The Ruin Porn Post

a theater with 20s architecture. the camera angle is looking down onto the stage from the right side of the balcony. there is a lot of dust, decay, the area has not had any upkeepSo here we are at the ruin porn post! Ruin porn is not easy to talk about, especially not with those who collect it. And people outside the city that is a part of ruin porn rarely see the discussions around ruin porn as important. And yet those same people who turn away from “local” discussions all have a relationship with the ruin porn anyway.

What is ruin porn?

It’s hard to explain exactly, but in short simple terms, it’s the endless pictures of Detroit specifically, but also other post-industrial cities that focus on the blight, decay and abandonment of specific buildings. In broader terms, it’s very similar to other phenomenons that Feminists do know about and have an opinion on, things like poverty porn or even just porn itself. It is a fetishization. It is a camera trained with a hyper intense gaze on a subject. It is viewers getting off on the most vulnerable moments of the subject.

Like regular porn, there’s different grades of it. Some of it is very very good, like the picture by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre up there at the top. Others of it are more like this one (that I found here). a dilapidated house in detroit. Somebody with a camera throwing up any old thing. Knowing that it’s not the quality that counts. But the nakedness of the subject.

These pictures are largely taken by “outsiders”–that is: by people who aren’t from or don’t live in Detroit (or the Rust Belt city that is the subject of the picture). And for some reason, they seem to be a particular art choice by white hipsters, although people have been known to come from France and Norway to get some shots.

An entire industry is springing up around the pictures. Corporate media got in on the act, and people have made entire portfolios based on their ruin porn. And there’s something called urban exploration–where photographers sneak into old buildings and take pictures. People (ahem. white hipsters. ahem.) will often move to Detroit because of how much they love taking these “explorations”–and then get upset when people born in Detroit call them outsiders.

There are very few people born and invested in Detroit or the various Rust Belt cities that find these pictures appealing. Although, like regular porn, even if you don’t indulge, you can often understand the attraction that people have to these pictures. The well crafted ones are very well crafted. And the architecture of the time period these pictures usually focus on is glorious. It speaks of a time when, as annalouise says in comments:

All around Detroit are these gorgeous (and often empty) relics of the belief that public buildings for the working class should be beautiful, that ordinary people deserve to be in the presence of extraordinary beauty.

So, there is often something very compelling in these pictures. And yet, every new series or book showing the “dramatic” display of days long gone, I cringe. As does everyone I know. These pictures do show Detroit. But they don’t *represent* Detroit. They don’t make up what Detroiters love about Detroit. And they certainly don’t represent the real problems of Detroit. Or post-industrial cities.

And yet the photos actually claim to be a good representation of Detroit. Writers explaining the pictures tell us that the pictures are“documenting the dramatic decline of a major American city.” They assure us that:

Many of the images seem post-apocalyptic, as if some sudden catastrophe has struck downtown Detroit, forcing everyone to abandon homes and workplaces and flee the city.

And the pictures bear this out. The one thing they have in common no matter who has taken them is that there are never any people in them. And to me, that points to the problem. There are no people interacting with the ruins. The *reality* of Detroiters, is that everybody has to deal with these ruins (and we don’t call them ruins, we call it “blight,” or just regular old “abandoned houses”). Whether it’s because we live in the one house on an entire block that hasn’t been abandoned or because of outrageous insurance rates or because everywhere we go, we get astonished fear as a reaction when we say we’re from Detroit.

You’re from *there*? That war zone? That apocalyptic hell hole? That death trap?

But even more importantly, these pictures refuse to name *why* this decay is happening. Even as the lens is focused up close on “documentation” and “history,” it details exactly how the grandeur happened (the glorious era of Industrial Prosperity)–all while studiously ignoring the source of the decay (a weird sudden catastrophe!).

And yet, if you ask any Detroiter what is going on, they will point you immediately to the abandonment of the city by the factories. I am from Flint, and so my city’s story can easily be pointed to with Michael Moore’s Roger and Me. As Roger and Me shows–the story of Detroit and Flint are intimately intertwined. All the factory cities on the I-75 corridor share the same history. Things were horrible until the unions came. The unions forced the industries in this area to have some modicum of accountability to the people working for them. The cities then reflected the brilliance of that accountability through (among other things) the architecture that was meant to please even the eyes of poor people. And then the corporations found a way to not be accountable any more. Whether it was through NAFTA or Reagon’s tax breaks, or deregulation or globalization or all of it together–the corporations started leaving. And everything went to hell.

What these pictures reflect are not some random unexplainable moment of God striking down city after city that just so happen to only be located in the Rust Belt–they don’t even reflect decay. They reflect *neglect*. And *neglect* is an action that requires someone to be doing the neglecting. Unfortunatly, ruin porn very rarely inspires people to ask “who is doing this neglecting?” and when they do ask that–they draw on white supremacist heteropatriarhal narratives that position black people at the crux of all that is negative. It was *black* people that did this. Because Detroit is the Murder Capital! And they don’t take care of their houses! And all the city council is corrupt! And everybody knows that house values go down when they move in!

But as I talked about previously, when you know the true history of an area, you can begin to see the truth more clearly. You notice things like: the house values go down because the government has a policy that forces them to. Or that if we’re all busy blaming the corrupt city officials, we don’t notice that the factory just left town. And if we blame the corruption of the city officials on their blackness, we forget to see that it was the unnatural relationship between the corporations and the government that made the corrupt rules to begin with. Or: when you know the historical reality of an area, then you can see more clearly that pictures like ruin porn don’t reflect the city–they reflect the violence done to a city.

Some thoughts:

* Globalization is another word for corporate lack of accountability. Post-industrialization is a symptom of lack of accountability. Ruin porn is type of media narrative that allows people to believe that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with corporate lack of accountability.

* As mentioned previously, Rust Belt towns like Detroit and Flint were built with the specific intention of mobilizing resources for corporations. Their foundations were built on lack of accountability, as the corporations that supported them needed them to be.

This is a very real, practical problem. And it is what unions were ultimately in resistance of. Having nowhere to turn to because the company owned the newspapers, the police, the school board, the city council, etc. Violent white supremacists can make their inroads so effectively in local politics because in Rust Belt towns local was built with the intention of minimum oversight.

* Which is why organizing that is grounded in long term reimagining of new types of economies is essential rather than “not practical,” or “not realistic,” or “a dream.” I’ve heard so often the “Yeah, like that’s going to happen” accompanied with the rolling of the eyes when talking about stuff like “building new worlds” or “transformative change.” Or I get the “what are you, a commie?” or an impassioned “reasonable” argument about why capitalism may not work well, but it’s the best thing we have.

But if you set these arguments within the way we fetishize the withdrawal of resources–the way we admire and elegantly frame the violence of neglect, it becomes more obvious that “practicality” and “realistic” and “reasonable” are values of the same white supremacist heteropatriarchy that uses white supremacy to make globalization, free trade agreements and etc make sense. These are not values that have sprung out of the needs of the communities we live in.

Which means that we have a lot of questions to ask ourselves.

* What *are* our values?

* What would the values of a new economic system look like?

* What would an economic system that valued, for example, non-violence look like? Would it be a single economy?

* What would economies that valued ambiguity, flexibility, fluidness rather than rigidity, control and border enforcement look like?

* What does it mean to be a business that is accountable to community? What do apparatuses of accountability *look* like in this situation?

Again, these are not the questions of starry eyed dreamers in the Rust Belt region. They are practical questions that center the experiences of people who are required to interact with the violence of ruin porn every single day. And indeed, if you look closely throughout the Rust Belt, you see these very practical questions being shaped into a new reality. You see whole communities teaching each other how create and distribute accountable media. You see whole communities building new ways to feed each other. You see whole communities where youth are leaders in organizing new ways of learning. And you see whole communities healing together.

Practical solutions to a devastating problem.

Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, Willow Run, Cleveland, Toledo, Philadelphia etc etc etc…these cities are not *ruined*. They are survivors. They are living and breathing entities that have to figure out what to do now…just like all of us do.

