Cheap Shot? Photographing Urban Ruins
Vice Magazine is carrying a very interesting article about the way Detroit is being portrayed by the media in the midst of its economic catastrophe.
“Detroit is being descended on by a plague of reporters,” says writer Thomas Morton. “If you live on a block near one of the city’s tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, you can’t toss a chunk of Fordite without hitting some schmuck with a camera worth more than your house.”
Accompanying the article is this photo, meant to illustrate photographers’ habit of literally cropping out prosperity from their shots.
There is something about ruin that is attractive to photographers and I have noticed that many try to capture the beauty in destruction. But at what point do these images become exploitive?
Many photographers were criticized following the devastation of Katrina in New Orleans for taking “disaster vacations.” The criticism was they were taking whimsically beautiful photos of what was in fact a terrible event that was upending lives across the coast. The criticism in effect was that they weren’t journalistic, in the sense that they weren’t accurately documenting the horror of the situation.
I have seen this in the Rust Belt too. This summer I was working for an organization that published reports about foreclosure and we needed a shot of Braddock, Pennsylvania. I searched and searched online for a photo that would show what the community of Braddock was actually like but there was nothing.
The funny thing was, there was a whole web site devoted to Braddock-based photographers, but throughout the web site, there was barely a picture that gave any broad impression of how the community would look to a motorist or a pedestrian. Instead, the photos were largely similar: close-cropped, colorful rusted doors and dirty, old stuffed animals. No one interacting on the street. No well-kept gardens. No children on their way to school.
So my question is, what is photographers responsibility to communities across the Rust Belt and do they have one?