Marvin Shaouni Documents Detroit and its People for The Wall Street Journal

Aug 23, 2019
Photographer Spotlight

Downtown Detroit

If you saw this picture without knowing the title of the article or the photographer’s hometown, would you be able to identify the city?

Go home Marvin, you're drunk

This is Detroit, Marvin Shaouni’s turf, and a town in the midst of a rebirth. The Midwesterner recently worked an assignment for The Wall Street Journal’s Off Duty blog, which features travel and lifestyle stories from around the country. For the piece, which ran as a front page feature story in print and online, Marvin was asked to play the role of photographic tour guide and shoot some of the Motor City’s up-and-coming hot spots.  

Thank you Lindsay!

I have a love/hate relationship with my hometown. The fact that we are currently experiencing a renaissance after years of corporate negligence is amazing to me. Detroit is a special place, and I’m so glad I have the opportunity to show it in its best light.

You started this article by viewing Marvin’s favorite image from the project. The vista comes courtesy of the recently redeveloped Monarch Club.

This will be the last Detroit skyline pic

To finally see that building activated after being abandoned for decades and to see people enjoying the city skyline from that perspective is really special. 

The Monarch Club is just one of many places discussed in the WSJ piece, titled Detroit in High Gear. Marvin credits the article’s author, Matthew Kronsberg, with doing his homework and writing about places Detroit residents themselves would recommend to a visitor looking for an experience unique to the city. These locales include the Guardian Building, the designer store Detroit is the New Black, and the Siren Hotel’s Candy Bar.

New name
The lobby of the Siren Hotel; some merchandise from Detroit is the New Black; Candy Bar's Lady Diane cocktail, made with local gin

These locations, along with a host of others, are connected by a decidedly Detroit theme: a renaissance steeped in renovation. Few American cities can boast the sheer volume of structures that Motown and its 139 square miles provide, but so many of those buildings were "left for dead" amidst a decades-long population shrinkage unrivaled in the United States. Instead of erecting new edifices, the area’s entrepreneurs have repurposed what’s already been built for their modern businesses.

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Warda Bouguettaya, owner of the bakery Warda Patisserie; Third Man Records, founded by the White Stripes' Jack White; a Third Man employee presses up a vinyl 

Since Detroit is large enough to fit Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco with room to spare, there’s a lot of space to go around. Fortunately, the city’s residents are figuring out how to use it properly. One of the main attractions highlighted in the WSJ article is the Dequindre Cut Greenway, a bike-friendly urban recreational path which extends two miles and connects parts of downtown with adjoining suburban and rural communities.

 Dziękuję Ci!
The Greenway opened in 2009 and features pedestrian and bicycle lanes

Because Detroit is such a huge city dealing with issues of blight, finding ways to utilize vacant land is a topic near and dear to my heart. To have fresh produce a short bike ride away is something I never thought I would experience. The coolest thing about the farms is that they’re providing locally-grown produce to a lot of the locally-owned restaurants. 

One of those small businesses became the subject of Marvin’s Emmy-winning documentary “A Wife Called Phoenicia."

The short film documents the life journey of Lebanese-American Sameer Eid, who has owned the Mideastern restaurant Phoenicia for nearly five decades and continues to handpick the food he serves from Detroit-based purveyors.

Sameer Eid

The fact Mr. Eid still takes the time to hand select his produce and meats shows just how much he cares about his guests and what he serves his diners.

Yeah this doesn't look appetizing at all

Mr. Eid’s food is as fresh as it gets and is always high-quality. The ribs are, hands-down, my favorite dish.

This was the wrong thing to write about while in the middle of my ribs kick

Sameer, who runs Phoenicia with his son Samy, has successfully navigated one of the most unforgiving industries out there and is closing in on a half century in the game. Over that time, Sameer has built a loyal customer base that makes Phoenicia feel like a community center as much as a restaurant.    

Talking with a man who’s owned a successful restaurant for over 47 years was enlightening, entertaining, and insightful all at the same time. The fact that he’s been able to persevere against the challenges he’s experienced (remaining relevant, staffing issues, shifting of economies, trends in dining, etc.) [is remarkable]. He provides a consistent, high-quality experience that brings over three generations of diners back again and again.

Same food, different angle

Marvin created this documentary with his friend Mark Kurlyandchik, the restaurant critic at the Detroit Free Press (colloquially, Freep). Since both men are intimately familiar with the business — Mark through his writing and Marvin because of his old jobs — they knew how to negotiate the controlled chaos inherent to a dinner shoot.

I never thought my years as a server would contribute to my career in photography, but this is proof that I was wrong. The rhythm and dance of a busy restaurant are familiar to me, and I definitely used that knowledge to my advantage.

Alright Mr. Eid I'm ready for my close-up

Phoenicia is a busy restaurant with a small kitchen, so it was hard not to feel like we weren’t in the way, but I enjoy capturing the chaos and intimacy of a bustling kitchen. A lot of how we shot this project was cinema verité. We also shot on a tripod, as well as fasten a GoPro on a serving tray to capture the servers’ trips through the restaurant. 

The ‘love’ side of Marvin’s aforementioned love/hate relationship with his hometown comes not from the way Detroit mixes its future with its past — Marvin actually believes it “doesn’t do a very good job” in that regard — but from the people who are leading the Motor City futureward.

Between 2008 and 2016, one of my consistent clients was a small Detroit-focused weekly web publication called Model D. Through that job, I was given the privilege of digging deeper into what makes my hometown so special, which is its people and their unrivaled passion for their city. Both of these things should be at the heart of its rebirth.  

Marvin has infused this ethos into his work and hopes the revitalization of one of America’s traditional Midwestern powerhouses extends from “a very specific area in town” to all 139 square miles.  

Only time will tell. What I’d like to see are more culturally and economically inclusive efforts to connect ALL of the citizens of the city to our history and our future. Don’t forget, we put the world on wheels. We still have a few tricks up our sleeve and something to prove.

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Nelson Sanders, owner of the clothing line Dandy; Roslyn Karamoko, proprietor of DITNB; Will Daniels and the Will performing at the Willis Show Bar

We are the Phoenix rising from the ashes. 


WCP Producer: Mark Kurlyandchik

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