Ruin porn may be pretty some times. But it doesn’t represent the cities they picture. And they don’t show what is important: the communities and people who are accountable to each other building a new world. Together.

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60 Responses

  1. z
    z September 15, 2011 at 8:01 pm |

    Might be a thing to credit the people who took those pictures.

  2. Bagelsan
    Bagelsan September 15, 2011 at 8:30 pm |

    Cool post, and honestly not something I’d really thought about before. I’ve never lived somewhere that is a popular subject of ruin porn, for one; the richer bits of the Philly suburbs don’t count.

    (I’ll say something more useful later but gotta get this off my chest: am I the only one who totally thought this post was going to be about ruining porn? Like, telling people “she faked that” and stuff? Yes? No? :D)

  3. Bagelsan
    Bagelsan September 15, 2011 at 8:35 pm |

    Hmm, are these pictures pretty much the same as disaster porn (all the lurid photos of boats on top of houses that we got from the Japanese tsunami, for example) or do you think that the no-one-violently-died-here difference is significant?

    For some reason that distinction makes ruin porn less overtly offensive to me (and it’s much less gut-level offensive to me than the graphic shots of actual human beings we get trying to embody “Africa!!” or whatever) but maybe I’m just nitpicking or taking a very “outsider” view of things, because I don’t personally know anyone who used to be in a ruin-porn-prone area so I don’t automatically put a face on it. Thoughts?

  4. Alex
    Alex September 15, 2011 at 8:45 pm |

    Fantastic post, BFP, thank you for writing it. That website where you found the second photo is sickening — I had no idea that ruin porn went so far beyond some big-name photographers. Fetishism indeed.

    z:
    Might be a thing to credit the people who took those pictures.

    Might be a thing to read the post.

  5. CassandraSays
    CassandraSays September 15, 2011 at 8:57 pm |

    I have a dear friend who’s from Cleveland, another city that’s often the subject of ruin porn. I’m going to forward this to her.

    In the UK we have cities like this too. Manchester is often photographed in the same way, and like Detroit, the current situation there is usually blamed on the inhabitants. Which is ridiculous, of course, but very common. It would be interesting to compare community organizing efforts in both places and see how they differ and how they’re similar in ways that reflect the specific histories of both cities.

  6. andie
    andie September 15, 2011 at 9:04 pm |

    Myself, I’ve taken pictures of older abandoned farmhouses because I’ve found it interesting the way the earth seems to take back these structures once humans have abandoned them.

    You make some interesting points though, which bear thinking about.. one of the UrbEx sites I read does full histories of the buildings they explore, which I think lends some credibility to this site, to put some context with the images, and I think that is what you’re getting at.. lack of context… lots of ‘what’ but very little ‘why’ or ‘how’.

    On a separate note, I’ve had some personal issues with UrbEx since a friend of mine died during one such expedition, and ever since then I’m a little squicky in dealing with this topic. People don’t always realize the danger that can be associated with exploring some of the larger abandoned buildings that exist.

  7. CassandraSays
    CassandraSays September 15, 2011 at 9:07 pm |

    @ Bagelsan – My feeling is that disaster porn is a related phenomenon on the consumer end in that people like to gawk, but the intent on the part of the people taking the pictures is very different, as is the way to local communities are being framed. Disaster porn frames any people involved as victims, and thus blameless. Part of the intent is to evoke sympathy. The stuff bfp is talking about isn’t intended to evoke any sympathy at all for the people who live in and around those places – in fact, it’s supposed to evoke sympathy for the poor architecture that’s been cruelly abandoned by those awful people who just don’t appreciate and know how to preserve beauty in the way that we the viewers do. Which is why it leaves such a bad taste in the mouth.

  8. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth September 15, 2011 at 9:13 pm |

    Have you seen James Griffioen’s Feral Houses? He has pictures of houses without people in them, but his intention is to create beautiful art and he talks about what the houses used to be. It’s not exploitative and he grew up in Michigan, went to law school in Michigan and moved back after four years in San Francisco. He’s completely in love with Detroit.

  9. Stella
    Stella September 15, 2011 at 9:20 pm |

    Thanks for this very thought-provoking post. It hits home in a way, since I’m a photographer among other things. I’ve never been to Detroit, but one of the things that’s always fascinated me is the interplay between the human and the natural world, and how quickly nature takes over if given the chance (and yes, I know I’m coming at that from a privileged and comfortable position). Most of my photography along these lines has been in the western US, in ghost towns or places like the Salton Sea (in SE California, lots of abandoned lakeside 1950s resorts and such), so the cultural implications are different; I haven’t done this kind of photography in places where people actually live or have lived recently in any large numbers.

    Not sure where I’m going with this; maybe just to say that I’m well aware that photography is a hell of a privileged hobby in the first place, since my camera costs as much as a month’s rent for some people, and I appreciate the reminder to always be thinking about the human aspect, and how easy it is to misrepresent with a photograph. I’m just wondering where the line is. I think I’d feel uncomfortable taking photographs like this in a place where people still actually live, since I know I’d be an outsider and I really don’t want to appropriate something that belongs to others or use it as a symbol of something they wouldn’t want it to symbolize. I think there is something to be said, though, about finding beauty anywhere, about transitoriness, about rebirth of various kinds; I guess the lesson is to do it with context and understanding. Or is it just inherently exploitative? I’d be interested to hear more thoughts on this, and I’ll be thinking about this for a while in my future work.

  10. victoria
    victoria September 15, 2011 at 9:21 pm |

    I noticed a similar thing while doing volunteer work in New Orleans in 2006-2007, which was sort of a transition time from “disaster porn” to “ruin porn” in terms of the reactions that visitors would have to seeing the buildings that hadn’t yet been gutted or rebuilt or demolished. It was the difference between “What a horrible tragedy!” (disaster porn) and “Why haven’t these people gotten on with their lives?” (ruin porn). And yes, these building were located in working class and historically Black neighborhoods, so there are a whole mess of class and race based assumptions that went along with those reactions.

  11. Chuckie K
    Chuckie K September 15, 2011 at 9:22 pm |

    Please pardon short, pessimistic answers to these questions,

    What does it mean to be a business that is accountable to community?
    It means the fast track to bankruptcy.

    What do apparatuses of accountability *look* like in this situation?

    An impossibility.

  12. z
    z September 15, 2011 at 10:33 pm |

    “It is a fetishization. It is a camera trained with a hyper intense gaze on a subject. It is viewers getting off on the most vulnerable moments of the subject.”

    No, that’s not it at all. Is it the same to say that all porn is fetishization, or that “viewers [are] getting off on vulnerable women”?

    Like all imagery, the effect the imagery has derives largely from its contextual placement. For example, while it may be argued that lesbian porn created for straight men is problematic (to be concise), lesbian porn created for gay women is not necessarily so.

    I understand the point you’re trying to make in the article, but it’s about how images are used, not the images themselves, that is the problem.

  13. z
    z September 15, 2011 at 10:56 pm |

    Alex
    Might be a thing to read the post.

    Aren’t you clever. The links were added after I posted that comment.

    The site the second picture came from really drives home bfp’s point. I’ve thought of this kind of photography as documenting neglect rather than fetishizing it, but that site is pure voyeuristic exploitation.

  14. Emma
    Emma September 15, 2011 at 11:27 pm |

    thanks for this. i’m from a township attached to canton, oh, south of akron and cleveland… and man there was something on forbes in 2008 ruin porn-ing my town. i googled it and voila: the fastest dying cities, cause, you know, why not: http://www.forbes.com/2008/08/04/economy-ohio-michigan-biz_cx_jz_0805dying_slide_2.html

    the photo is of a theater (with a long line) that hosts indie movie night once a week and gets packed. i was like, “what?” it felt a little insulting and left a weird taste in my mouth. so yeah, factories left during my childhood and then as this whole ~crisis~ whatever happened (critical mass?), i could look back and say, whoa, this wasn’t in a vacuum… ihoover vacuum (ha!) company especially impacted the area where my family lives — the company left suddenly but also methodically, and the leaving was gruesome. finally some other company is doing a huge revitalization project on that (beautiful brick) factory building now.

    there’s a whole narrative of corporate exploitation of people and environment (coal burning + air and breathing it…), and people and environment are still there in the wake of all that.. and it’s nice to see this articulated. so yeah. rust belt. yep.

