Turning Suffering into a Still Life

“Ruin porn” aesthetically disconnects human suffering from devastation

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Derek Farr / www.flickr.com/detroitderek

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Anyone who has poked around Detroit or even just seen the now ubiquitous images of its sprawling desolation is bound to have conflicting reactions. The city is a staggering spectacle, but the question of what exactly it is you’re looking at—or, more precisely, seeing—is something of an ethical and aesthetic litmus test in an age of so many artfully composed portraits of devastation.  

There are, of course, all sorts of definitions of wonder that come into play when one gazes at what is now widely regarded as “ruin porn,” whether the images be of economically distressed cities in America or India or of wholly forsaken places like Chernobyl, and whether the work is presented as photojournalism or as art.  

Noreen Malone, writing in The New Republic (Jan. 22, 2011), specifically wonders why there are so few people in the stylized photos of dilapidated Detroit. In an article titled “The Case Against Economic Disaster Porn” she notes, “We know intellectually that people live in Detroit (even if far fewer than before), but these pictures make us feel like they don’t. The human brain responds very differently to a picture of a person in ruin than to a building in ruin—you’d never see a magazine represent famine in Africa with a picture of arid soil. Without people in them, these pictures don’t demand as much of the viewer, exacting from her engagement only on a purely aesthetic level. You can revel in the sublimity of destruction, of abandonment, of the march of change—all without uncomfortably connecting them with their human consequences.”  

That’s a provocative point, but many would argue that it sells short the complexities of seeing, the ways we process what we see, and all those gradations of wonder. Surely an intelligent human being can look at such photos and be provoked to ask exactly the sorts of questions that Malone poses, and then some. But context is everything, Malone contends, and people are not conditioned to see what’s not there. The ruins of Chernobyl—documented by the photographer Robert Polidori in a series of images that are both haunting and achingly beautiful (and that sell for thousands of dollars)—are now a tourist site, and here in America, Malone writes, “we have begun to think of Detroit as a still-life.” Yet, she reminds us, there are still people there, struggling to get by and living “outside the frame.”

Cover-165-thumbnailThis article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.