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Why Ruin Photography Won't Revive Cities

Grist republished a feature article claiming that "ruin porn," a genre of photography which focuses on decaying cities, can help reignite our appreciation for the Rust Belt and aid in urban revitalization.

Here are a few of the problems I see with this attitude toward photographing damaged cities:

  1. Photographing poverty doesn't end poverty. If National Geographic is reliable evidence, it's possible to send photographers to visit many marginalized countries without changing the social climate there. A beautiful photo is just that – a beautiful photo. On its own, it is rarely a call to action.
  2. "Ruin porn" photos don't show the people who live in these cities today. We are left with the tale of an abandoned city, a place where one could mine old building materials or scrap metal - or build new construction. We never hear the stories of the people who still inhabit Cleveland and Detroit.
  3. These photos lack the context a well-written news story could offer. Why are these buildings abandoned? Who chose to abandon them? What is their planned future now? What could it be?
  4. Referring to the genre as "porn" trivializes the everyday struggles of people who still live in these communities. In these cities, people commute to work, attend school, struggle with crime, and engage in many other activities that they may not find sexy. Objectifying low-income communities is an unsavory habit.

Let's rewrite the story and say: "These are cities where people lived and still live today." Maybe people died because of the asbestos in those walls. These cities can be revived, but they are not blank slates. They already have a story and a context. While photographing ruins may be beautiful, it does nothing on its own to change these stories and write new chapters for them.