The Problematic Concept of “Ruin Porn”

The proliferation of ruin imagery has activated a debate that has been raised in the past over photographs of starvation in Africa, poverty in Depression-era America, Holocaust atrocities, or victims of lynching. On one level the question is whether such photographs are exploitative or whether they make visible what might otherwise remain hidden from history and even denied as factual. While such photos may be instrumentalized for ideological purposes by the state, they also may serve as forms of historical witnessing and potential tools of resistance.

The specific form the debate takes in relation to ruin imagery is whether or not it should be dismissed as “ruin porn,” a phrase that has been playfully applied to many subjects (cabin porn, food porn, shoe porn, etc.). Art critic Richard Woodward in Art News describes ruin porn as “a phrase so immature and gawky it isn’t sure how seriously to take itself” and “a smirking neologism that may or may not aspire to be a social critique.”22 The phrase appears to have been coined by writer and photographer James D. Griffioen, who writes the Detroit-based blog Sweet Juniper. Commenting on the constant requests from outside reporters for tours of Detroit, Griffioen told Vice Magazine, “At first, you’re really flattered by it, like, ‘Whoa, these professional guys are interested in what I have to say and show them.’ But you get worn down trying to show them all the different sides of the city, then watching them go back and write the same story as everyone else. The photographers are the worst. Basically the only thing they’re interested in shooting is ruin porn.”23 The term has found acceptance in various publications and as an academic topic.24 But as Griffioen tells Woodward, “I take pictures of ruins, too, but I put them in the context of living in the city. These photographers were showing up with $40,000 cameras to take pictures of houses worth less than their hotel bills.”25 After years of shooting the city, it is difficult for local photographers to see others arrive from the outside with better equipment and connections to the art world and walk off with credit for “revealing” the blight of Detroit.

But history is rife with scenes of ruin and decay that photographers are drawn to photograph and people want to see. The problem with ruin porn as a tool of cultural analysis, as Woodward notes, is that it would invalidate a great many “images of blasted lives and places that carry a whiff of ‘exploitation or detachment’ ” and would “do away with a sizable chunk of pictorial and written history.”26 It may be argued that the very act of picturing the abject carries “a whiff of exploitation,” yet those pictures act as witnesses to history. Like all witnesses, they are subjective and imperfect but offer perspectives, usually those of the oppressed, that might otherwise be unseen and unheard. The medium of photography itself has limitations; it is able to document specific moments in time but is ill equipped to explain complicated causes and chains of events. This does not mean, however, that photography is not uniquely capable of producing powerful effects. Moreover, these effects may be mobilized to help produce desirable outcomes. One of the first photographic projects in the world was commissioned by the French government in the 1840s, not long after the camera was invented, to catalogue the nation’s deteriorating medieval architecture in order to arouse public support for its preservation.27 Likewise, more recent disasters such as September 11, Katrina, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Hurricane Sandy as well as recent wars and conflicts, including the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown, and the Israeli war in Gaza, are captured most powerfully in pictures. The influx of photographers may be disturbing at times, and local photographers may have better knowledge of the locale, but the story is always larger than the local. As Woodward observes about such conflicted feelings, “As someone living in Detroit and raising a family there, Griffioen might not appreciate strangers cruising through neighborhood streets and selling prints of local despair for $50,000 each. However, he, like others, doesn’t want to censor efforts to record Detroit’s struggle. The city’s travails began long before the present recession and the problems are those of other once-prosperous northern cities.”28

Griffioen understands the appeal of ruins and has himself posted many ruin images on his website, including several photographic series on such topics as “feral” houses that are overgrown with vegetation, lost neighborhoods, vacant schools, and the former Detroit Public Schools Book Depository ( His ruin photographs have been published in such magazines as Vice, Harper’s, and O, The Oprah Magazine and exhibited in such venues as the Cirrus Gallery in Los Angeles, the Kiang Gallery in Atlanta, and the David Weinberg Gallery in Chicago. For Griffioen, his photographs began as a way to illustrate the stories he was writing about Detroit on his blog. The mood of his photograph The Tree, Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, for example, hints at the frustration he conveys in a blog post that details the

James D. Griffioen, The Tree, from Detroit Public Schools Books Depository, 2007-2012. Courtesy of the artist

FIG. 5 James D. Griffioen, The Tree, from Detroit Public Schools Books Depository, 2007-2012. Courtesy of the artist.

inexplicable waste of many pallets of undamaged and still unwrapped textbooks, flash cards, workbooks, art paper, pencils, scissors, maps, and more that were abandoned by Detroit’s deeply troubled public school system following a fire in the mid-1980s (figure 5). His photo portrays a stifling and musty darkness set against the bright sunshine beyond the windows, mitigated only by the slender Box Elder sapling that has taken root in a carpet of rotting books.

