welcome to the city of Detroit has been warm,” Lyon says. “The people here tell you what they think and feel — that’s refreshing.”

While it seems daunting to represent the voice of a city of nearly 700,000, Lyon completed a similar project in 2017 encompassing a much larger swath of citizens. That compilation (“Somos Brazil”) also used 100 portraits, recordings and DNA — to speak for a country of more than 200 million. It’s a traveling exhibit, but Lyon has also turned that effort into an aesthetic, hefty book.

He hopes to do the same here in Detroit.

Detroit and Brazil may seem quite different, but Lyon sees common ties. Something he’s passionate about in his work is giving voice to the voiceless, and that will be a focus in Detroit, just as it was in Brazil.

“I’m very attracted to spaces where there are people who are dispossessed, who are underrepresented in a way,” he says. “The major focus will be on those who have stayed and stuck it out in the dark years.”

Lyon is not a stranger to Michigan. He has family here, and 20 years ago he floated a similar idea but didn’t get the funding or interest at that time. Last fall, however, his dream was rekindled after connecting with Mark Davidoff, Michigan Managing Partner for Deloitte, at a Leaders’ Quest conference in England.

Davidoff was fascinated by Lyon’s work in Brazil and thought it would be great for him to do something like that in Detroit. He then connected Lyon with Kresge and others in Detroit.

Wendy Lewis Jackson, managing director for Kresge’s Detroit Program, says this is a chance to highlight the city’s neighborhoods and the work that often goes on behind the scenes — and the people behind these revitalization efforts.

“The project should bring a deeper understanding of how change is occurring in the city right now,” she says.

Charles Ezra Ferrell, vice president of public programs at the Wright Museum, says the project will showcase the rich history of Detroit, highlighting a cross-section of ages and the broad demographics of the city. He hopes through Lyon’s work, the world can see the city’s greatness.

“Detroit is one of the most significant international cities on the planet,” he says.

The working title for the project is “I.Detroit,” which hints at the deep individuality of the Detroiters Lyon has met — and also what connects them. He’s looking at a launch date of spring 2020 for this "human atlas."

“Detroit is such a strong name, and it conjures up such strong feelings and emotions and thoughts,” he says. “That’s what the project is about. It’s an identity art project.”