Is 'Ruin Porn' Art or Journalism?

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As long as we've had cameras, we've had “ruin porn.” It's the deliberate effort to publish images of a city or a region that sensationalize devastation, while choosing not to print photos of beautiful landscapes or majestic architecture.  Residents of New Orleans complain that reporters fly into Louis Armstrong International Airport and ask their guides to show them the best examples of ruined neighborhoods and flood damage. 

In an article from Vice UK, Thomas Morton writes about a "French filmmaker who came to Detroit to shoot a documentary about all the deer and pheasants and other wildlife that have been returning to the city. After several days without seeing a wild one he had to be talked out of renting a trained fox to run through the streets for the camera."

And Morton quotes photographer James Griffioen talking about visiting reporters, "Time magazine sent a 24-year-old guy to Detroit. They wouldn’t let him rent a car, so he was dropped off in a cab downtown. He’s there for six hours and he’s supposed to write a feature article on Detroit. For Time. He had a meeting with the mayor in the morning, the mayor stood him up, then he had a meeting with me, and that was it."

We talked to Andrew Moore this morning whose beautiful photos of abandoned buildings and desolate urban landscapes in Detroit are currently on display in an exhibit at the Akron Art Museum.  The exhibit has been accused of pandering to the fascination with “ruin porn.”  An article in The Detroit News says, "Talk to city and suburban residents alike, and it won't be long before someone tells you this constitutes exploitation, just as shots of streams full of old washing machines stereotype Appalachia."  But the artist argues, I think convincingly, that art is judged by a different standard than photojournalism.  He is creating an emotional picture, he says, not a photo of record.

And that's really the problem with “ruin porn” in our newspapers, magazines, and documentaries.  Taking a photo of an abandoned lot to illustrate a report about economic malaise is fine.  It crosses the line when the photographer purposely crops out the thriving shopping center on the left or the manicured lawn of a home on the right.  Reports in newspapers about the collapse of the auto industry and its devastating effects on Detroit's economy are often accompanied by images of the abandoned Michigan Central Depot.  The train station is a gorgeous ruin, no doubt, but it was shut down in the 1980's and can't be used as even an implied example of the current economic conditions in the city.  As Thomas Morton points out, reporters often pair stories about the struggling Big Three with photos of the Packard Auto Plant in east Detroit.  The problem?  That plant closed in 1956, when the American automakers were still thriving.

As far as I'm concerned, artists have the freedom to take and edit photos however they choose; photojournalists, on the other hand, do not have that right.  When it is part of a report, the images must be as truthful and accurate as the writing, and they can't be a reflection of the photographer's personal vision.  Make it a beautiful picture, but make it honest.

In his wonderful web essay on Detroit and New Orleans called "The Anatomy of Ruins," Bryan Finoki writes, "Ruin porn is a war on memory, dislocating the political dynamics of ruin in favor of momentary sensations and lurid plots. The state of ruin is seen as exactly that: a condition rather than a continually unfolding process. In fact, ruins evolve over time; they are the result of construction as much as of destruction; they are forms that fluctuate as other processes transform the landscape."  Photos of decay are like the hyperbolic train wreck that we "can't look away from."  Seeing ruined buildings in Detroit satisfies readers because it's what they expect to see.  But it's not Detroit.  Let the artists editorialize their photos.  If you are a journalist of any kind, tell the truth.