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August 29, 2012

Fine Art Photographer Looks at the Human Dimension of Lake Michigan

Kevin Miyazaki is an editorial and fine art photographer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With a focus on issues including family history, memory, and the intersection of public and private space, Miyazaki works with a wide range of subjects—from people to rundown fast food joints to found objects and everything in between. Miyazaki is also founder of the site collect.give, a platform that connects photographers to the charities they love.

The Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University recently commissioned Miyazaki to create new work that addresses the idea of fresh water in the Great Lakes region. In response, Miyazaki launched Perimeter, a photography-based project focused on capturing everyday people whose lives revolve in some way around Lake Michigan. During a two-week driving trip along the lake, Miyazaki photographed Lake Michigan-area residents, beach-goers, scientists, mill workers, community leaders, artists, trash collectors, sailors, environmentalists, and dockworkers—anyone with a strong connection to the lake.

Our interest in Perimeter stems from the international campaign we’ve helped initiate to declare the Great Lakes a commons, protected bioregion, and public trust. Our goal is to guarantee a healthy future for the Lake’s ecosystems and nearby community members, some of whom Miyazaki caught with his camera.

Here Miyazaki answers a few questions from On the Commons about Perimeter, his subjects’ connection to the lake, and the link between Miyazaki’s work and our own efforts with the Great Lakes Commons campaign.

How far have you traveled?

I just completed the trip last night, having traveled 1,830 miles counterclockwise around the lake. I started at Bradford Beach in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and ended there on my thirteenth day of travel.

I chose to stay off the larger roads and traveled on the state highways, county highways, and gravel roads instead. I was motivated to see as much of the lake as I could, and also to investigate the notion of water access.

How did the Haggerty Museum of Art get interested in the Great Lakes region?

The Haggerty is located on Marquette University’s campus, and as an academic art museum, it is committed to presenting thought-provoking exhibitions, projects, and programs with strong educational value for the University’s students and the entire community. Lynne Shumow, the museum’s curator of education, is part of a water consortium organized by Alexa Bradley of On the Commons. The consortium’s goal is to raise awareness about the Great Lakes and fresh water issues. Lynne saw an opportunity to commission work that could both educate students through the museum’s Picasso Across Curriculum program for K-12 students, and coincide with the exhibition of a water-themed show planned for next winter.

The Milwaukee community—where the Haggerty is located and where I live—has also worked hard to become an important place for fresh water research, with serious commitment by members of the academic, business, and environmental communities.

What inspired you to profile Lake Michigan in human terms?

My goal is to create a contemporary picture of the lake, and I can’t think of a better way than by showing the people who interact with it daily. This community is made up of individuals from Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan who each have a stake in a healthy, accessible Lake Michigan. The portraits I made have a neutral (black) background, which serves to celebrate the individual—but when viewed collectively as a group of pictures, the sense of community is powerful.

Have you been surprised by anyone you’ve met or anything you’ve seen during your journey around the lake?

With regard to lake access, I encountered a fair amount of “Private Drive” signs on the smallest roads closest to the lake, often in the wealthiest land areas. That was disappointing to me. Some areas of the lake were better than others for allowing easy access; for instance, on Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, there were more small, public roads that simply ended at water—not grand overlooks, but simple, human access points. Among my favorite places to see and experience the lake were small, well-kept county parks.

How did the individuals you photographed feel connected to the water?

I’ve photographed about two hundred people for the project at this point. It’s a wide-ranging group, including people who enjoy recreating on or near the water, some who make their livelihood on the lake, and others whose goal is to preserve the environment. To be honest, the time I spent with each person was quite short out of practicality for the distance I covered. But I’m sending each of the subjects a picture via email, and I plan to ask for their expanded thoughts about the lake. I’m excited to hear what people have to say about their personal connections.

Did anyone express concerns about the lake’s water quality, governance structures, or access points?

I had a great conversation with Frank Ettawageshik, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians who was instrumental in conceiving the Tribal and First Nations Great Lakes Water Accord. The Accord was a historic document signed by over 140 tribes and first nations to assert sovereign duty and responsibility over the waters of their homeland. Among other things, we talked about healing the water, and at the public marina in Harbor Springs, Michigan, Frank sang me the Native American water song.

I also met and photographed Loreen Niewenhuis, who wrote a book about walking the entire perimeter of Lake Michigan. I haven’t had a chance to read her book yet, but she’s seen the lake like few others. She’s currently on another 1000-mile hike, which will touch all five Great Lakes.

What personal connection do you feel to Lake Michigan?

It’s obviously greater now than ever. But I think I’m like many others who live in metropolitan areas near the lake: I appreciate that the lake is here and admire its beauty, but I often take it for granted. I grew up in a western suburb of Milwaukee, which seemed very distant from the water but was only six miles away. I think it’s easy to forget about the lake if you’re not using it for recreation or work, but as we know, it’s important to all of us now more than ever before.

It’s exciting that On the Commons seeks to unify voices within the region to create power for the collective good. There are so many people doing great things on the local level, but the balances of power in our country right now are not equal. Hopefully my pictures represent those individuals who all have a stake in seeing the Great Lakes Commons Initiative become a reality.

For more information about Perimeter, check out Miyazaki’s website “here”:http://kevinmiyazaki.com/perimeter.