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