Flint residents line up for free bottled water as activists outside of City Hall protest Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's handling of the water crisis on Jan. 8, 2016 in Flint. Mich.
Flint residents line up for free bottled water as activists outside of City Hall protest Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's handling of the water crisis on Jan. 8, 2016 in Flint. Mich.Jake May—The Flint Journal-MLive.com/AP
Flint residents line up for free bottled water as activists outside of City Hall protest Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's handling of the water crisis on Jan. 8, 2016 in Flint. Mich.
Flint Water
Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards shows the difference in water quality between Detroit and Flint after testing, giving evidence after more than 270 samples were sent in from Flint that show high levels of lead during a news conference on Sept. 15, 2015 outside of City Hall in downtown Flint, Mich.
Flint resident Lorraine Jones pours canned water into a pot in preparation for boiling to cook on Jan. 19, 2016, at River Park Apartments in Flint, Mich. After weeks without water being distributed, the residents are finally getting bottled water delivered to their doorsteps for the first time Tuesday as four Flint Housing Commission workers shuttled cases of water throughout the community.
Detroit resident Jaiden Ellis, 8, looks at stacks of free bottled water to be given to the congregation while the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil rights leader, discusses the ongoing Flint water crisis on Jan. 17, 2016, in Flint, Mich. The water became contaminated after Flint switched from the Detroit water system to the Flint River as a cost-cutting move.
Flint Water
LaShanti Redmond, 10, of Flint, gets her finger poked to test her blood for lead levels at Freeman Elementary School in Flint, Mich., Jan. 12, 2016. The Flint Community Schools, the Genesee County Health Department and Molina Healthcare held a family fun night at the school to get children ages 0 to 6-year-olds tested for lead levels in their blood. The next testing event will be held at Eisenhower Elementary on Jan. 26.
Flint Water
Flint resident David Harris, 58, sits alone as he watches out the window upon arrival at the Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Jan. 14, 2016, as he rides one of three buses with about 150 people from Flint and Detroit, gathering to protest against Gov. Rick Snyder. Protestors asked for Snyder's resignation and arrest in relation to Flint's water crisis.
Flint resident Tony Palladino Jr.'s sign reads "Synder's dirty little secret" atop a crossed out city of Flint on the map on Jan. 14, 2016 outside of the Capitol in Lansing, Mich., in protest against Gov. Rick Snyder, asking for his resignation and arrest in relation to Flint's water crisis.
More than 150 activists stand outside of City Hall to protest Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's handling of the water crisis, Jan. 8, 2016 in Flint. Mich.
Flint resident Gladyes Williamson cries out through her tears to Melissa Mays, one of six plaintiffs, overwhelmed with frustration of the water issue and joy in the filing of a potential class action lawsuit against both city and state government officials on Nov. 16, 2015, at the Holiday Inn Express in Flint, Mich. The lawsuit claims that these government officials violated constitutional rights providing lead-tainted water to residents, which lead to alleged developing health issues, including hair loss, depression and auto-immune disorders.
Michigan National Guard Staff Sgt. Stephen Robel helps carry a case of water to the vehicle of Flint resident Karand Houston as the first seven Michigan National Guard soldiers arrive on the ground at fire stations on Jan. 13, 2015 throughout Flint, assigned by Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday to help distribute water and relieve residents in relation to the Flint water crisis. Safe drinking water has not flowed from many Flint faucets for almost two years after the state-run city switched its source to the highly corrosive Flint River and failed to treat it properly to protect lead from leaching into it.
Flint City councilman Eric Mays speaks with concerned residents at Ambassador East mobile home park on April 15, 2015, in Flint, Mich. The city of Flint plans to install a $1.5 million granulated active-charcoal filter by mid-July in an effort to address concerns over its water quality.
Flint resident Mike Hickey holds the hand of his daughter Natielee, 4, as they walk past activists outside of City Hall to protest Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's handling of the water crisis Jan. 8, 2016 in Flint. Mich.
Flint residents line up for free bottled water as activists outside of City Hall protest Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's han
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Jake May—The Flint Journal-MLive.com/AP
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Photographing Flint's Water Crisis From the Inside

Jan 21, 2016

Until January of 2015, Jake May, chief photographer at the Flint Journal, drank Flint tap water. Eight months earlier, the Michigan city had made the decision to start pumping its water from the Flint River, unaware, at first, that the liquid’s higher acidity would cause an unprecedented lead contamination.

Now, Flint has been thrust onto the national spotlight, after the true extent of its water crisis was finally revealed. But the story is not news to May: for the last 22 months, with the help of two interns, he has been following the story, and living it too. His coverage started with the celebratory press conferences the city organized when it made the decision to switch water sources. But even that "media-friendly events" showed signs of the conflict that was to come. Already, a couple dozen people were publicly opposing the move. “They have been there from the start," May says. "They’ve always said: ‘There’s something wrong with the water.’ They didn’t know what it was. But they knew it was wrong. They could tell by the smell and the taste.”

In 2014, these protesters were often written off as crazy, says May. But around January 2015, they enlisted Virginia Tech University professor Marc Edwards, who had years earlier uncovered unsafe levels of lead in Washington, D.C.’s water supply. Asked by the people of Flint to test the water, he brought back results that won the attention and respect of a worried populace. It was, says May, the "switching point."

For the photographer, it was important to document this issue not only because he’s in the middle of it—“I still bathe in [the water] daily,” he says—but also because it will continue to affect the community for years to come. “This is not something that will be done and over when the national spotlight gets off of Flint in a couple of weeks,” he says. “We’re still going to deal with what’s going on for the next lifetime.”

Right now, however, that spotlight is shining full-force: Gov. Rick Snyder apologized for the crisis and pledged financial support, while President Obama allocated $5 million of federal assistance. The wide attention inspires May even more, to tell the story of the community while he has the eyes of the world watching.

To achieve that goal, May has been sharing his photographs on Instagram (@jakemayphoto) in an effort to reach a wider audience beyond Michigan. “This is, honestly, a story about the voice of the people," he says. "The city of Flint’s residents wanted to be heard, and they were relentless."

Jake May is the chief photographer at the Flint Journal. Follow him on Instagram @jakemayphoto.

Myles Little, who edited this photo essay, is a senior photo editor at TIME.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

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