Detroit’s decaying facade has been documented through numerous photography series. Yet all of these appear as an autopsy performed on a social body that is, though moribund, not yet dead. While the occlusion of social life from the frame contributes to the mesmerizing effect of the photos, the narrative they contribute to carefully avoids social issues that pertain to the territory they portray.

Ultimately, the perception of these as “just another abandoned city series” is a symptom of the structures that govern cultural production.

Detroit’s artful ruins

The most popular of the Detroit decay photographs are a series by the photographers Yves Marchan and Romain Meffre and titled “Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Decline”. The photographs are perhaps best described as a metaphor for the shift of the American economy from industrial super-power to a services-oriented structure.

The dramatic ruins of Detroit – the car factory capital of the USA – embody the abandonment of a model geared towards large-scale industrial production. They illustrate like no other the destruction in what Schumpeter described as capitalism’s tendency towards “creative destruction”. The art-deco buildings which were once testaments to the city’s prosperity have been abandoned as a result of the abandonment of the model which had created that prosperity to begin with.

Perhaps they also allude, implicitly, to the nature of American capitalism. The French photographers seem to imply by their choice of location that nowhere else could buildings less than a century old look like millennium-old remains. That only in America – where everything is bigger and faster – could a city go from riches to ruins in so little time.

Indeed, this impression of a post-apocalyptic landscape delivered by these post-industrial photographs is what confers them their beauty. It is almost as though the occupants had deserted the city overnight in prevision of some impending doom.

Photograph: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
Photograph: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Detroit: a ghost city

Ultimately, however, the photos depicting Detroit as a ghost city feed into the narrative that Detroit is a ghost city. Be it in their production or in their reception, the message conveyed is that these constitute no more than an other “abandoned city series” or, at most, an autopsy of a past economic model.

Neither of these readings are able to position the population of Detroit within the narrative that surrounds the city. A problem that not only grows the sentiment of alienation among locals but that also prevents wider awareness of the issues at stake.

The photographers’ lens

The photographs of post-industrial Detroit, for all of the eerie beauty that exists in each of the shots, are also very flat: they could belong to any abandoned city. The photographers describe themselves as “photographers of ruins” – and indeed their treatment of the subject matter of Detroit is no different from that of Chernobyl, Hashima and other abandoned locations favored by photographers.

The fact that the photos do not feature any residents is not necessarily problematic in itself. Photographers like Walker Evans have successfully depicted deprivation without ever showing a human figure. However, the absence of so much as a hint of recent human occupation contributes to building a narrative of Detroit as an abandoned city.

Photograph: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
Photograph: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Editorial Framing

The editorial treatment given to the series in the sources where it was featured also contributes to the narrative of Detroit as a ghost town. Indeed, titles and introductory pieces to the work do more than just give an indication of the content of the article, they condition the reader’s interpretation of the photos presented.

The rhetoric of the uninhabited region, seen most crudely in the overwhelming reliance on the narrow semantic field of “abandonment” and “decay”, ensure that the reception of photographs – a necessarily ambivalent medium – is carried out in a singular fashion centered on the idea of Detroit as a vacant place.

Creating a distance – both in terms of time and space – between the subject of the photograph and the reader, the images are seen as those of a lost and empty city re-discovered by the photographers/archaeologists that authored the photos, not as shots of a city within the USA and still inhabited by contemporary people.

SERP Detroit photos
Search engine results page for “Detroit photos”

Just “another abandoned city series”…

The choice to create and to present the collection as “another abandoned city series” is the most problematic element about the photographs. By presenting a live city – however moribund – through the prism of post-apocalyptic fear and fascination, the social issues pertaining to the locale are flattened out, leaving it an empty vessel for the viewers fantasizing of a lost Eden or of a deserted hell.

The treatment of a scene of urgency, however, held the potential to bring some of the most urgent concerns of the residents to the fore: disastrous levels of municipal debt, white flight, and one of the most elementary repercussions of the economic transition that the series purports to illustrate: the fact that a growing segment of the population is being left behind for lack of necessary skills in the new economic model.

Photograph: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
Photograph: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

The role of the audience

The simplistic tale that is recounted through these photographs and which excludes more complex social issues is also a guarantee of their success, understood in terms of virality. Ultimately, depleted of the social issues belonging to the locale, they are able to grow into the buzz-worthy sensation of the day.

How can one spread awareness and do so in a way that fosters action? In the particular case of the “Detroit in ruins” series, its failure to serve that purpose has as much to do with the staging of the photographs, the ways in which they are editorially framed as well as the standards crafted in part by the audience’s expectation. One should therefore not overstate the importance of the photographer or of the sources which published the photographs. These respond to a broader pattern set in part by the audience themselves.

Virality: the new sensationalism

More than ever, what Guy Debord had termed the “Society of the Spectacle” relies on the adhesion of its participants. Sensationalist trends that were previously perceived as originating on the production-side of culture can now, with the advent of virality as the new sensationalism, be seen as equally attributable to the consumer.

Virality can be understood as a form of user-generated sensationalism as, in terms of engagement, both lay at the opposite end of the spectrum from the type of meaningful engagement that could be provoked by a different narrative of Detroit. In a sense, the depiction of the city of Detroit as a space with no social asperities (only architectural ones) from the photographers’ and the publishers’ point of view is attributable in part to the audience’s preference for images that have no social asperities.

In the words of the buzz-guru Jonah Peretti, “if something is a total bummer, people don’t share it.” Therefore: if something is a total bummer, no one should publish it. In the case in the Detroit series, the inherent difficulties in treating the subject are remedied by flattening the underlying tensions. Focus is shifted on the anecdotal, the stories of buildings that were most likely already decrepit when the city started being hit by the effects of recession and economic transition. The essential – the stories of the inhabitants of Detroit – is obliterated from the narrative: the town is presented as uninhabited, as existing out of time and space.

While it is certain that a coverage of a different nature would bring about different results, it is unlikely the type of treatment of information required would be brought about under the structures that media outlets abide by.