• Trends

    Disaster Photography: When Is Documentary Exploitation?

    Photographers who produce spectacular images of Detroit, Chernobyl, and other ravaged areas have sparked disagreements whether they are exploiting others’ misfortune—or just covering the bad news

    Mitch Epstein’s Biloxi, Mississippi 2005 vividly represents the inversion of normalcy that is Hurricane Katrina’s legacy.©BLACK RIVER PRODUCTIONS, LTD. AND MITCH EPSTEIN/COURTESY SIKKEMA JENKINS & CO., NEW YORK.

    “RUIN PORN” is a phrase so immature and gawky it isn’t sure how seriously to take itself. Like its linguistic relatives “animal porn,” “shoe porn,” “food porn,” “real estate porn,” and “fill-in-the-blank porn,” it’s a smirking neologism that may or may not aspire to be a social critique.

    The Internet spawns much of this language and protects it behind high walls of irony. A weakness for videos of kittens and puppies, or photographs of Christian Louboutin shoes, is generally deemed a harmless vice. Being too self-righteous about the dangers of any sort of porn invites ridicule from bloggers and tweeters.

    Then again, by linking a subject to an erotic genre calculated to excite us with a stock set of provocative fantasies, inventors or adopters of these compound nouns can also claim to be doctors of the postmodern soul, identifying unnoticed and insidious tropes in our glutinous diet of images.

    James Griffioen, writer and photographer of “Sweet Juniper,” a Detroit-based blog, is usually credited as the father of the term “ruin porn.” He was first quoted using it in a 2009 piece in Vice magazine by Thomas Morton, who had asked Griffioen to guide him around the Motor City after the 2008 financial meltdown.

    As they rode around trash-choked neighborhoods and padlocked factories, Griffioen voiced his disgust with journalists and artists who would drop into the city to record and lament its decline without considering the events, stages, and forces that had led up to it. As Griffioen explains, “The few photographers and reporters I met weren’t interested at all in telling the story of Detroit, but instead gravitated to the most obvious (and over-photographed) ‘ruins,’ and then used them to illustrate stories about problems that had nothing to do with the city (which has looked like this for decades). I take pictures of ruins, too, but I put them in the context of living in the city. These photographers were showing up with $40,000 cameras to take pictures of houses worth less than their hotel bills.”

    Some of the same principles, he notes, “that apply to pornography—exploitation, detachment, etcetera—easily apply” to this situation. Thus, from a snarky aside a meme was born.

    In the last three years, “ruin porn” has found acceptance in on- and off-line publications from Salon to the New York Times Magazine, and also gained traction as an academic topic. A symposium last November at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation brought together two writers, Camilo José Vergara (American Ruins, 2003) and Andrew Herscher (The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit, 2012) who have focused on America’s Rust Belt ruins. They were joined by photographer Andrew Moore, whose 2010 book Detroit Disassembled—featuring lush color pictures of abandoned buildings and other signs of abject neglect—is cited by many bloggers, including Griffioen, as the epitome of an artistic genre they decry.

    Synonymous though it may be with the collapse of Detroit as an industrial giant, and with the many photographs that have depicted its crumbling economic base, the concept of “ruin porn” and the criticism of artists who allow us to revel in the wreckage of civilization can be applied far more liberally. In fact, it’s hard to think of many historical periods or genres that aren’t littered with scenes of decay and havoc.

    And this underscores a fundamental problem with ruin porn as a tool of cultural analysis: to condemn images of blasted lives and places that carry a whiff of “exploitation or detachment” would be to do away with a sizeable chunk of pictorial and written history. Shattered cities have long aroused the imagination of Western artists, even before Renaissance Italians sought to rebuild a tradition out of the classical one they found strewn in fragments across their former empire. The Romantic movement in art and poetry can hardly be imagined without Piranesi’s fantastic etchings of weed-wreathed “prisons,” or Wordsworth’s meditations on nature and memory when visiting the remains of Tintern Abbey, or Caspar David Friedrich’s skeletal anatomies of Gothic churches—not to mention The Iliad and the Bible.

    World events are always yielding opportunities for us to witness destruction on a colossal scale from a safe distance because they are observed through someone else’s lens. Excessive news coverage has become the norm and might rightfully earn the name “porn.”

