on ruins

(cross-posted at non-euclidean photography)

abandoned campus

I have a fascination with ruins photography, and a hate for what’s called ruins porn. I’ve been trying to tease out my relationship to both lately. It was partly brought on by the existence of the “pop-up restaurant” Le Bok Fin in Philadelphia’s Bok Building, an old technical high school. I classify this site as ruins tourism and the many Instagram photos of the building by photographers I like and respect as ruins porn. I haven’t un-followed any of them, but I feel very uncomfortable “liking” any of it.

Why is that? I realized there is a fundamental difference between simply taking photos of your environment and going out specifically to gaze at modern ruins somewhere else. There’s a difference between living in Buffalo and taking a ton of photos of decaying sites in and around the city, as several photographers I follow do, and visiting Buffalo simply to take photos of its decay and misfortune. The difference is that one person goes home at the end of the day, sheaf of photos (virtually) in hand, and can gaze at the crumbling beauty of these buildings. The other person is already home, and lives in this place and doesn’t have the option to leave. (Or, they don’t leave. I realize not everyone is trapped in places like Buffalo and Detroit, but my point stands.)

One person has to deal with the reality of what modern ruins mean for a city, and the other can look at it as purely aesthetic, through a tourist gaze. Being a tourist of others’ misfortune is not something I want to do. I remember taking a friend to see 8¬†Mile Wall in Detroit many years ago and feeling profoundly uncomfortable, almost queasy, about doing it. It wasn’t that I feared for our safety in an iffy Detroit neighborhood. It was going there to take a tourist look at a decaying city and a remnant of segregation, now a black neighborhood on both sides, that’s not marked as a monument or historical site, even though it should be. It’s covered in colorful murals. It’s not a sight that someone should avoid. But it made me question my own motives and my relationship to the site. Why was I really there? Was it just to marvel at decay, or was it actually to reflect on redlining and segregation, the heritage of my Rust Belt upbringing?

I’m sure some people do reflect on this kind of thing, and have motives beyond simply making an aesthetic spectacle of the decay and ruin of American cities that¬†still have people living in them who have to deal with that decay and ruin on a daily basis. Some people call attention to the plight of cities and could use their photography to rally people around fixing the problem; however, most don’t see it as a problem, but rather a kind of romantic idea of modern decay.

This is why I don’t feel as much ambivalence about supporting local Detroit or Buffalo or Philly or wherever photographers and artists who reflect and represent their own environments, the ones they live and deal with and may be working to better even as they are capturing the beauty they find within their dirty exteriors. But I feel a huge amount of ambivalence about “outsiders” doing the same – the ones who go home at night to better environments without stopping to consider the reality of the photos or art they’ve just made.

Perhaps there’s more in the in-between space than I’m assuming. I’m working on a paper about ruins photography in the mid-2000s in Japan and still am wrapping my head around what to make of it all. I’ve found photographers who make a lot of money (well, some amount of money) off their artistic portfolios of the aesthetics of modern ruins; then again, I’ve also found older people’s websites showing photos of their old abandoned elementary schools and recounting their memories. I don’t know that these older people are more or less, or at all, critical of the larger picture of the emptying out of rural Japan. But it’s a different perspective.

I think I’ve written about this before in my blog at mollydesjardin.com, but I was once contacted by someone on Flickr after I took some photos of a giant public housing project on my walk home from a fancy rich school to a slum in Yokohama. There were a lot of in-between spaces between those two spaces. The person said to me, thank you so much for putting these photos online, because I grew up there and now live in New York City and am happy to see how it’s doing. I should have been more hesitant to gawk at this dirty giant housing project that I’d initially thought abandoned, perhaps, but in the end I’m glad I could connect this person to their memories. I suppose it’s all about perspective, and the differing ones that people can have about the same piece of art; at the same time, it’s still not all right to uncritically artistically capitalize on the misfortune of fellow citizens here in the US or anywhere.