Lazy Journalists Love Pictures of Abandoned Stuff

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About a week ago Vice published an amusing article by Thomas Morton about what happens when journalists from outside Detroit come into the city to do a story: they cover their preconceptions, shoot “ruin porn,” and miss actual stories right under their noses — and in the case of the Michigan Central Depot, right behind their backs. Quotes after the jump.

After suffering through the nation’s worst and most concentrated examples of racial violence, industrial collapse, serial arson, crack war, and municipal bankruptcy following years of municipal kleptocracy, Detroit is being descended on by a plague of reporters. If you live on a block near one of the city’s tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, you can’t toss a chunk of Fordite without hitting some schmuck with a camera worth more than your house.

Later on he quotes James Griffioen, a photographer who has recently been documenting Detroit’s decay, on dealing with out-of-town reporters:

“At first, you’re really flattered by it, like, ‘Whoa, these professional guys are interested in what I have to say and show them.’ But you get worn down trying to show them all the different sides of the city, then watching them go back and write the same story as everyone else. The photographers are the worst. Basically the only thing they’re interested in shooting is ruin porn.”

But the best quote has to do with “the city’s second-most-overused blight shot,” the “mile-long ruins of the Packard Auto Plant in East Detroit.

“This is the visiting reporters’ favorite thing to see,” [Griffioen] said. “The people all come here to shoot the story of the auto industry and they love this shot because they can be like, ‘See that? That’s where they made the cars,’ and then forget to add the footnote that the plant’s been closed since 1956.”

In the past month alone, the plant’s been used by the New York Times, the British Daily Mirror, and the Polish Auto Motoras a visual for stories it has no concrete connection to other than occupying the same city. The Packard also shows up twice in the same Time photo spread from December, although the second picture is just captioned with the street address to make it look like their photographer visited more than three sites.

But here’s the really funny thing: it turns out that in order to get a good shot of this plant that has been abandoned for 53 years, you need to enter a cemetery. One thousand bodies have been disinterred from this cemetery since 2002: mostly by the “families of white folk who fled Detroit for the suburbs in the 60s,” who by now “have now become so terrified of visiting the city that they’re willing to disinter their dead loved ones and rebury them in their current neighborhoods.” Morton calls this “dead flight.”

The first-most-overused shot is of the Michigan Central Depot; the third-most overused shot is of the ‘urban prairie’ in the middle of the city.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →