My project “Prom in Flint” was a very exciting opportunity for me. It began when Zack Canepari (photographer, filmmaker, and now friend), emailed me to ask if I wanted to join him in documenting prom night in Flint, Michigan, a city in the throes of a major public health crisis due to lead-tainted water.

After speaking with Canepari, I learned about his amazing work on the all-encompassing documentary project “Flint Is a Place.” This endeavor includes films, photographs, and documents from Flint, Michigan, where Canepari has committed himself to tell the story of what is happening in this iconic American town.

Prom night was just a small piece of that larger story, but it was the perfect opportunity for me to contribute to the project. I love to photograph people who are gathering to celebrate something—whether it be a fashion show, a political rally, a dog show, a Star Wars convention, or in this case, a high school prom. However, prom night in Flint is more than just a high school dance. It’s a yearly cultural tradition. I thought of it as the Met Ball of Flint.

© Landon Nordeman

These photographs were made at Northwestern High School, one of only two remaining high schools in the city of Flint. At this highly anticipated event, as Canepari explains in his project, “There are simultaneous issues at play: a celebration of the student body’s incredible sense of swagger and style, and underneath, the very serious problems affecting these high school students. Flint has suffered without clean water for more than 1,000 days. Graduating seniors are affected by the circumstances that come with generational poverty and a lack of resources; the city has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. As such, the students from Northwestern High School are proud and strong—but also have undeniable odds stacked against them.”

© Landon Nordeman

Against this tragic backdrop, we are at least able to join in with these individuals for a moment of celebration. Part of why I love photographing such festive moments is that people tend to dress their best, and they also expect to be photographed. Prom night in Flint was no exception. The students brought boundless energy and enthusiasm to the special night. Just being around them made me smile. How fortunate was I to be caught up in their wave of excitement and friendship as they celebrated this ritual in their young lives?

It was an amazing night that I will never forget. My gratitude goes out to the students who shared a part of their lives with me and to Zack Canepari, who invited me to photograph this unique experience.

—Landon Nordeman

Editors’ note: If you’re interested in learning more about Canepari’s project and the crisis in Flint, be sure to check out his ongoing project “Flint is a Place.”