    The bloody mayhem of Russia’s invasion and retreat from Afghanistan, and the two U.S. invasions of Iraq, created what became known as “war porn,” while Hurricane Katrina, the Indonesian and Japanese tsunamis, and Superstorm Sandy churned up tidal surges of “weather porn.” We’ve had the “nuke porn” of Chernobyl and “September 11 porn.”

    Much visual material from these sad happenings circulates over the Internet without any historical context. Illustrious art photographers and photojournalists have been accused of framing these various cataclysms in ways that play on our instinctual responses of awe or terror or grief. In addition to Andrew Moore, the list of those drawn to portray scenes of modern-day devastation would include Robert Polidori, Richard Misrach, Sophie Ristelhueber, Mitch Epstein, Simon Norfolk, Brian Ulrich, Luc Delahaye, Joel Meyerowitz, Igor Kostin, Diana Thater, Pieter Hugo, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, and the members of VII Photo Agency.

    Of course none of these figures is pandering directly to a paying audience, which is the business model of pornography. All are simply chronicling the bad news that has befallen people and looking for dramatic motifs to illustrate their stories. Many of the shortcomings people find in their work can be traced to faults in the medium itself. Photography is superbly equipped to describe the results of events but is inarticulate or misleading when it comes to explaining their causes.

    The camera itself may have been, as Walter Benjamin alleged, a destabilizing and decontextualizing invention. But at the same time, it has also been used to stitch torn things back together. Some photographers report on the fragility of existence in the hope that survivors will shore up its foundations. The French government in the 1840s, for example, launched one of the first photographic projects in the world—a catalogue of the nation’s deteriorating medieval architecture—with the intention of rousing the public to support preservation.

    It’s not clear what providing more “context” could mean in many of these cases. When a family and their house have vanished in an earthquake or beneath mountains of water, it’s the absence of context, or meaning, that often bewilders survivors. Weather maps and theories of plate tectonics or global warming won’t inform us about what has happened to individuals. But an image like Epstein’s 2005 photograph of a mattress impaled on a tree branch in Biloxi, Mississippi, might best represent the absurd inversion of normalcy that is a legacy of the Katrina disaster for the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, just as Japanese photographer Tetsugo Hyakutake captures the desolation after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

    Expecting photographs to address economic crises, such as the one that has gripped the United States and Europe since 2008, presents even more difficulties. Ulrich’s compelling images of empty big-box stores in the Midwest can’t expose the chain of culprits—predatory lenders, over-leveraged developers, strings of mortgage speculators and insurers in New York or London or Iceland, lazy regulators—that might vaguely be held responsible for a patch of real-estate blight. Avarice and folly, not to mention the global flow of capital, are invisible to the eye of the documentary camera.

    The online debates about which photographs of Detroit are exploitive or melodramatic or just hackneyed—what is “porn” and what isn’t—are fascinating, with various models proposed, denounced, or celebrated. (Whereas Moore’s sumptuous pictures of rotting movie palaces are a target for many bloggers, Richard Nickel’s meticulous black-and-white prints of Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s, as its neighborhoods were transformed by urban renewal, are receiving overdue praise.)

    As a symbol of America’s faltering power and confidence in the last decade, Detroit has become an irresistible subject for documentary photographers and filmmakers. The city’s attempts to renew itself have even produced a new noun: “Detroitism.” It was fitting that Matthew Barney’s filmed performance and installation blending pharaonic Egyptian mythology with automotive history—elements in a planned seven-part opera titled Ancient Evenings—involved the city and its river as a staging platform for his tale of resurrection.

    Such attention from out-of-towners, along with an influx of urban pioneers seeking cheap living quarters, has disturbed many local artists. As someone living in Detroit and raising a family there, Griffioen might not appreciate strangers cruising through neighborhood streets and selling prints of local despair for $50,000 each. However, he, like others, doesn’t want to censor efforts to record Detroit’s struggles. The city’s travails began long before the present recession and the problems are those of other once-prosperous northern cities.

    Photographers ideally should be aware of Detroit’s layers of ruins, created by the 1967 riots, white flight, inept or corrupt local government, federal negligence, and the slow erosion of manufacturing jobs before setting up an 8×10 camera across from a vacant lot. Neither Moore nor the French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, who made seven weeklong visits to the city between 2005 and 2009 for their book The Ruins of Detroit, distinguish how or when, much less why, these places have fallen to pieces. Moore’s new book Havana and Polidori’s 2008 volume on Cuba both seem to luxuriate in the rot of once-grand architecture without being able to express in full the crippling role of the U.S. embargo and Castro’s belligerence in that country’s impoverishment.

