Qiana Towns, 39, Poet (Ian Brown)

Flint, Michigan. These two words once simply named a place, but now they evoke other ideas: environmental disaster, the loss of a middle class, an ailing auto industry, Michael Moore. For a small town with a population hovering around 102,000, that’s a supersized, multifaceted reputation. Canadian photographer Ian Brown chose to spend time in Flint while he pursued a larger project that is taking him across the United States to photograph citizens and to inquire about their versions of the oft-used phrase during election years, the American Dream.

Brown finds some of his subjects first through research and good old-fashioned networking before he arrives. In the case of Flint, many people started reaching out to him as word of the project spread. At the heart of their interest is the water crisis that began in April 2014 when city officials chose to switch the source of the water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money. Citizens smelled something different within a month, but city officials remained committed to their plan, one that lacked supervision of adding corrosion-control additives to the water. Lead from the old pipes began to leach in the water as a result, and for more than a year people drank and bathed in lead-contaminated water. Lead poisoning has been linked to learning disabilities in children and everything from muscle pain to high blood pressure to memory loss in adults.

“People could have been angry,” realized Brown as he met with each person for his project. “But it felt like they turned the crisis around to be about the future of their community.”

Qiana Towns’s American Dream (Ian Brown)

Flint, Mich., is the birthplace of General Motors and the United Auto Workers. As jobs moved overseas, the population dwindled. Lowell Junior High School closed in 2002. (Ian Brown)

Sharon Allen, 55, is resource and fund development director for a group called Michigan Faith in Action. (Ian Brown)

Sharon Allen’s American Dream. (Ian Brown)

Flint has higher rates of violent crime than the national average, often related to drug trafficking and abuse, according to the Justice Department. (Ian Brown)

Aveonte Willingham, right, and cousins Samaura, 14, and Cassidy, 7, stand next to the former Buick City G.M. auto plant in Flint. (Ian Brown)

Aveonte Willingham’s American Dream. (Ian Brown)

An abandoned home in Flint. (Ian Brown)

Cody LaRue, 24, is an amateur filmmaker. (Ian Brown)

Cody LaRue’s letter. (Ian Brown)

Lanice Lawson, 36, is a nurse. (Ian Brown)

Lanice Lawson’s American Dream. (Ian Brown)

A water tower in Flint. In October 2015, government officials decided to switch the water supply back to treated water from Detroit, after months of shipping in bottled water for Flint residents. (Ian Brown)