The Case Against Economic Disaster Porn

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Niccolo and Donkey
The Case Against Economic Disaster Porn

The New Republic

Noreen Malone

January 22, 2011


When I sat down to my keyboard recently to Google the city of Detroit , the fourth hit was a site titled “ the fabulous ruins of Detroit .” The site—itself a bit of a relic, with a design seemingly untouched since the 1990s—showed up in the results above the airport, above the Red Wings or the Pistons, the newspapers, or any other sort of civic utility. Certainly above anything related to the car industry, for which the word Detroit was once practically a synonym. Pictures of ruins are now the city’s most eagerly received manufactured good.

We have begun to think of Detroit as a still-life. This became clear to me recently, when the latest set of "stunning" pictures of Detroit in ruins made the rounds, taken by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre for a book, The Ruins of Detroit . ( More such pictures here and here .) They were much tweeted and blogged about (including by TNR’s own Jonathan Chait ), as other such “ruin porn” photosets of blighted places have been, and were described variously as wonderful, as beautiful, as stunning, as shocking, as sad. They are all of those things, and so I suppose they are good art. But they are rotten photojournalism. (Click here to read TNR’s “ The Detroit Project: A Plan for Solving America’s Greatest Disaster. ”)

Pictures are naturally more memorable than a well written , evenhanded magazine story about the scope and tragedy of Detroit’s economic woes could ever be. But that’s precisely the problem. These indelible pictures present an un-nuanced and static vision of Detroit. They might serve to “raise awareness” of the Rust Belt’s blight, but raising awareness is only useful if it provokes a next step, a move toward trying to fix a problem. By presenting Detroit, and other hurting cities like it, as places beyond repair, they in fact quash any such instinct. Looked at as a piece of art, they're arresting, compelling, haunting ... but not galvanizing. Our brains mentally file these scenes next to Pompeii rather than a thriving metropolis like Chicago, say, or even Columbus.

Camilo Jos é Vergara, a photographer who has affectingly catalogued urban decay all across the United States, released a book called American Ruins . Writing in Metropolis about Detroit’s abandoned downtown district, he made an unpopular suggestion: “"I propose that as a tonic for our imagination, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers be stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis. We could transform the nearly 100 troubled buildings into a grand national historic park of play and wonder." Detroit had, at the time, just built a new baseball stadium, and was angling hard for a comeback. It’s one that never happened, of course, and so Vergara looks prescient; 15 years later, a version of that American Acropolis has come about through decay, and the Web has made it so we don’t even have bring our tourism dollars there to witness it. (Detroit hotels were further still down that Google search.) But the essential heartlessness of his proposal remains.

A museum introduction to the work of photographer Andrew Moore (“Detroit Disassembled”) places him grandiosely within a larger tradition, and, like Vergara’s proposal, hints that Detroit is now about an idea , not the day-to-day business of living. “Numerous artists have used ruins to remind their viewers of the fall of past great civilizations and to warn that contemporary empires risk the same fate. … Although hard to believe that Moore's post-apocalyptic scenes reflect present-day America, he has been scrupulously honest, creating photographs that are both documentary and metaphorical in nature. “And yet later, after criticism of the way photographers have selectively elided so much of Detroit in search of only the most provocative images made the rounds, Moore steered clear of claiming scrupulous honesty, telling the radio program “ The Takeaway ” that his work isn’t meant to be a chronicle, it’s an evocation: “I spent three months there, and my work is really an interpretation of the city and it’s not an illustration of a story.” The problem, though, is that few other people bother to make that distinction.

I suspect it’s not an accident that the pictures of Detroit that tend to go viral on the Web are the ones utterly devoid of people. We know intellectually that people live in Detroit (even if far fewer than before), but these pictures make us feel like they don't. The human brain responds very differently to a picture of a person in ruin than to a building in ruin—you'd never see a magazine represent famine in Africa with a picture of arid soil. Without people in them, these pictures don’t demand as much of the viewer, exacting from her engagement only on a purely aesthetic level. You can revel in the sublimity of destruction, of abandonment, of the march of change—all without uncomfortably connecting them with their human consequences.

Try it: Aren’t these pictures of Detroit and its foreclosed houses, some of which have people in them, more troubling? They’re not decaying as grandly as the earlier ones—no magnificently tangled, tarnished cathedrals to industry, only ugly, squat buildings and stolen mattresses and the people who live among them. This is much closer to the reality of actually being in a city like Detroit right now. In such places, you can go whole blocks and see more boarded-up establishments than people, but it’s those people who make it impossible to disconnect and think of it as a sort of fascinating moonscape, rather than as what it is: a quietly rotting home.

Detroit's problem might not be on the level of war or famine, but it is serious—and yes, there are versions of those problems, writ smaller, in the city. More vitally, it is an ongoing problem, not a done deal. Those pictures are a funereal celebration, for a place that is sick but not dead. And it is a focus that irks activists in Detroit, who’ve been desperate for more coverage of their efforts to revive the city. (Including unlikely activists—Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame recently filmed a series looking at growth in Detroit.)

Recently, the blog HiLobrow wrote about Chernobyl, where unofficial tourism will soon turn official: “Ruin porn seeks the poignancy of abandonment, the presence and poetry of absence. … The tourists come for abandonment. They do not come for the abandoned.” It’s the same thing we are looking for in those pictures of Detroit, a voyeuristic dip into desertion. But Detroit’s abandoned are still there, though outside the frame.
So what?