  15. Kristi
    Kristi September 16, 2011 at 12:13 am |

    Okay, I gotta read this one tomorrow or Sunday. Sorry I missed it before making my comment on the next post. The danger of doing my surfing late at night.

  16. Gabriel
    Gabriel September 16, 2011 at 2:03 am |

    Sorry, but I couldn’t disagree more. First, the statement, “There are very few people born and invested in Detroit or the various Rust Belt cities that find these pictures appealing.” is unsubstantiated at best. I know lots of Detroiters that love the images – and the love them because they love Detroit, at whatever stage it’s in. What is discouraging is the hating on people who are making something beautiful out of what would otherwise be emptiness. You are about 30 years too late with “neglect” in quotes. Only when it became common and images started being shared via digital media did posts like this start cropping up. Use whatever critical theory you need to tie to degradation of the other or environmental exploitation, but I like the images and others like it BECAUSE it’s part of us. They exist in our memories and our livelihoods, and they are still what give us hope to carry forward. Neglect and everything else is still sustained – because no one has organized yet to bring the resources or the vision back to the city. And that is everyone’s responsibility. I think it might be more painful to recognize that the hurt came long ago, and seeing the emptiness, the past splendor, and the openness of it all … it’s a step on the way towards healing.

  17. KofC
    KofC September 16, 2011 at 2:14 am |

    Thank you for this…although I was dreading it, as I’ve been doing this sort of photography for years. I was thrilled to find the Detroit series on Feministe last night and wanted to put in a defensive word before the ruin porn piece appeared; wasn’t fast enough! I’m trying not to make it about how *I* feel as an artist or trying to pass all responsibility onto how corporate media presents urban decay photos and get huffy that I’m just photographing what I find attractive and interesting. (Urban decay artists deserve as much scrutiny of their choices as portrait photographers who “just happen” to prefer conventionally attractive models, I guess.)

    Yes, there’s a large hobby/subculture of “urban exploration.” It includes people who sneak into construction sites and hotel rooftops and so on, but abandoned building exploration is the most well-known. Some do it just for fun, to do graffiti or shoot goofy videos or vandalize–but the explorers I know take photos out of a real commitment to architecture, history, and historic preservation, are sometimes quite informed about the buildings they explore, and want to document what was there before it’s (often thoughtlessly) demolished or changed.

    I’ve visited abandoned factories, silos, hospitals, schools, theaters, churches, houses, public housing, offices, even a racetrack and a prison; sometimes with other people but often on my own. Detroit, Gary, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Memphis…and much of Chicagoland, because it’s so much more than the tourist-friendly downtown and hipster neighborhoods that get most of the attention. I’m from a Midwestern college town, so urban neighborhoods (in all conditions), industrial zones and suburban sprawl (and decay) were all relatively unfamiliar and fascinating to me when I moved to Chicago. No, my photos don’t have people in them (besides myself and friends); often no one is around. If they were, well, I’m just not an outgoing person with strangers, nor am I attempting to be a journalist.

    When I’ve talked to neighborhood residents (such as in Detroit or Gary), they’ve asked if we’re from the city or know what’s happening to the building; it’s hard not to feel guilty that we’re only taking photos, not doing anything immediate to help the situation. But I have read extensively on the history and politics of the Rust Belt (The Origins of the Urban Crisis; Making the Second Ghetto, etc.) and strenuously reject the simplistic, racist narrative that’s still a major mythology about Detroit, Gary, Chicago’s West Side, etc.

    True, the “urbex” photographers I know are mostly white guys (not all hipsters), but I know many women involved too. I’m generally the only one in a group who’s never had a DSLR camera (and presume I’m not taken as seriously as a “real” photographer–nor have I ever sold any of these photos). Since as noted above, the buildings can be quite dangerous, it’s also, well, kind of a dumbass pursuit for someone like me who has no doctor or insurance (I’ve been hospitalized from an accident in Detroit, though it’s something that could have happened in any building). But I’m aware of the ways this is a privileged hobby, of outsiders coming into a community with their expensive equipment and roaming the ruins of where people worked, learned, lived, were born and died.

    I’m also curious about the other side of the ruins-of-Detroit story: all the Detroit-revitalization stories (that, at least in the case of the many, many ones I’ve heard on public radio, seem to overwhelmingly focus on white hipsters and newcomers). Both of these narratives are interesting but ignore the most relevant concerns of residents.

  18. Annie
    Annie September 16, 2011 at 2:23 am |

    Plenty of people died in all of those spaces, directly or indirectly.

    Bagelsan: organizing that is grounded in long term reimagining of new types of economies is essential rather than “not practical,” or “not realistic,” or “a dream.” I’ve heard so often the “Yeah, like that’s going to happen” accompanied with the rolling of the eyes when talking about stuff like “building new worlds” or “transformative change.” Or I get the “what are you, a commie?” or an impassioned “reasonable” argument about why capitalism may not work well, but it’s the best thing we have.

    But if you set these arguments within the way we fetishize the withdrawal of resources–the way we admire and elegantly frame the violence of neglect, it becomes more obvious that “practicality” and “realistic” and “reasonable” are values of the same white supremacist heteropatriarchy that uses white supremacy to make globalization, free trade agreements and etc make sense. These are not values that have sprung out of the needs of the communities we live in.

  19. Annie
    Annie September 16, 2011 at 2:29 am |

    I’m from a rust belt state, too. Thanks for this, best blog post I’ve read in a long, long time. Truth be told, I grew up in Columbus, OH which is not exactly rust belt, but I have plenty of family from Cleveland, Toledo and the Detroit area and I have spent plenty of time there. There is de-industrialization/abandoned shit in Columbus, too, but not on the same scale, and manufacturing was never the core of Columbus.

    That being said… in my early college years I had a “thing” for ruin porn. I’m not really sure why but I’ve always been interested in urban decay and what makes cities prosper etc. I grew up in a decaying inner-ring suburb and worked in social services in the inner city for five years. At 25 I feel embarrassed that I was ever interested. It kind of creeps me out now, mostly for the reasons that you discuss here. I never had a way to describe it. But I totally agree that it doesn’t lead most people to talk about social problems. It’s only after I educated myself more that I started to withdraw from doing that kind of thing.

    For me though, certain ruins are a strong part of local history. Your childhood or coming of age. I spent a lot of time in two certain abandoned factories/places as a teenager and it made me much more curious about that neighborhood so I learned my local history, did research on it and ended up working there occasionally.

    So I guess I can see both sides, but ultimately, you’re right with the points you raise. Thanks for this.

  20. Medea
    Medea September 16, 2011 at 2:51 am |

    What I’m wondering is, who owns those beautiful buildings going to waste?

  21. La Lubu
    La Lubu September 16, 2011 at 5:48 am |

    All around Detroit are these gorgeous (and often empty) relics of the belief that public buildings for the working class should be beautiful, that ordinary people deserve to be in the presence of extraordinary beauty.

    I’m still stuck on that comment, because it sums it up so well. What has always struck me (even as a kid) and continues to do so about the older architecture (a hell of a lot of which is abandoned and/or neglected) is….the respect that went into it. The idea that (as annalouise said)….we’re worth this. And the way that the workers who built those places were allowed to demonstrate their craftmanship.

    I resent the implication that we, the people, were responsible for this neglect and abandonment. The purpose behind ruin porn as I see it is always, always to indict the people remaining, to show “wtf is wrong with them?! They’re not like us, we wouldn’t live like that amidst all that ugliness.” When the reality is….the people remaining aren’t the people who own those buildings.

