Let’s Abandon the Industrial-Decay Porn and Take a Closer Look at What’s Growing in Detroit

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New York photographer Andrew Moore, who has published in The New Yorker and has put out an entire book entitled Detroit Disassembled (which may have to compete for shelf space with Marchand and Meffre’s forthcoming book The Ruins of Detroit). There’s even a whole Flickr photo pool devoted to “Abandoned Michigan.”

There is, of course, a more thoughtful way to handle this kind of photography. Detroit resident James Griffioen, who writes the popular and photo-laden blog Sweet Juniper!, is careful to investigate and contextualize the images he makes of his troubled hometown; after documenting the huge piles of books and confidential student records left behind in closed school buildings around Detroit, for example, he went to great lengths to find out why the materials had been abandoned, and who was responsible for them. My concern is that few of the photographers scouring Detroit for arresting images take this kind of care, or bother to seek out the city’s more encouraging stories, such as the successes of the independent retailers featured in Griffioen’s recent series “But Where Do You Shop?

I had lunch this week with a young, very talented Cambridge, MA-based photographer named Dave St. Germain. He told me an interesting story. He’d signed up to visit Detroit as part of a spring-break photographic expedition organized by one of Boston’s leading schools of photography. But before the trip could even begin, all of the other students withdrew; St. Germain said he got the sense that Michigan just didn’t compare very well with the previous year’s spring break destination (Florida).

I drew two points from this story. One, among some photographers and photographic instructors, there’s an idea virus that Detroit is some kind of treacherous but intriguing foreign destination, like a domestic version of Kabul. Two, when push comes to shove, most of these artists don’t really care about Detroit’s travails, and would rather take their cameras somewhere sunny and warm.

So let me add to my earlier plea to the photographers scouring Detroit. Enough with the industrial porn. How about showing us some of what’s promising, exciting, and green in in the city? There are plenty of real, live examples that anybody who wants to look can find. There’s the Hantz Farms urban agriculture project, or the growing gardens of the Georgia Street Community Collective. The Creative Corridor is gradually taking shape along Woodward Avenue. There are scores of destinations listed on the Metro Detroit Greenmap, a project of the volunteer group Sustainable Detroit.

It would be wrong to try to whitewash Detroit’s very real problems, and I’m not asking the photographers who seem so riveted by rust and broken glass to censor themselves. But there are people who are committed to rebuilding Detroit, and their stories are interesting and important as well. If more people paid attention to the rebuilding effort, it could help create things a lot more valuable than schadenfreude.

[Update 11/11/12: Here’s a thoughtful piece from the New York Times Magazine on the “ruin porn” phenomenon in Detroit, which continues unabated more than two years after I wrote this column.]

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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