Monday, December 8, 2008

Where Are the People?

Sean Hemmerle

Yet another tour of The Remains of Detroit...... This installment from Time magazine. After seeing quite a few variations on this, I have one question - where are the people? If this photo essay and ones like it were your only view of Detroit, you'd think no one actually lived in the city. Sheesh.

By the way, I do realize it may seem just a tad hypocritical considering I just had a series of photos published that share the same tone. (See previous post) Us Detroiters are just a little touchy. You'll give us that much, right? That is all.


Star Rosencrans said...

First, seriously great work in the Guardian feature (and I can see your frustration in having any photos featuring people being removed).

Do you see any hope in these photos? Any attempt to really highlight the problem? As someone who's spent a fair amount of time reconsidering my own inclination to photograph decay and empty spaces, my question really isn't rhetorical. I don't know.

If industry were to return, would these buildings be preserved to house it? Or are these just signifiers of the way things were?

In this Time gallery, the photo of the theatre turned into a parking structure breaks my heart in ways I can't quite convey.

Brian said...

Honestly, I don't see hope in these photos. After all, they're *long* abandoned buildings! And assuming Detroit does come back, and I truly believe it will, it's hard to see these buildings being used again. There were a number of good years for the Big 3, especially in the 90's and these buildings sat then as they sit today - in earlier states of decay. Too important to tear down and too expensive to fix.

And I know it's not any one photographer's responsibility to show some kind of objective truth about the city. The buildings photographed for the story are definitely there. And they act as powerful symbols of the death of the manufacturing economy. My complaint is that there are 4.5 million people that live in the Detroit metro area and every photo essay I see shows nothing but bombed out buildings. Never any people. The decay is very definitely a part of the story, but it's not the whole story.

On a less cranky note, I'm considering opening a theme park in Detroit for all the apocalypse tourists. Picture a roller coaster that circles the city and provides a great view of the ruins. It could help make Detroit profitable again......

Brian said...

I almost forgot to mention that the Michigan Theater, the one that's a parking lot now, was featured in the 8 Mile movie. Now you know!

Star Rosencrans said...

In my cold haze (3rd in five weeks - yay for toddlers!), I was even less articulate than usual. I was wondering if one could see any hope in the intent - documenting a problem that needs to be fixed - but overall, I think you're right.

I remember that, now, too about 8 mile. I watched that in a film class. (I qualify this because I wouldn't have watched the film otherwise, and it turned out to be exactly what I expected it to be - a maudlin take on Eminem's story with a touch too much aggrandizement. But that's neither here nor there.)

Brian said...

No, Star, you were perfectly articulate - I tend to get excited when I talk about Detroit and I got away from the question of the intent of the photos.

Since Detroit has had this image of being Murder Capital, War Zone, etc. for so long, the notion of highlighting a problem with photographs just doesn't fly. The story has been told many times before - especially recently. Of course, each person will have a different perspective on the city and I love seeing how other people view us. There is also a timeliness in examining Detroit now as the country faces this insane economic uncertainty. I just want to see something else beyond the cliches.

For the record, I've seen his other projects, and he is obviously a thoughtful and talented photographer.

shemmerle said...

i love the question, 'where are the people?'. in most cases, i was photographing near dusk or dawn, and there weren't many folks on the street, fortunately.

the other question i like is whether or not there is any hope in the intent of photographing these places. personally, my hope as an artist is to pose questions, and these pictures stirred things up a bit in ways i had not expected. the response to the detroit work has been of a magnitude that still surprises me. never underestimate the power of suggestive metaphor.

the work is part of a larger project on the rust belt. i started it in march, thinking it would afford me a new look at my own country. so far, it has been an interesting journey.

nice work on guardian.

Brian said...

Thanks for weighing in Sean. I'm curious to see how this project on the Rust Belt develops. For me the subject of Detroit is quite personal. I was born in the city and have deep roots in the area and Michigan in general.

I see Detroit's tough reputation as contributing to a narrow depiction of the city. You mentioned in your captions that you were cautioned about coming to the city. And I'm glad (and not surprised) to hear that you had good experiences with the people you met here. I wonder - did these warnings affect how you photographed? Earlier this week, we heard from a photographer who is coming to the city for a project and had concerns about being safe. Good to be cautious of course, but not really the same kind of advice you would seek in photographing NY or Chicago.

This reputation can keep people from really finding a subject other than the city as a pile of rubble. Star's comment got me thinking about another question that is a bit more difficult. In photographing a city's ruins and devastation, where is the line between documentation and exploitation? As someone who photographs frequently in the city, this is something that I struggle with. For the record, I found your photos to be respectful and quiet, not exploitative. I just wonder where that line is.

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