Detroit Ruin Images. Where Are the People?

A romantic fetishization of the relationship between nature and culture lies at the heart of ruin imagery and is central to what makes it appealing. Ruin images tend to picture derelict architecture in the process of being reclaimed by animals and vegetation. This suggests a “timeless” struggle between nature and culture that either places nature in the ascendancy over ruined culture as part of a downward spiral or, conversely, asserts the redemption of social ruin through signs of new life in nature. Yet for the poor population, no matter how haunting or strangely beautiful ruins may be, they are not romantic artifacts but reminders of jobs and homes lost, neighborhoods destroyed, and lives derailed. Photography that focuses only on the aesthetics of decay in architecture offers a narrative that distances and obscures the ongoing crisis of poverty and unemployment.

The invisibility to photographers of the black populace in Detroit, moreover, reflects and reinforces their invisibility to the corporations and policy makers that are the real agents of decline, those who helped create the patterns of ghettoized, racialized poverty that have long obtained in the city. The visual narrative of the empty, unpeopled city returning to nature has helped to justify and legitimize continued austerity measures and official indifference. Yet even as typical ruin photography suggests a retrogressive “return to nature” or an eternal cycle of growth and decay, it also inevitably reveals the contradictions of the ruin discourse that constructs Detroit as both representative of urban decline and uniquely responsible for its own deterioration.

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