Nick Hagen Shoots the Michigan Floods for the Wall Street Journal

Oct 9, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

On the morning on May 20, 2020, Detroit-based photographer Nick Hagen set out to photograph flooding in central Michigan for The Wall Street Journal. Two dams in Gladwin and Midland Counties were breached, and Nick was tasked with capturing the effects on the surrounding towns and the house of Sanford Lake resident Glenn Moots.

I got the call from Meghan Petersen, Deputy Photo Director at The Wall Street Journal, at around 10 AM and pretty much left right away. I had a short deadline because they wanted to run it the following day.

Nick Hagen Wall Street Journal People Near Flood

Nick drove for about two hours before reaching Downtown Midland, where he promptly parked his car and began shooting. The photographer’s primary goal at this location was to capture images that showed the state of the flooded town.

I do about 50-50 portraits and photojournalism so work like this definitely isn't outside of my wheelhouse. On top of fitting in portraits, I had to get pictures that established what’s going on, document how the people are responding, and get some tighter details.

Nick Hagen Wall Street Journal Man in front of flood

After a little less than an hour, Nick returned to his car, where he edited his photos using his raincoat as a dark cloth. The photographer was able to transfer the final photo selections to the editor at The Wall Street Journal within 45 minutes.

Normally I'd find a coffeeshop with free Wi-Fi to edit and file photos from, but because of COVID that isn't possible. Editing under a raincoat with a laptop screen jammed up against a steering wheel is, unsurprisingly, far from ideal.

Nick Hagen Wall Street Journal Flood Effects tearsheet

Once the first round of photos from Downtown Midland were submitted, Nick met up with John Stoll, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, to drive to the Moots’ house. The drive, which would normally take only 30 minutes, was prolonged by road closures due to the floods. This forced the duo to drive in a big loop around the affected area before reaching the Moots’. Along the way, Nick stopped to take a few photos of the now water-less Sanford Lake.

The Moots' home was along the lake made by the two dams that failed, so their whole neighborhood had essentially been decimated by rushing water.

Nick Hagen Wall Street Journal Coats Drying After Flood

As John spoke with the Moot family, Nick poked around their house to get some shots of the remaining interior and exterior. The photographer also pulled each family member aside to get a few portrait shots.

I'm not sure portraits like that are always necessary with newspaper assignments but it gives editors another direction they can go in with the visuals if they so choose. Thankfully, the Moots were really welcoming.

Nick Hagen Wall Street Journal Moot Family Portrait

Nick’s photos accompanied two articles in The Wall Street Journal, Failed Michigan Dam Lost License in 2018 and Family Regroups After Michigan Dam Failure. ‘We’re Seeing the Worst-Case Scenario.’

Writer: John Stoll
Deputy Photo Director: Meghan Petersen

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