    Just as the genocide and colonization that started the whole ball rolling had as its purpose the removal of wealth to “elsewhere”, so did industrialization and capitalism—suck up all the wealth from here; move it elsewhere. The ruins left behind to rot are the more visible sign that the people were left behind to rot, too. Except unlike the buildings, we aren’t seen as remnants of beauty.

  22. Aaron
    Aaron September 16, 2011 at 7:30 am |

    These articles have been great, BFP! Keep it up! Good, thoughtful articles on Detroit are desperately needed right now in the face of growing media coverage on the city that tends to dehistoricize the city’s crisis, and either tell a story of Detroit’s glorious revival at the hand of developers and the white, middle-class “creative class,” or as you put it, tell a story of Detroit as an abandoned city (no where does the story of Detroiter’s struggle or activism get a mention, nor does industry’s responsibility for this mess get a mention). Two thoughts:

    1) Ruin porn strikes me as a very specific thing which not only focuses in on and depicts blight and economic devastation, but it romanticizes it and treat it as something that’s without consequence (which is close to your point), benign and maybe even ahistorical (like, it just happened, it wasn’t anyone’s fault). However, things that maybe look like ruin porn can draw attention to the inequality that was created through Detroit’s urban crisis (I once saw a ruin porn photo that unintentionally did that, by taking a picture of the RenCen thru a busted out window frame from one of the abandoned buildings downtown, and I thought it was actually the only “ruin porn” photo that I genuinely liked). I would just hate to “over correct” against ruin porn by throwing away all the useful ways art can depict the scale of economic/social destruction in strategic and politically useful ways.

    2) Jumping off my previous thought – it seems that there has been a huge “over correction” in and around Detroit, and media (and even activist circles) against the “abandoned city” story, which is like the story of the “revived” or “reviving” city, which seems to try to depict Detroit as a town of “community” (ignoring all the crime and other social problems in the city), or some other boosterized story of the city as if the poverty, blight, etc. is either not that bad, or not a problem. I feel like in Detroit ruin porn actually fits into that somewhere, or works together with the “booster” narrative and that has to be included somewhere I think when talking about cultural depictions of Detroit and the crisis in Detroit.

  23. Mickie
    Mickie September 16, 2011 at 9:10 am |

    I’m not very articulate on this topic, but I think some of these photographs are indeed beautiful and artistic, and there is a value to preserving them for posterity.

    They remind me of the website FORGOTTEN NEW YORK http://forgotten-ny.com/ which was started by one guy who did not want NYC relics and architectural ghosts to disappear from our collective memories.

    In his intro: “My name is Kevin Walsh. After a 35-year residency in Bay Ridge, where I witnessed the construction of the Verrazano Bridge as a kid, I moved to Queens to be closer to a job as a copywriter/graphic designer at a well-known direct marketer in Long Island. That job has disappeared but FNY has endured.

    “I had been noticing ancient advertising and unremarked-upon scenes in New York City for years, but it wasn’t till I moved to Flushing and saw the ancient remaining Victorian and older buildings that stand among the cookie cutter brick apartments that I put two and two together and noticed there was no one out there who was really calling attention to the artifacts of a long-gone New York.

    “[Forgotten New York] began principal photography throughout 1998 and launched in March 1999. Within weeks, it was profiled by David Kirby in the New York Times, and FNY began a slow yet steady build in readership.”

    Dovetailing with your theme or “ruin porn,” he even has a section called STREET NECROLOGY.

    http://forgotten-ny.com/category/street-necrology/

    Of course, Detroit is a different city, different circumstances, duh! You don’t need to respond to me by pointing that out.

    My point is that, what started as one man’s love for endangered urban places has turned into a type of tourism and enthusiasim which many pooh-pooh, but which has also saved many locations and communities from going extinct forever.

  24. jdg
    jdg September 16, 2011 at 9:23 am |

    “Ruin porn” (a term I regretfully coined in the Vice Magazine article about Detroit) is as much about the consumer as it is the producer. how are these images being consumed? what sort of reaction are the consumers having to these photos? I write a blog about my life raising children in the city of Detroit. I try to be honest and write about the good as well as the bad, and part of that has involved documenting the city’s architecture and infrastructure, both good and bad. I noticed the “ruin porn” phenomenon when certain posts I wrote would receive inordinate amounts of attention from certain corners of the internet (reddit, fark, boing boing, metafilter) where non-Detroiters and non-everyday readers of my blog would react to them in a way that reminded me of other casual uses of the word “porn” (think “food porn” or “shelter porn”). Having outsiders (New Yorkers with $40,000 Hasselblads) documenting the ruins of my city and then jetting back to Manhattan to sell giant prints for $10,000 in Chelsea galleries felt exploitative. Between Andrew Moore and Marchand & Meffre, all these guys cared about was the same shit that a thousand first year CCS photography students and so-called “urban explorers” had documented ten thousand times (they just brought better equipment, and more importantly: better connections to the art world).

    The well-described “over correction in the media” and subsequent over categorization of all urban decay photography as “ruin porn” have made it a increasingly challenging for anyone—critic, journalist, activist, blogger—to tell “the Detroit story.”

  25. Mickie
    Mickie September 16, 2011 at 9:31 am |

    “The purpose behind ruin porn as I see it is always, always to indict the people remaining, to show “wtf is wrong with them?! They’re not like us, we wouldn’t live like that amidst all that ugliness.” When the reality is….the people remaining aren’t the people who own those buildings. ”

    I disagree. I always thought the purpose of this style of photography was to garner sympathy for those left behind. Sure, who needs our arms-length pity? But doesn’t it often motiviate individuals to, for example, drop everything, move across the country and start charities, fight fires, donate resources and rebuild, often without compensation?

  26. Joseph Allgren
    Joseph Allgren September 16, 2011 at 10:18 am |

    Anyone who throws around the phrase “white supremacist heteropatriarchy” is immediately suspect of being full of shit. First, the author seems to be overly sensitive about her hometown. NO ONE from Detroit takes these pictures? NO ONE from Detroit goes urban exploring? Nonsense. And why assume that the photographers are ignorant of the real political and economic reasons for the blight? Second, the author takes the photographs to task for not addressing those political and economic issues. Art is art; it doesn’t need to address ANY issues. (Art that makes a political statement is propaganda, not art.) Third, calling these images “porn” is an overreaction that trivializes the more complicated and serious issue of real porn. There is no objectification, no fetishizing, here. I enjoy looking at this images because they are beautiful, not because I “get off on them.” And I’m from Youngstown, a city almost as blighted as Detroit.

  27. Mickie
    Mickie September 16, 2011 at 10:21 am |

    Say, are you aware of this current exhibit at the Queens Museum in NYC: “Detroit Disassembled: Photographs by Andrew Moore”. It runs through January 2012.

    http://www.queensmuseum.org/detroit-disassembled-photographs-by-andrew-moore

    From the description:

    “The Queens Museum of Art is pleased to host Detroit Disassembled: Photographs by Andrew Moore, organized by the Akron Art Museum. The exhibition of thirty large scale photographs will be on view August 28th 2011 – January 15th 2012, with an opening celebration on September 18th.

    “During 2008 and 2009, Moore spent 3 months in Detroit. Once the epitome of American industrial wealth and might, the Motor City has faced declining population and economic distress for half a century. From an abandoned chemistry lab at Cass Technical High School to a house on the East Side’s Walden Street entirely covered with ivy to the bright green moss covering the floor of Ford Motor Company’s former headquarters, Moore’s photographs depict the remains of an eroding US industrial base amidst a strangely beautiful sense of decay. These highly detailed color photographs of the city, some of which are as large as 62 x 78 inches, belong to an artistic tradition of depicting ruins that began in the 17th century. Moore’s exquisitely realized visions of architecture overtaken by vegetation remind contemporary viewers that our own, familiar culture is subject to the forces of entropy and the eternal strength of nature.

    “In order to contextualize Detroit Disassembled within Moore’s career, selections from his earlier series on Russia and Cuba have been brought together in a small ancillary exhibition on the second floor in Elegies for Empire: Selections from Andrew Moore’s Inside Havana and Russia: Beyond Utopia. In these works, as in Detroit Disassembled, time and nature have reasserted themselves over architecture and domestic space.

    “Detroit Disassembled: Photographs by Andrew Moore will be accompanied by extensive public programming, with talks and workshops on photography, beauty, and urbanism inspired by the past and future of Detroit.”

  28. Erica
    Erica September 16, 2011 at 10:26 am |

    What about those cities/towns that will never, ever be revitalized? I was born in a small Rust Belt town that, for a variety of reasons, will never rise from the ashes. It was built around coal and steel, and when coal’s not king, there’s no more reason for it to exist really, except as a bedroom community of Pittsburgh or Morgantown, WV (and the commute to each of those places is over an hour, not worth it in light of rising gas prices). Wikipedia has a ruin porn picture on my hometown’s page, as the only picture on the page. And I don’t really care if people take ruin porn pictures of it, because honestly, it would take a masterful trick of photography to make that place look vital. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s totally gone in fifty years, since the population has decreased exponentially every decade.

    Obviously, Detroit is different, there’s enough of an interest in revitalizing the city, and enough native population that actually CARES about the city to make a difference. Plus, parts of Detroit are beautiful, and with hard work they can be made beautiful again (unlike my hometown). I would feel extremely gross taking pictures of “ruined” Detroit, and I also would taking pictures of the “ruined” parts of my current city, Baltimore. Maybe partially because I’m not a local, but also because of race/class issues and also because it puts the cities in a context that they don’t deserve owing to the revitalization efforts.

    But when you talk about small towns, well, I think that’s a little different, maybe? Or maybe I’m just trying to rationalize it because I sort of want to do the white hipster thing and take pictures of that town, next time I go back to visit my parents.

    For me though, certain ruins are a strong part of local history. Your childhood or coming of age.

    Yes. As I said before, 90% of the downtown of my hometown is dead (it was only like 75% when I was a kid). The cycle of the coal/steel boom-bust is an important part of the town’s history, one I’m glad they’re not erasing by knocking down the “extraneous” buildings or gentrifying them in some kind of Potemkin’s village scheme. Someday, the earth will take them over, but until that happens I think it’s important to know that these places existed. Detroit will always exist in some form, but not the little Rust Belt boomtowns.

  29. sb
    sb September 16, 2011 at 11:59 am |

    Gabriel:
    Sorry, but I couldn’t disagree more. First, the statement, “There are very few people born and invested in Detroit or the various Rust Belt cities that find these pictures appealing.” is unsubstantiated at best.I know lots of Detroiters that love the images – and the love them because they love Detroit, at whatever stage it’s in.What is discouraging is the hating on people who are making something beautiful out of what would otherwise be emptiness.You are about 30 years too late with “neglect” in quotes.Only when it became common and images started being shared via digital media did posts like this start cropping up.

    So much this. I’ve loved the big old art-deco downtowns and the way nature pushes cracks in concrete and the graceful arches of freeways and barges and smokestacks next to neon and lights and all of the things that you get in rust belt cities, boom or bust. They’re home, and they’re beautiful. (Cleveland, not Detroit, but…)

    And I’m glad that more people are getting to share this beauty, as long as it’s happening respectfully. (Which it isn’t always, but isn’t that always how it goes with porn?)

  30. Alex C
    Alex C September 16, 2011 at 12:48 pm |

    Chuckie K: Please pardon short, pessimistic answers to these questions, What does it mean to be a business that is accountable to community?It means the fast track to bankruptcy.What do apparatuses of accountability *look* like in this situation?An impossibility.

    I have to disagree with the above, it shows a sad lack of imagination. A business accountable to a community could look like this: a public company wholly owned by members of the community in question. The Green Bay Packers come to mind, although they are not wholly owned by GB residents. The point is that businesses are only answerable to ownership and to government, and the sad truth is that government is for sale, leaving ownership as the only path to a controlling voice for individuals or groups.

    However, I belive it’s equally important for the community to be accountable to the business. Think about all the mom-n-pop stores Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and Costco have put out of business. To me, the blame is squarely on the shoulders of people who would rather save a penny than help support thier local economy. Without local revenue supporting businesses, the cynical view espoused above may very well prove correct.

    One final point about Detroit and Globalization: I have a very different view of corporate accountabilty. I don’t see it as the fault of corporations that they’ve offshored hundreds of thousands of jobs. Rather, I fault the unions who blindly protected thier members’ entitlement salaries and benefits in the face of changing conditions in the world economy. To put it simply, if people in another country are willing to do the same work as an American for pennies on the dollar, the only choice is to work cheaper or not work at all. The blame is on the unions for not recognizing one inescapable fact: unionization only works when the entire labor market is unionized. When that market includes people in India, China, and other countries, THE ONLY SOLUTION IS FOR THE UNIONS TO GLOBALIZE.

  31. Jadey
    Jadey September 16, 2011 at 1:47 pm |

    Seems to bring up again the question of intent versus effect. Whatever intent people, artists and fans, may have regarding this kind of photography, what is the actual effect? Does it reify a state of neglect as somehow natural and beautiful and therefore unproblematic, or does it move people to action to combat the urban decay which can be linked to specific institutional practices?

    I’m not familiar with ruin porn in the context of Detroit or major urban centres, but it does remind me of rural examples from my home province – old, abandoned barns, homes, and cabins, even ones down to nothing but the foundation. My experience with those was always just as something fascinating to look at – I never felt a push to question why they were there or if something was problematic about the decay (and certainly some of them really were just old homesteads that hadn’t been lived in for centuries – others were more recent and might have been related to economic depression in the area). Considering BFP’s post following this one, I feel like something similar could be said of urban ruin porn. I’m sure the effect varies depending on the person, but personally I don’t think I, having no experience or familiarity with Detroit, would have looked at these pictures and thought, “Man, something needs to be done about this.”

    The politics of art can be sketchy sometimes, if they don’t connect to action. I remember seeing an exhibit a while ago that I can’t describe in more detail unfortunately without giving away my current location, damn need for internet pseudononymity, that had a similar effect of depicting economic inequality in great detail with substantial artistic skill (it was a sculpture exhibit), but without any real sense of critique of that inequality. I think the idea was that obviously as enlightened first-world thinkers, we were supposed to recognize that there was inequality and tsk tsk appropriately, but it didn’t go beyond that. Certainly, it wasn’t a revelatory message – economic inequality in colonized nations exist. And the artist herself was not a member of the country or communities she was depicting, so there was no personal perspective from within that community that was coming through. Thinking about what if I brought a child or a teen to that exhibit, what message they would get out of it and how it would impact them, all I could think of was that they would see that inequalities exist (if they didn’t already know that), and… what? Is there anything beyond that? Any particular sense that this is changeable? Or that it even needs to be changed? (Realizing that the child might very well identify with the powerful rich people depicted in the exhibit, and not the poor brown people.) Combine that with the knowledge that the artist is actively profiting off of their work as part of their professional career and therefore is profiting off of the inequalities of a community she is not even a part of and getting political cred as someone social-justice-minded while doing it. My sister, who was at the exhibit with me, remarked that it was just this kind of work and the general attitude among her fellow students and teachers that real art had to contain some kind of political message (even if you took it from someone else) but not necessarily any kind of political action that led her to drop her fine arts degree to pursue design instead.

    Arts are not the only profession where this issue comes up – as a social science researcher who focuses on social justice issues, I often end up in the exact same position of profiting off of and relying on the existence of certain social ‘realities’, like prejudice and discrimination, and I too have to consider ways in which my work can try to change these realities and be useful to people who are trying to change them, rather than just documenting them and adding to my CV.

  32. kloncke
    kloncke September 16, 2011 at 2:54 pm |

    One of the most heartwrenching and important threads that I take from this analysis is that the neglect of the corporations/empires/capitalists, the withdrawing of their resources from Detroit, was a consequence of the extremely effective fightback of the unions. I can just imagine militants and community members feeling like, Finally we are really gaining some power here (at a great cost). And then, quicksand. A fighting, organized labor force is certainly not friendly to capital.

    And now, I think we see a similar situation shaping up with the wave of strikes in East Asia, like the Chinese workers’ strikes in auto plants there. How long before capitalists move their operations to Africa, or any region that seems more desperate for jobs, disorganized, and docile toward company control?

    To me, this speaks to the importance of international, border-transgressive solidarity networks. I hope that eventually, all over the world, there will be no safe harbor for “globalization” or “flexible labor,” and that we can stop the vicious economic pathology of (1) expropriation of peasant farmers’ land, (2) toxic industrialization in poor areas, and (3) constant downward pressure on wages, especially using women of color as a wage-undermining work force.

    Sorry if this seems far from the Detroit “ruin porn” question, but what I’m saying is, I think people from Detroit and the Rust Belt also have very valuable experiences and histories of resistance (and transformative creation) that could link up to a worldwide network of knowledge about what it is to really fight capitalism. In formulating our strategies, we need to be aware of the slipperiness and neglect of corporations / neocolonizers, and what that means for various industries. Auto plants, for instance, may be easier to keep relocating, chasing desperate labor, compared to other industries that are more region- or population-specific.

    * What would economies that valued ambiguity, flexibility, fluidness rather than rigidity, control and border enforcement look like?

    So many big and fertile questions, I think I need to pick just one for now. :)

    I feel like the ‘flexibility and fluidity’ mean very different things to the proletariat versus the ruling class. Our current system does allow a lot of ‘flexibility’ for big employers, which translates to precarity for workers (as I think the passively destructive flight of factories from Michigan demo’s). But when I think about possibilities for positive economic flexibility and fluidity, I think first and foremost of *everybody’s basic needs being met,* and *everyone co-owning the means of subsistence,* with people actively shaping the conditions of their labor, rather than being managed and bossed by the owners and those loyal to them. When everyone’s needs are met, and we as a species produce for use and wellness, rather than accumulation and maximizing of profit, then I hope we will experience much more flexibility and creativity. Short answer. :)

    Thanks again for this series, and for the equally wonderful follow-up ruin porn post after this one. I’m excited to be thinking through the questions you pose. Thank you.

  33. kloncke
    kloncke September 16, 2011 at 3:01 pm |

    @Alex C, it’s funny: we both expressed a similar idea about the need for worldwide unions or solidarity networks, but I strongly differ with the way you frame it. How can we “fault the unions” for not “adapting to market demands” when Delhi wages can’t buy Detroit bread? Uneven development around the world is part and parcel of capitalism’s development, and is tied to histories of imperialism, and U.S. hegemony. Why does the hyper-exploitation of non-U.S. labor forces mean that people living in the U.S. shouldn’t fight just as hard against their own exploitation?

  34. Gabriel
    Gabriel September 16, 2011 at 3:22 pm |

    It’s worth pointing out that some areas of the “dead” city have become new habitat to native and invasive non-human species. So often we malign death and abandonment when it’s people, but somehow we miss that our own growth is also killing others – and yeah, it’s complicated.

  35. Kristen J.
    Kristen J. September 16, 2011 at 3:27 pm |

    bfp: I have to wonder at the ideas that these photos are being used to “help” or to “preserve history.” Whose history is being preserved? And what history happens with no people present? How does art help if there are perpetually no people present in it? How do we help people that we refuse to see?

    Yes. Exactly. “Recording history” (as a preservation junkie I refuse to call anything related to this as preservation) is all well and good *until* you start taking pleasure in the destruction of homes and communities. It should be recorded. Everyone should know that this is the cost of unfettered capitalism. But (looking at that link for the second picture) this has morphed from an attempt to understand and remember to sick voyeurism.

    O/T most of these pictures have me itching to pickup my tool kit. Must.restrain.the.urge.to.rehab.old.buildings.

  36. Mickie
    Mickie September 16, 2011 at 3:54 pm |

    bfp: I have to wonder at the ideas that these photos are being used to “help” or to “preserve history.” Whose history is being preserved? And what history happens with no people present? How does art help if there are perpetually no people present in it? How do we help people that we refuse to see?

    Could you please explain what your questions are? I’m not following.

  37. packrat
    packrat September 16, 2011 at 5:40 pm |

    “You’re from *there*? That war zone? That apocalyptic hell hole? That death trap?”

    I’ve heard this, and variations on it, a shockingly high amount. Unfortunately, I find myself playing into the joke more often than challenging it, mostly because its easier to do so.

    Anyway, thank you so much for this article BFP!
    As a Detroiter, ruin porn has been especially annoying to me. Any time a major article is put out about Detroit and what ails it, invariably it is accompanied by shot after shot of ruin porn, or carefully cropped and positioned pictures of seemingly vast stretches of abandoned lots (right next to thoroughly well-occupied regions). The persistent message throughout all these articles (aside from the fact that everyone else knows how we should fix ourselves) is that Detroit is essentially a lost cause (with a subtle hint of “because black people run it”) , and is a charity case for the few stragglers who are unable to leave the town. Rarely is a good thing said about anything happening here, and when it is, its tainted with the patronizing tone of pity.

    I’m one of the founding members of a group in the Metro Detroit area (shameless plug time: i3Detroit) who, with modest means, aims to make available to the community the resources, tools, and knowledge that empowers people to be innovative and creative. Our (lofty) aim is to build a community no longer dependent upon the “magnanimity” of those corporations who short-sightedly left us out to dry.

  38. Angel H.
    Angel H. September 16, 2011 at 6:07 pm |

    A similar thing has been happening in Japan. Haikyo expeditions to buildings that became abandoned after Japan’s “bubble economy” popped (sorry) have become trendy.

  39. Gabriel
    Gabriel September 16, 2011 at 6:31 pm |

    I hear lots of good things coming out of Detroit – not just the “decay” narratives. The music scene is still churning, art is happening, and you see films like this:

    Urban Roots follows the urban farming phenomenon in Detroit. It is a timely, moving and inspiring film that speaks to a nation grappling with collapsed industrial towns and the need to forge a sustainable and prosperous future. Urban Roots is the next documentary from Tree Media, and produced by Leila Conners (The 11th Hour) and Mathew Schmid and directed by Mark Mac-Innis.

    So it’s hard for me to swallow statements like, “Rarely is a good thing said about anything happening here, and when it is, its tainted with the patronizing tone of pity.”

  40. honeybadger
    honeybadger September 16, 2011 at 6:44 pm |

    While I have appreciated a photo or two of well-taken ruin porn, I’ve always felt slightly uncomfortable at all the pictures of run-down buildings in Detroit, although I couldn’t put my finger on why. You have described it. The photographers seem to only be able to see what is in front of them, a decaying building that they find beautiful. They don’t realize that the decaying building was once a place where people earned their livelihood, and it’s now empty and decaying not because the workers all up and decided to work somewhere else. I went back to visit family in Saginaw (the situation there draws a lot of parallels to Detroit) a year or so ago and I was heartbroken to see the massive amount of houses that were boarded up. In the neighborhood where I was it seemed like every street has as many boarded-up houses as ones that people still lived in. There was one house that had a car rotting in the front yard, and some people were taking pictures in what appeared to be prom outfits. That made me feel strange, like, here these kids are taking pictures with the backdrop of a boarded-up house, do they realize that the homeowners probably had to leave because they were foreclosed on? If people didn’t lose their jobs or their houses then where would these photographers find these great pictures? Ruin porn is rather celebratory of people’s tragedies.

  41. Alex C
    Alex C September 16, 2011 at 7:00 pm |

    @ kloncke: I have a difficult time with the idea that the average worker in the us is being exploited. Certainly exploitation happens all too often, moreso in non-union jobs tho. You mentioned that Delhi wages can’t buy Detroit bread, and that’s exactly the problem. Exploitation of foriegn workers is suppressing foriegn wages and as a result entire currencies are artificially low against the dollar. My problem with the unions is that they should have, and ultimately to thier eternal disgrace probably did, see this coming 20 years ago. Either through ignorance or apathy the strongest anti-exploitation voices in the world have been conspicuously silent for a long time, and now eveveryone is paying the price for thier silence.

