My first exposure to Detroit’s decline was Stephen Voss’s photo essay of Detroit’s abandoned schools in the May/June, 2010 issue of American Photo. The images were stunning. Heartbreaking. I wanted to witness for myself Detroit’s squalor, derelict and abandoned buildings. I wanted to understand what had happened to Detroit and Detroiters by exploring their city. I wanted my own photo essay of Detroit.
I prefer to visit a location multiple times to get a sense of the place, to find images that move me. The process isn’t very scientific, or technical, for that matter: I walk about, and every now and then the scene is momentarily transformed into a bordered, black & white picture that I may capture, and if able, I return to and shoot until I get it right. Two day trips to Detroit didn’t provide that luxury.
Prior to heading east I did very little research because I thought I’d be in Detroit for a few hours, spending the bulk of my time there at The Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village, and Comerica Park. I did, however, make a wish list of images I wanted to make during my visit to Southern Ontario and Michigan:
- wild turkey, turkey vulture, & any other birds I could get close enough to at Point Pelee National Park,
- Lake Erie at sunrise and sunset,
- derelict and abandoned buildings in Detroit,
- street images in Detroit and Windsor,
- a Tigers–Indians game (10–4 Detroit – Woot!).
My partner’s brother visits Detroit often, and had worked there as a truck driver in the recent past. He’d promised to show me things I’d never seen, and drive me through some of Detroit’s toughest neighbourhoods. He did. Cruising I-75 and I-94 at 70 miles per hour revealed the sort of stories one expects from in-depth news coverage, or network documentaries – just enough to shock, raising questions, but not thoroughly answering most of them. We drove along Conner, Seven Mile, Ford, Woodward, Jefferson, and their side streets.
The damage to these neighbourhoods is spectacular, random, and as catastrophic as any natural disaster. Some neighbourhoods are dotted with well-kept properties. In others, a single wreck of a house stands alone among the sound homes. These neighbourhoods are morbidly beautiful.
In one block near Conner there was a beautiful brick house with an immaculate, fenced yard. Five of the next six houses on the block were abandoned, vandalized. One was a burnt out brick husk. The story here was the one house, not its neighbours. From the outside looking in, I imagined any number of scenarios, from a strong sense of personal and civic pride, perseverance, even ones that mirrored those of mid-19th Century settlers’.
However, I refused to raise my camera once. What I thought I wanted, wasn’t. This cityscape reminded me of my family’s abandoned and vandalized houses back home, but on a far larger scale. I wouldn’t want tourists taking snapshots of my dead uncle’s boarded up farm. To me, that would be disrespectful. There was no way I was going to disrespect Detroiters by making tourist snapshots of their tragedy.