At Street Level
21-year-old photographer Vuhlandes focuses on the blight, the guns, and the faces of his west-side neighborhood to document a Detroit that often goes unseen
“I don’t want to sugarcoat anything. This is why I don’t take pictures downtown. That’s the Detroit people are trying to make it become, but it’s not. People try to make it seem like it’s much better than it is. It’s not all bad, but it’s not all good.”
Any member of the Detroit media will agree that there’s no shortage of stories worth telling in this city. But which stories get told and who gets to tell them —those are topics that don’t always reach a consensus.
Self-taught photographer Vuhlandes (his middle name) has been telling his own Detroit story for the past two years through dramatic portraits of blighted buildings, barren front yards, and neighborhood friends brandishing guns for the camera. Granted, Detroit’s blight and abandoned streets have been documented a thousand times times over, but the 21-year-old’s work paints a more complete picture of how an unforgiving landscape plays a leading role in Detroit street life.
Vuhlandes’ photos tell a story that, to many, seems a world away from the popular downtown/Midtown development narrative of present-day Detroit. But for many Detroiters in the city’s sprawling neighborhoods, Vuhlandes’ version of the city is a much more accurate representation of home. As he puts it, “You can say (Detroit’s) making a comeback, but me and the people I grew up with and hang around
with, we’re not seeing any part of that because my neighborhood still looks the same way it does since I’ve been living there.”
Since the age of 10, Vuhlandes has lived primarily in the same five-block radius on Detroit’s west side. And although he developed an interest in photography at an early age, it wasn’t until after graduating high school, when he was sidelined by a skateboarding injury, that he picked up a camera.
“Ever since then, I’ve shot every day,” Vuhlandes says.
To date, Vuhlandes has amassed an audience of more than 45,000 followers on Instagram, and while the streets of Detroit have historically been documented by a wide range of talented photographers — Tony Spina, Bill Rauhauser, or more recently Joe Gall and Brian Day — Vuhlandes views the city through a lens that many photographers simply don’t have in their arsenal.
This is Detroit as Vuhlandes sees it, in his photos and in his words.
“That’s a stray dog that my friend found. It just roamed into his backyard. It was beat up. It didn’t look too well. You might see two or three a day (in my neighborhood).”
“I just want to show people what’s really going on. What really happens. Downtown’s fine or whatever, but I didn’t go downtown until I was like 15 years old. It’s not a part of my childhood. I can’t really tell you too much about downtown because I’m not there.”
“I like portraits a lot. That’s numero uno. You can’t recreate a portrait. No matter who took it or how you took it, it can’t be recreated. When you take a portrait, it’s kind of your own, in a sense.”
“Everyone over here has a gun. Everyone… A lot of people don’t know that I grew up out here because they don’t care to go deep into it. They just see pictures of guns and they’re like, ‘Oh s***.’ But that’s how I grew up. That’s what I grew up around, and that’s what I’m still around.”
“I did the abandoned stuff. Like, I tried to find every abandoned spot and go into it. But now, I’m over it. I think I have cancer because I’ve been in so many abandoned buildings. I’m not too much of a fan of it anymore.”
“These are a couple of my friends. They were shooting a music video and I was just there taking pictures. One of them is a rapper, and all of them are really from the streets. It’s in an old, abandoned bar on Seven Mile and Evergreen. It’s one of my favorite photos because everyone looks authentic.”
“If I grew up in Utah, in the mountains, I would take pictures of mountains. If I grew up in New York City, I would take pictures of buildings, skyscrapers. But I don’t. I grew up over here ... and look what’s over here.”