    With all that said tho, people need to realize even in a world without exploitation, the gardeners can’t live in the castle. Even if world wages and currencies improve drastically, not everyone will be able to afford to live wherever they want. It’s the reality of land being a scarce resource.

  42. K
    K September 16, 2011 at 8:08 pm |

    I live in West Oakland, and am currently restoring an old Victorian Cottage in a neighborhood that was originally built to house longshoremen and cannery workers (back before massive cranes took over the port and the cannery closed). Several things from this post resonated for me:

    1) “relics of the belief that public buildings for the working class should be beautiful, that ordinary people deserve to be in the presence of extraordinary beauty. ”

    When we bought this place I researched the architect and the time period, and learned that this beautiful building, and all the other beautiful houses around it, were built specifically for blue-collar workers. Part of the design ethic of the time was that EVERYONE needed and deserved beauty. The original houses in our neighborhood are all small, but lovely. What a beautiful thing for a society to believe!

    2) “You’re from *there*? That war zone? That apocalyptic hell hole? That death trap?”

    Oakland is a Top 10 Murder City every year, and “everyone knows” West Oakland is a Bad Neighborhood. When I leave my home and go to work, all people see is a young white woman with an engineering degree, working in the Bay Area with all her techie friends. When I say that I not only live, but bought a home in West Oakland, people recoil. Often I talk about the specific neighborhood, the families who have lived on our block for 5 generations, the kids shooting hoops in the street…but mostly I can see in their eyes cold images of blight and blood and decay.

    There is a flipside reaction, of people who ask hungrily for details about how damaged the house was and how cheap we were able to get it. They love the narrative of people like them coming in with vision and restoring this neglected bit of beauty, and of course making a bundle of cash in the bargain.

    Both stories are true. Not far from us there are vacant, trash-strewn lots and empty homes. We have had everything stolen out of our car twice, down to the damn battery. The only reason they didn’t take the truck is because we put two different kinds of Club on it every night. The next street over is a popular dumping ground for trash, toxic chemicals, and discarded furniture, which the city rarely comes to pick up. The yard next door is strewn with rusty tools and pit bulls. And…

    The Cannery has been redeveloped into affordable green housing. There is a wine bar opening three blocks away, and we have a local diner and a bike repair shop. My neighbors knock on the door when I leave the car lights on, and come over to ask about progress on the house. They are thrilled that the blighted property in their neighborhood will no longer attract thieves, vandals, and drug addicts. The pit bulls in the next yard have decided they love me, as has their owner, a fifth-generation resident of the street.

    Neither ruin porn nor the revitalization myth tell you what it’s like to actually live in one of these places.

  43. K
    K September 16, 2011 at 8:15 pm |

    P.S. I meant to post in the Detroit thread that my father is from Bay City, and all his family still live there. When I think about Detroit, and that part of Michigan in general, I think about him as a high school football star. I think about his stories of swimming in the Saginaw river and coming out with toilet paper clinging to his legs. I think about the fact that my middle name is Kaline, after Al Kaline of the Detroit Tigers.

  44. Erica
    Erica September 16, 2011 at 8:55 pm |

    klonckeWhy does the hyper-exploitation of non-U.S. labor forces mean that people living in the U.S. shouldn’t fight just as hard against their own exploitation?

    Because the only way we can fight against our own exploitation long term is to increase the power of the worker on a global scale. Because now it doesn’t matter what the guy in the next town is getting paid, it matters what the guy on the other side of the world is, you’re competing with seven billion other potential people for jobs. (Well, until the end of oil means the end of globalization, which is coming. And just so this isn’t too much of a derail, the fact that Detroit is built on the collapsing car industry means that it’s going to have to find a new industry to survive long term. I’m sure it can–Pittsburgh found its niche in health care and is now thriving–but the car industry as it is now has maybe one more generation. Detroiters: what do you think will happen to your city in a post-peak-oil world or is the car industry not that much of an integral part of Detroit anymore?)

  45. Chuckie K
    Chuckie K September 16, 2011 at 9:24 pm |

    @Erika, too. Whne you say this, “you’re competing” you have idebntified the heaqrt of the problem, but don’t seem to identify it.
    I appreciate why Detroit and pictures of Detroit stir people so deeply, but I’d like to hear people respond to the questions BfP posed too.

    For instance, * What *are* our values?. Well, cooperation.
    And, * What would the values of a new economic system look like?
    Definitely not competition.

  46. Chuckie K
    Chuckie K September 16, 2011 at 9:30 pm |

    @Alex, I see a lot of miscommunication on line about the exploitation. I guess liberals think it means really bad pay or really bad working conditions. For Marxists it has a very different meaning, a very specific and I suppose you could say technicl meaning. In a more general sense, exploitation means you do the work, but the owner takes the profits. Every worker who works for an employer is exploited by definition. Specifically, exploitation means exactly how much more what you produce for your employer is worth than what they pay you. That ratio what you produce divided by what you earn is called the ‘rate of exploitation.’ By this definition assembly line workers making a good wage were still highly exploited because what they produced was still worth a lot more than what they were paid.

  47. Chuckie K
    Chuckie K September 16, 2011 at 9:55 pm |

    After I commented, I realizedI should make clear that I am not saying BfP is Marxist or that she is working with Marxist definitions. But Kloncke seeems to be, and me.

  48. hey bfp how ya doin
    hey bfp how ya doin September 17, 2011 at 2:24 am |

    Erica: Because the only way we can fight against our own exploitation long term is to increase the power of the worker on a global scale. Because now it doesn’t matter what the guy in the next town is getting paid, it matters what the guy on the other side of the world is, you’re competing with seven billion other potential people for jobs. (Well, until the end of oil means the end of globalization, which is coming. And just so this isn’t too much of a derail, the fact that Detroit is built on the collapsing car industry means that it’s going to have to find a new industry to survive long term. I’m sure it can–Pittsburgh found its niche in health care and is now thriving–but the car industry as it is now has maybe one more generation. Detroiters: what do you think will happen to your city in a post-peak-oil world or is the car industry not that much of an integral part of Detroit anymore?)

    This is what I think of as an attempt to answer the question, “How do we avoid being Julia?”, which is not the same as answering, “How do we make a world in which no one has to be Julia?” I’m thinking of that bit from 1984 in which, faced with rats about to eat his face off, Winston Smith screams, “Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia!”–his lover–because anything’s better than having it done to him, and I ain’t blaming the guy, if it even makes sense to blame a fictional character, because RATS. About to EAT YOUR FACE. My own grandmother’s in for hard times if you put that in front of me. Sorry, grandma, but c’mon, you’ve had a good long run.

    I mean, you start off well: “Because the only way we can fight against our own exploitation long term is to increase the power of the worker on a global scale.” That’s basically “none of us free until all of us free.” But it winds up seeming like window dressing when next you go to: “Because now it doesn’t matter what the guy in the next town is getting paid, it matters what the guy on the other side of the world is, you’re competing with seven billion other potential people for jobs.” I mean either the seven billion other people are as much the point as “you” (the you who is “competing with” the rest of the world), or they aren’t–they’re just thrown in there to lend gravitas to what seems to be the thrust of your comment, which is that Detroit must find some way to not be Julia. After all, Pittsburgh did it!

    (I’ll refrain here from going into much detail about how changing to a healthcare service economy might be a good short-term solution but almost certainly isn’t much of a long-term one because hey this is not my post, but the next time you’re in a hospital, look at how many people working there are actually volunteers. If they’re not volunteers, they’re just-above-minimum-wage technicians. Yes, this is better than being a 101-year-old woman evicted from her home, but it’s no guarantee of never becoming that woman, either.)

    If you accept an economy in which it’s a given, or rather a requirement, that someone has to be Julia, that someone has to face a cage of hungry rats with a taste for human eyeballs, then someone will always be Julia.

