By Justin Graffa
Google Detroit. Go to the image search. Mileage may vary, but for me, a photograph of ruins is the eighth result, right there on the second line. It’s certainly eye-catching, placed in between generic skyline shots taken from drones or tripods at a distance. Ask someone outside Detroit and its suburbs what they think of when they think of the city. Among the sports teams, words like “crime” or “broke” come up. For a city advertising itself as “on the rise,” it’s a tough public image to overcome. When the name of the city becomes synonymous with broken buildings and dying industry, one has to wonder why, beyond the obvious socioeconomic factors out of a history book. Who maintains the image of a burnt out warehouse as the symbol of Detroit? The answer is artists. Photographers and videographers who, malicious or not, incessantly bolster the idea of a dead city to those outside its limits. My project highlights the industry of “ruin porn” and how it relates to Detroit, which could be the Mecca for rust and smashed concrete.
In creating the video, I wanted to try to give it some emotional weight to reflect the nature of the subject. “Ruin porn” is, by nature, depressing. It was simple enough to incorporate videos and photos from urban explorers that have already been photoshopped and framed to be moodier, deepening the shadows and emphasizing rust and so forth. The audio cues drive the video, from a mocking tone, like using Vivaldi as a soundtrack for the self-absorbed YouTubers, to a sobering effect like the cacophony of news broadcasters talking about Detroit’s decline, overlaid with video taken after the riots in the sixties (often pointed to by historians as the starting point for Detroit’s population decrease). Maintaining a serious tone was the most important part of the subject to me, because it’s easy to dismiss the topic is frivolous, given that it’s so superficial. Many people don’t think art plays an important role in their lives, let alone how it shapes their worldview. Trying to outline the ruin porn industry was the most important part to me, as people neglect to realize just how big of a deal it is. It was challenging to show the full scope of the ruins, from why they exist to who is exploiting them, but I think by overlaying audio and images like the headlines over montages of Flickr photos, I’m able to cover a lot of ground. I hope the project can influence people’s perspectives on not only photography, but Detroit as well.
Once I figured out my topic, I spent multiple days watching other documentaries to get a feel for visual and auditory techniques to illustrate certain points. My topic is pretty abstract, so I had to figure out ways to emphasize its urgency, the conversation surrounding it, and the multiple facets of photographers. I also needed to use iMovie, which was only on four computers available to me in the basement of the student union on campus, and only open until five- I got out of class at 3 most days, allowing me to only work on it a few hours at a time. The computers would then wipe their memories every night, so I would have to upload my work to my cloud to preserve my progress, resulting in about a dozen files of the movie in various stages. I also recorded my voiceover in a day, in my bedroom closet to avoid background noise. It’s amateur, but so was this video. For the phone interview, I took that in a car in the garage, because Tony called during a family dinner and the house was far from quiet. The most difficult part of the project was finding and organizing all the media pieces I used to create the video, as there’s upwards of twenty separate videos used and over a dozen audio clips, at least for the cacophony of reporters. Additionally, there’s dozens of photos and newspaper clippings. Tracking them down took the first week of work, and finding the Marchand and Meffre interview along with the newsreel from the original Detroit riots was like striking gold. The pieces to make the project were scattered across the internet, and it took me quite a long time to compile them. I think the end result is quite good, and well worth the effort.