A comparison of Griffioen’s photo with another by New York-based “outsider” Andrew Moore, considered by Griffioen the main exemplar of ruin porn, demonstrates that many photographers, both local and outside the city, are drawn to the same scenes of ruination (and even tapped Griffioen for the sites of some of his photos), although they convey different moods. In Moore’s photo, Birches Growing in Decayed Books, Detroit Public Schools Depository, the books have turned mostly to mulch while young trees reach through the open roof toward the sky (figure 6). The receding diagonal perspective and warm light create a sense of renewal in adversity, a kind of comforting perspective, while Griffioen’s photo generates greater tension between the promise of regeneration and the bleakness of decay. Despite his resentment of well-heeled outsiders with expensive camera equipment, paid assistants, and connections to the art world, Griffioen, whose own work has received wide attention, claims never to have considered himself an artistic photographer.29 His concern, nonetheless, seems to be an insistence that insiders retain a kind of “ownership” of the ruins.

The ruin porn critique thus depends on a dichotomy between insiders and outsiders, between those who regard themselves as city loyalists whose lives and work are affected by the city and have therefore earned the right to profit from it and those whose photos they regard as voyeuristic and exploitative, feeding off the city’s misery while understanding little about its problems, histories, or dreams. But for many poor local residents who have internalized an image of the city as a site of failure, or who suddenly see their city from another perspective, Detroit ruin imagery in the national media becomes a source of demoralization and embarrassment, regardless of who has taken the photos.

Michael Chanan, who made the 2005 film Detroit: Ruin of a City with sociologist George Steinmetz, proposes something similar when he notes that the resistant responses to outside filmmakers and photographers may “arise from a fear of representation, of the exposure to ridicule of an object of attachment.” Chanan suggests that what the defensive insider “fails to allow is the validity of the stranger’s perspective, and the representation of what the other sees. Behind this rejection is the fear that what others say may turn out to be true.”30 This view is echoed by Detroit-based photographer Michelle Andonian, who observes that people in Detroit are angered by ruin imagery because they may suddenly see their own city through a different lens—the eyes of outsiders— compelling them to recognize that they have become so accustomed to ruination that they stopped seeing it long ago.31 Chanan also reminds us that both insiders and outsiders produce work shaped by subjective perspectives. And it cannot be otherwise. The goal of the self-aware contemporary photographer

Andrew Moore, Birches Growing in Decayed Books, Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, from Detroit Disassembled, 2010. © Andrew Moore

FIG. 6 Andrew Moore, Birches Growing in Decayed Books, Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, from Detroit Disassembled, 2010. © Andrew Moore.

is no longer a pretense of objectivity but rather an attempt to make his or her subject position and point of view visible, to claim the frame by which the image is constructed and meaning structured.

The larger fear, then, fueled by the proliferation of ruin imagery, is that of irreversible marginalization and alienation of the city from a host nation that views the ruins of Detroit from a position of aestheticized fascination at a comfortable remove. Whether the images have been produced by insiders or outsiders, national viewers make little of the distinction. And there are plenty of local photographers who shoot the ruins, drawn by the aesthetics of decay and the allure of transformation as well as the effects of ruins on the city. In response to the ruin porn critique, Andrew Moore asserted, “I think ruin porn is a mask for bigger issues. People are very anxious about this country, its direction and future. I think Detroit is a metaphor for both the good and the bad in this moment. Detroit is America’s city. Detroit is not just about local issues. It’s not just about providing good PR for Detroit. It’s talking about America as a place, and where we’re headed.”32

It is more useful, then, to focus on why we are so drawn to ruins and ruin imagery and to examine the larger social and cultural roles that images play. This is more easily accomplished by distancing ourselves from the condemnatory use of the term “porn” in order to look more broadly and openly at the effects of ruin imagery and its ideological implications. As Linda Williams points out in discussing the early days of academic discourse on sexual pornography, there was often a fight over the very existence of porn, although no one denied its popularity or its power to arouse. Williams’s solution in her study of pornography was to “avoid condemnation or defensiveness.’^ Similarly, my goal is to begin with an acknowledgment of the widespread popularity of ruin imagery and to seek a dispassionate perspective that examines the ability of ruin images to move and arouse us (intellectually or emotionally), not to debate the right of photographers to photograph ruins, even though some, inevitably, may care more about how, when, and why such ruination developed than others. Although sexual pornography has been notoriously contentious and difficult to define, most agree, suggests Williams, that the objective of porn is the production of pleasure or arousal, or both. Even if we take the term “ruin porn” at face value and see the objective of ruin imagery as the production of pleasure or arousal, to condemn the massive proliferation of ruin images on this basis leads to no new insight or knowledge. The more productive questions are how ruin images please, move, or arouse and what purposes this serves. Understanding the concept of the deindustrial sublime as a means of tempering the anxiety of decline helps to explain the attraction of photographers to the ruins of Detroit and the global appeal of contemporary ruin imagery.

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