I recently looked through a photo series profiling the city and faces of Detroit in Wired.com. (see it HERE) The photos are hauntingly beautiful, yet also exude horrific sadness, despair and decay. It’s not exactly news the city isn’t doing well, but I wasn’t prepared for the bitter faces of citizens that seem resigned to limbo – no where to go, yet no reason to stay.
Detroit isn’t a stranger to me. I have family there. When I was younger, I would often visit my uncle and aunt who live in Allen Park - a bedroom city that resembles any other postwar bedroom city in America. Driving through Detroit as a kid, I remember being at a stop light and the driver next to us honking his horn and flipping us his middle finger. When I asked what we did wrong my uncle sighed “We drive a Honda.” Walking through the streets, I was told not to make eye contact or talk to anyone – a little unnerving to a girl who grew up in rural Canada on a tiny island that was very “Shire-like”. I remember riding the monorail in Greektown, visiting the Chrysler Building and looking out at the burned out lots scattered like patchwork throughout the downtown core. Back then in the early 90′s, there was optimism the lots would soon be filled, the economy would gow and Detroit would regain its momentun as a major player in America.
That did not happen, unfortunately. I wrote to my cousin Rich, who still lives in Allen Park, and asked if the entire city was really as bad as the photographs. He wrote back “The photos in this slide show actually seem relatively benign compared to some of the ruins. Pictures of the ruins are common enough that people have taken to labeling them “ruin porn”.
He goes on to give 3 anecdotes:
1. “There was a documentary crew filming in the ruins of the old Packard Auto Plant which has been abandoned, stripped of copper and now houses addicts and criminals. The documentary crew was mugged while filming in the plant and their equipment was taken (I believe this was during the day). 2. Tim Heatherington who is a war correspondent who has covered conflicts from bosnia to africa to afghanistan, did a piece for GQ and said Detroit reminded him very much of cities in Africa. 3. I read a national magazine that used the term “Detroit poor” as an adjective.”
What can be done? Unfortunately Detroit isn’t the only place in America in ruins. It is up to visual storytellers - photographers, videographers, filmmakers, to bring a voice to the unheard. To showcase the hidden. No sensationalism or ratings-driven agenda. Just document it and show it.
A few examples:
I recently watched an incredible short film entitled “Honor The Treaties” that examines the impact documenting life on the Pine Ridge Reservation has had on photographer Eric Becker. Take 10 minutes to watch the film. It will stay with you for months. http://video.kcts9.org/video/2283530017
Lost and Found Films tells an engaging story of an elderly man squatting in detroit’s abandoned Packard Plant (yes, the same one my cousin Rich recounted about the mugging). The story is told from the old man’s POV and his resilience and contentment at living among squalor is mystifying, yet endearing. He has found his sense of place in an environment unsuitable for most of the rest of us. It’s one of a series of videos that examine how “home” means different things for each of us. Watch HILL at https://vimeo.com/39346092
Some filmmakers take ruins and repurpose them into art. Famed filmmaker / Director Brett Novak takes famed freestyle skateboarder Kilian Martin out of the skate video comfort zone and into the ruins of an abandoned water park. Martin is seen skating amongst abandoned concession stands, dried up wading pools and water towers on the verge of collapse. Archived footage of the park at its primie is intercut to show the glamor and beauty of what once was. It completely transforms our traditional views of what a skate video should look like, and how it should feel. Watch it at https://vimeo.com/43044223
Lastly is another slideshow on the “beauty” of Detroit ruins at slate.com