    I could be wrong, but I don’t think bfp’s asking how Detroit can avoid being Julia. I think she’s saying that we’ve all got a date with rats, that some folks have been having their eyeballs chewed on for decades, and that maybe ruin porn pictures of rat droppings aren’t going to fix anything. But my reading comprehension isn’t what it used to be, so–all corrections appreciated, bfp.

    *sits back and tries to wait patiently for the next installment*

  49. Sydney
    Sydney September 17, 2011 at 4:11 pm |

    Okay, so here goes. Maybe I’ve misunderstood the article, in which case I apologize. This are simply my views on abandonment photography.

    I don’t think all photographs of abandoned buildings qualify as “ruin porn.” A photograph of an abandoned house is no more pornography than a photograph of a naked person. The difference is in the execution. If the photograph is a highly-sexualized, demeaning image of a woman performing some erotic act, then it is porn. If the photograph is of an abandoned hospital, replete with bad Photoshop filters and text claiming it’s haunted by abused patients, then it is porn. There is no inherent problem with abandonment photography, although I am well aware it is often abused. Abandonment websites run the gamut from professional-grade photography to drunk college students with too much time on their hands. The best, in my opinion, go to great lengths to provide the history of the building in question. Some don’t reveal exact locations or names to discourage vandals.

    For me, the attraction to abandoned buildings comes from the questions they raise in my mind. “What was this building used for?” “When was it built?” “Who lived here?” “Why was it abandoned?” I want to know everything. I know there are many who are only interested in ghosts and other supernatural phenomena. To me that’s unnecessary and cheapens the experience. These buildings are rich with stories already. Urban legends can’t compete.

    The historic aspect of abandonment photography is probably the most important to me. I’m interested in old buildings in general, regardless of what condition they’re in. Again, I wonder what sorts of people walked these halls before me. I’m also interested from an architectural standpoint. Abandoned buildings can have amazingly intricate and well-crafted details that are often overlooked. Most are destined to be lost forever.

    In regard to exploiting the stories of the people who live in these areas, I wholeheartedly agree that simply snapping a few shots without caring about the greater context is irresponsible. Photographers should focus on the larger context of a building’s history. As a viewer, I don’t want to see just a photo. Tell me the larger story. Talk to people. Ask questions. Do some investigation to help me understand how we got here.

    As for me, I only half-fit the description of “white hipster.” I think I like old, run-down buildings so much because I grew up in one. When she first saw our house, my mom wondered how she could commit arson without getting caught. I’ve grown up surrounded by old things that have been thrown away or forgotten. My third-great-grandfather’s brother built our house. Over the years, it became a convenient place for relatives to dump things they no longer wanted. More than twenty years later, my parents still aren’t quite done with renovations.
    I also understand how class comes into play with abandonments. My mother’s family comes from one of the poorest counties in our state. I’m well-accustomed to seeing abandoned coal camps. I know there’s a long history of exploitation and poverty that goes along with them. Specifically, exploitation of the poor for the benefit of the wealthy.

    I swear I didn’t mean to write a sermon. I just think abandonment photography is not exploitative in and of itself. It certainly can be, but not by default.

  50. Sheelzebub
    Sheelzebub September 17, 2011 at 5:44 pm |

    Excellent post, BFP, and lots of food for thought. I see this trend, and it makes me roll my eyes. This isn’t some novelty any more, some photographer catching the beauty in abandoned places, this really is people being hip and cool and thinking they’re oh-so-fucking edgy.

    And I’m so glad that some folks are over the moon that native and non-native species are “taking those spaces back” but it’s telling that it’s fine when it’s Other People who have been pushed out.

    I’ll also point out to some of the simpering asshats on the thread who are going off on BFP that she is from Detroit, so you can take your lectures about how she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, etc. and shove them right the fuck up your ass.

  51. Weekly Feminist Reader
    Weekly Feminist Reader September 19, 2011 at 9:32 am |

    [...] super-smart bfp is doing a guest series on Detroit and ruin porn at Feminste. Definitely check out the whole [...]

  52. NancyP
    NancyP September 21, 2011 at 11:35 am |

    I plead guilty to looking at “ruin porn”, although I call it “architectural history”. Often the abandoned buildings are the only examples of local architectural styles, given that it is much easier to bulldoze than restore. I am happiest to see photos of the buildings and their people in better days. The history of the community is important. I also find some construction detail revealed by disintegration to be interesting and worth recording for historical sake. How did they do that? The living memory is largely gone.

    I plead guilty to looking at the graffiti / home-made art / community murals type of “ruin porn”, as I consider many examples an attempt to personalize, humanize, make joyful some boring industrial concrete surfaces. I am thrilled that the local government (St. Louis City) ignores the graffiti and painting on the flood levees. It is of variable artistic quality, some outstanding, some good, some mediocre, but all of it says: Human beings here! Few people realize that there are tent-city residents, and there is art for/from those residents, underneath those Mississippi River bridges.

    I remember reading about a block of houses somewhere in Detroit, with unique outside painting and decoration done on the cheap with available materials. If this was done by a resident or block committee for their own enjoyment, more power to them!

    Yes, I have lived in the Rust Belt (Toledo), 25 years ago, and visited Detroit City occasionally during that time. Restrictive covenants (the equivalent of “sundown town” signs) starting at the city – county north boundary are responsible for much of the white disinvestment (tax and charitable donations) in Detroit city public amenities well before the 1980s crash. BFP has a better grasp of the history, having been a longtime resident with access to the memories of even longer-term residents.

  53. Day Thirteen: duhn duhn DUHN « Write Already

    [...] research path I followed this week (after my writing session) was Ruin Porn. This post has one thing to say, and while I may not agree with everything in it (History is a Bitch, in my [...]

  54. Robert Horn
    Robert Horn October 12, 2011 at 11:57 pm |

    Dear Cassanda, I found your blog on this subject very interesting and though provoking. However, I think you go a bit too far in assigning motivation to photographers, as in your response to bagelsan. I don’t think you can ascribe the same motivations to all the photographers focusing on these types of subjects, or even know with certainty what the motivation of any particular photographer is, unless that photographer has written an essay explaining it. You are projecting on to them, just as others react and project their own feelings and interpretations on to the photographs themselves. Just as with your blog, the photographs are thought provoking. The fact that they capture interest (even from ‘gawkers) is a positive. If you can’t capture people’s interest, you won’t get people thinking or talking about issues. Of course, some people will think or say things you won’t agree with. That’s the price of freedom of speech, artistic freedom and diversity.

  55. geralyn
    geralyn October 13, 2011 at 7:46 am |

    I have a LOVE HATE relationship with what is called Ruin Porn. I do not call it that, I call it photography. I started photographing Brush Park in Detroit after taking a ghost tour in 1993 right before Halloween. This isn’t your normal tour, this was one down and dirty run through vacant homes and scaring the crap out of each other before hitting St. Andrews. Then construction started on I75 and I had to find another way to work… so I drove up Brush to the office. It was amazing. Awesome. Eye opening. Every morning passing beautiful homes and yet no one ‘lived’ in them. Yes, many folks were living there but the owners were nowhere to be found.

    I’m from a generation of parents that discouraged us from going downtown. From parents that fled the city in the height of the riots. But as you know, the more you say no to a kid, the more we run towards it! So I did. Home after home, block after block, etc. For me this was capturing history before it was torn down, not Ruin Porn. And now, after living out of Detroit for almost 20 years, those abandoned homes are FINALLY getting rehabilitated or demolished. Detroit is notorious for allowing building to fade back into the Earth on their own, hence the many many photographs.

    On my most recent trip home, two weeks in the city, the longest stretch since I left, I brought along a project. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and still, why I did it. What I did was hang up images around the city where I had taken them over the last 20+years. Some buildings were gone. Some still holding on. Some had residents, like Al in the Packard and in Brush Park where an entire block of dilapidated homes were demo’d to build a senior center. One thing I can say, NO matter where I went, incredibly nice folk always willing to tell me their story, their history with the building. I’d love to keep this project going, adding more images with each visit. Here is the link to the project – http://fullcircledetroit.com – would love to hear your feedback.

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