February 12, 2016

On that Startling Flint Photo of 3 African-American Kids Toting Water

Siblings Julie, Antonio, and India Abram collect their daily allowance of bottled water from Fire Station #3. Located on Martin Luther King Avenue, it is one of five firehouses that have become water resource sites in Flint, Michigan.

I was alerted to this photo by food writer, political Tweeter and friend, Regina Schrambling. Seeing Wayne Lawrence’s photo alone on social media, she wrote: “Even to my jaded eye, it is rather startling.” The photo leads off this powerful Flint water crisis photo essay with Lawrence’s portraits at NatGeo.

Regina added:

It looks like a fashion shoot, straight out of Kid Vogue, with everything so perfect, right down to the framing of the power lines and trees and the girls’ skirts moving with the wind. They look so, so styled.

At the same time, even if it’s a posed portrait, the kids are so much the antithesis of all the other images we’re seeing that they stop you cold. No hoodies or other clichés, more a sense of human entitlement than the usual implied looting.

Showing kids who could, if not for the skin color, be coming home to Park Avenue from private schools brings home how universal the need for water is. They have it all, it seems, except the second most essential ingredient in life (after air).

Mostly I looked at this for a long time thinking of how lead poisoning could be depriving America of potential presidential material. They are so much in the Obama family image, which we so rarely see presented as normal, even seven years into his term.

Again, not knowing the back story, these seem to be kids who had it all to get ahead in life. Except for the accident of birth in a city that has been so undermined.

The photo she links to as having a “looting vibe,” by the way, is the  one just below from a detailed backstory of the Flint water crisis (‘Smothering the Outcry’: The Inside Story of How the State of Michigan Poisoned Flint) at VICE.

County Commissioner Bryant Nolden distributes water in Flint with neighborhood volunteers.

If we’re at all conditioned, at least on first pass (1, 2, 3, 4) to see large African-American males in sweat clothes — the one man with a hoodie, the zip up with a graffiti design — emerging from glass swinging doors as potentially boosting water bottles, let’s slow down.

The building, the name partially visible, is the Berston Field House. According to Wikipedia:

Berston Field House opened in Flint, Michigan, in 1923 and has been the backdrop for the development of some of the city’s top boxing and basketball talent as well as an important symbol of race in the city’s history.

Berston is one of several community centers throughout Flint that had traditionally offered recreation and health services to the community. While several have closed, Berston still houses one of the largest youth programs in a city that has had rapid population decline in the last thirty years.

The original building included a library, swimming pool, gym and auditorium. In 1930, Berston became the first community center in the city to allow black residents to use its facilities and programs.

Not only that but the man in the hoodie leading this vital water distribution effort is County Commissioner Bryant Nolden. You can also catch him in bow ties and graduation finery on his Facebook page.

Just to add me own thoughts about the Lawrence’s photo: what’s most startling (as well as troubling) is how startling a scene like this remains.

(photo 1: Wayne Lawrence for National Geographic. caption: Siblings Julie, Antonio, and India Abram collect their daily allowance of bottled water from Fire Station #3. Located on Martin Luther King Avenue, it is one of five firehouses that have become water resource sites in Flint, Michigan. photo 2: Kayla Ruble/VICE News. caption: County Commissioner Bryant Nolden distributes water in Flint with neighborhood volunteers.)

Post By

Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

The Big Picture

Follow us on Instagram (@readingthepictures) and Twitter (@readingthepix), and


A curated collection of pieces related to our most-popular subject matter.


Comments Powered by Disqus