What Does Democracy Mean to Milwaukee? These Journalists Intend to Find Out

A photographer and an arts journalist asked nearly 100 Milwaukeeans what democracy means to them.

Beer and brats. Laverne and Shirley. Curds and custard.

When it was announced that Milwaukee would be hosting the Democratic National Convention this summer, reporters around the country began writing about the city. And more than a few of them reached for easy stereotypes.

Photographer Kevin J. Miyazaki wanted to paint a more nuanced portrait of his hometown and the people who live in it. “I wanted the outside world to see the diversity that’s here,” he says.

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Miyazaki – whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the pages of this magazine – has extensive experience photographing Wisconsinites. In 2011, he exhibited a series of portraits of the protesters who gathered at the state Capitol when lawmakers took aim at public sector employee compensation and collective bargaining power. He shot the subjects head-on against a stark black back- ground. And he figured that a similar approach would work for this series as well. “People like to study other people,” he says. “The photographs are simple, but they can be powerful.” Miyazaki also wanted the images to be paired with words. So he reached out to Mary Louise Schumacher, who had just left the Journal Sentinel after serving as its art and architecture critic for 18 years, to see if she’d be interested in interviewing the people he photographed for the project. 

Schumacher was eager to collaborate. Together, they decided that they’d ask their subjects questions about democracy and citizenship – topics that seemed especially relevant during an election year. Instead of using the printed word, Schumacher edited the audio interviews so that viewers can listen to the answers in the subject’s own voice.

They began working on the project, which they titled “This Is Milwaukee,” last spring and have taken around 100 portraits to date. Miyazaki photographs the subjects in his Tosa studio or visits them in their homes or businesses. And Schumacher asks them a series of questions designed to elicit strong emotional responses. “The core question is, what is democracy for you? And we really put the emphasis on for you,” she says. More than one person has had to fight back tears while answering her. “People have talked a lot about the precarious nature of our democracy right now.”

“When the pandemic took hold,” she adds, “we initially thought that we should stop working on the project, but we realized that we were witnessing citizenship unfolding in Milwaukee’s response to COVID-19 and that, in a sense, the questions are as relevant now as they’ve always been.”


Want to See More? 

Visit thisismilwaukee.us or follow @thisismilwaukee on Instagram. Miyazaki and Schumacher are also working on a printed, newspaper-style piece as part of the project, which they plan to distribute this fall in the weeks leading up to the November election.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s June/July issue

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Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.