    Some of these debates elaborate issues of class, power, money, and race that have dogged photojournalists since the ’60s. Residents of the South Bronx in the ’70s were no happier that those in Detroit today to see their neighborhoods turned into international icons of violence and dysfunction. Were the Alabama farmers in the Depression-era photographs of Walker Evans helpless and “exploited”? Or did those images crystallize their resilience against forces that would have rendered them even more invisible had he never been there? Is no news better than bad news?

    One solution proposed by Vergara, first in his 1995 book The New American Ghetto and lately in his website Invincible Cities, requires more patience than most photographers and journalists can muster. A trained sociologist, Vergara returns to the same vantage point over many years to record with his camera and other tools the process of change. Cities decline or grow slowly, block by block; neighborhoods aren’t usually leveled by natural disasters or created by government fiat. The shift, he illustrates, from a viable community to a slum depends on many factors, few of them entirely predictable.

    But Vergara is not immune to the pleasures and instruction found in decay either. In 1995, he proposed that Detroit set aside 12 acres downtown as a “skyscraper ruins park.” With almost a quarter of these buildings “nearly empty and several in advanced states of ruin,” he believed a radical rethinking of the area was needed. “The place that invented planned obsolescence has itself become obsolescent,” he wrote. Had the authorities heeded his suggestion instead of scorning it, they might have created a tourist attraction to rival New York’s High Line.

    Griffioen, too, understands the allure of ruin porn even if he worries about it. His blog features photographs that he took over several summers of what he calls “Feral Houses”—abandoned dwellings that, he writes, have been “allowed to be consumed by the foliage once meant to beautify them.”

    Architecture historian Christopher Woodward opens his book In Ruins (2003) by describing the shock of seeing the Statue of Liberty up to her neck in sand at the end of Planet of the Apes. He might have cited hundreds of other apocalyptic images of ruins from the movies. Abandoned castles and shacks are prime settings for the horror genre, while science fiction relies on the sight of blasted, dead civilizations to impart cautionary notes about the dangers of the present. The forlorn, steam-hissing factories in David Lynch’s Eraserhead are industrial ruins of the past, while the city underwater in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. are ruins from a future in the wake of global warming.

    One of the lessons of ruins is that, after enough time has passed and with sufficient law enforcement, almost everything loses its mooring in history and becomes another thrill for sightseers, however frightful its past. Wikitravel now offers a popular guided tour of the high crime areas in Baltimore where The Wire was filmed. “Don’t worry,” it reads, “no one is going to bother you in your car.”

    Photographs of gutted buildings can never adequately describe the longstanding causes of urban poverty. And a certain amount of visual shorthand is inevitable. While it would be better to present victims of a hurricane in a way that doesn’t reduce them to their flattened homes and soaked belongings, there is not yet a good substitute for “weather-porn.” Clichés of a sailboat in the street or cars floating down a river can summarize in a jarring image how ordinary life is flipped upside down by sudden disaster.

    The remarkable exhibition “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath,” which opened in November at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is filled with what might be called “war porn”—POWs being executed, bodies torn apart by bombs, guns, or knives. The cocurators, Anne Wilkes Tucker, Natalie Zeit, and Will Michels, have done their best to place these violent acts in historical context even though the power of the image may derive from the isolating instant of death captured by the photographer.

    The digital age has complicated the issue of distance from such scenes by bringing more of them to light but with lower personal risk and involvement. Professional photographers no longer have to gamble their lives in war zones, and we don’t have to pay publications to show them to us. Anyone with a cell phone and a Twitter account can report in real time from a battle front, as has been happening in Syria.

    Doug Rickard’s disturbing four-year project, “A New American Picture,” featured in “New Photography 2011” at MoMA and in a recent Aperture monograph, is a survey of the country’s disenfranchised as seen through Google Street View. Rickard has updated street photography by never walking the streets: Google’s car-mounted camera does the driving while Rickard edits images from his computer screen. The similarities to drone warfare are hard to ignore. It isn’t accidental that concerns about images of urban misery and weather catastrophes have taken hold in the Internet age. For not only can the Web carry us endlessly along virtual pathways to real places, it also suggests there is as much visible, relentless unhappiness and misfortune available through our screens as there is porn.

    Richard B. Woodward is an arts critic in New York City.

    Copyright 2014, ARTnews LLC, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.