Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Detroit Photography: In Defense of "Ruin Porn"

We've all no doubt seen the sanctimonious internet meme with a photo of Detroit that says "Don't take a picture, do something about it!" In the February 2013 issue of Art News, Richard B. Woodward captures (among other perspectives) Detroit blogger, James Griffioen's rather myopic attack on the photographic endeavors of outsiders. Griffioen coined the phrase "ruin porn" to capture what he believes to be an exploitative endeavor.

However, Griffioen's reaction is an all too familiar (dare I say, typical) reaction from Detroit inhabitants, who often portray a thinly-veiled "you ain't from around here" mentality. When he says, "I take pictures of ruins, too, but I put them in the context of living in the city" he really is falling back on a very common local sentiment: if you don't live in Detroit, you don't have the right to criticize. If you live in Detroit, but weren't born in Michigan, you still don't have the right to criticize. If you grew up in the Detroit metro area, well, maybe you can criticize...a little bit.

I lived in Detroit from 2002-2007. During that time, I attended Wayne State University and ultimately received my BA in Philosophy from University of Detroit Mercy. I was born in a small Pennsylvania town called "Uniontown" in 1971 and witnessed Pittsburgh's demise through the great steel mill depression. I also saw it bounce back so that now it is a very nice city. Coming to Detroit and seeing a city that never quite bounced back from the 60s (indeed, there were many abandoned buildings that looked as if they could have been that way for decades)and a population plagued by pessimism about recovery, with the admixture of developers that believed they could simply build condos in devastated neighborhoods and make it big, I could see precisely what they did wrong. When my now-husband and I moved into a loft condo (rented from the owner who bought it as an investment) in mid-town Detroit, we were invited to a party to celebrate another new development. As we talked, I tried to explain the importance of doing things to attract people to the neighborhood: you need to put stores in, I said, you need to put in cafes. She turned to me and asked me where I grew up. I explained, I grew up in the Pittsburgh area. She then refused to listen to me any further. My husband explained he grew up in the area, and she would then talk to him (but not me). He, of course, made the same points that I was going to make, which she would at least discuss, but rejected. The neighborhood never did become the great investment opportunity my neighbor had hoped. When we moved out three years later in 2007, it took our landlord several months to rent out the unit.

The media started noticing Detroit when things got really bad, when homes started going for under $20,000, but the problems in Detroit had existed for decades before that, and the mentality of "outsiders can't fix our problems, sure, we insiders can't fix our problems, but outsiders still have nothing to offer" substantially contributed to the demise. In the five long years that I lived there, I felt the strange juxtaposition between the frustration of short-sighted locals and the oddly comforting beauty of the ruins. Many a night would be spent on my balcony, drinking and smoking cloves, looking at the surreal and apocalyptic beauty of the ruins next door to me, only to wake up in the morning, look out my window and be struck by profound depression at what greeted me. I remember the one time, when, in a fit of anti-sentimental rage, I decided I needed to get rid of a book. I walked out on my balcony and threw it in the ruins. I figured that whomever was most likely squatting there could read it or (more likely) burn the pages for warmth. I remember riding the bus (yes, I used to ride the bus a lot, a rarity in Detroit) and seeing the abandoned building with the sign that said "warning: no floor."

The job of the photojournalist is social critique. The job of the photojournalist is to draw attention to the things going on in the world and evoke some sort of reaction in the audience. The job of the photojournalist isn't, however, to simply present the insider's perspective. That isn't to say the photojournalist shouldn't talk to insiders or work hard to understand their perspective, but at the end of the day, the photojournalist remains the outsider looking in, helping both those within the situation and outside of it appreciate it as something universal, of relevance to everyone. Indeed, this is the case, even with, as Griffioen puts it, "$40,000 cameras to take pictures of houses worth less than their hotel bills."

At the end of the day, Detroit is no longer a local issue. Detroit has rejected the outsider perspective for far too long, and this rejection has at least contributed to the problems Detroit is now faced with. Even the perspective of ruins from an LA journalist or New York trust fund art school kid gives a lens on how Detroit looks at first glance to someone who has not experienced the desensitization that comes with growing up there. One doesn't need to live in Detroit to be a little bit shocked by what you see while exploring the city. If you've lived much of anywhere, particularly if you've lived in or near more thriving cities, you can't help but be stunned by the sight. However, what Detroit does need is for people in Detroit to start seeing the city through the eyes of outsiders. Not defensively reacting to the outside perspective but honestly, truly seeing it how they see it. Only then might locals start to ask the question, "What have you tried in your city that we haven't?"