July 22, 2013

Slamming Detroit

Woman soup kitchen detroit 08 Reuters

As visual commentary after Detroit’s bankruptcy announcement, I thought this was an eloquent set of tweets:

The contrast is between a NYT slideshow marking the Detroit bankruptcy and a post-announcement piece by photographer Anne Savage from the Michigan site, EclectaBlog, using scenes of Detroit to reflect a sense of endurance and character.

The NYT slideshow hits many of the same chords as the flood of images we saw of Detroit during The Great Recession, the city the poster child for economic failure after the Wall Street meltdown. In it, we see signature visual elements chronicling urban collapse, abandoned buildings, empty lots, ironic graffiti and people looking down and out. The NYT slideshow, however, is mixed with civic scenes that could show up anywhere, including, city employees on the job, residents walking around downtown, foot traffic in front of the municipal building and the city’s Emergency Manager flanked by Reinventing Detroit signs.

This is in contrast still with “Bankrupt Detroit,” a 25 photo Reuters slideshow marking the bankruptcy announcement comprised of file photos pulled from 2008 through this year. Admittedly a generalization, it seems more Euro-centric media and European photographers are always more ready to highlight the shortcomings of the U.S., be it urban decay, or racial tension or militarist tendencies, in starker, darker and more stereotypical terms.

The Reuters slideshow is an unrelenting portrait of depravity, almost each shot bleaker than the last. These photo aren’t illustrative of a city in a battle with regressive forces as the Times slideshow is. This, instead, is an indictment, a derisive post-mortem. What it also is is a subtle expression of racism. Yes, Detroit is 82% African-American and a third of its residents live below the poverty line. Still, this slideshow offers only one discernible white person, a fire fighter (looking down, he could seen to be judging) walking through urban rubble after fires ravaged the city’s east side.

Homeless structure Detroit Reuters

The cynicism is reflected in the despairing gaze of a woman outside a soup kitchen (atop the post in the red, white and blue) and in the portrait of a homeless structure in the foreground of the GM headquarters implying, in the alignment, the city’s past and the city’s future.

Is Detroit a city in a lot of trouble? Of course it is. But to the extent the bankruptcy is also a wake-up call, the Reuters slideshow is an unrelenting orgy of broken glass,

Hail Mary’s for a crippled automotive industry (the photo, taken in December, 2008, incidently, coincident with the successful government auto industry bailout)

… and a lot of hanging around the soup kitchens.

(photo 1: Carlos Barria/Reuters. caption: A woman stands outside the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, where hundreds of people receive food and supplies everyday, in Detroit, December 9, 2008. photo 2: Stephen McGee for The New York Times. caption: As city workers resumed their jobs as usual on Friday, any actual shift in Detroit’s predicament was, for the moment, barely noticeable. photos 3- 4: Rebecca Cook/Reuters. caption 3: A Detroit fire fighter looks through the smoldering back yards of burned homes and garages on East Robinwood in Detroit, September 8, 2010. caption 4: A makeshift homeless persons structure is seen with the General Motors world headquarters in the background in Detroit, March 31, 2009. photo 5: Eric Thayer/Reuters. caption: Broken windows are seen inside the abandoned and decaying manufacturing plant of Packard Motor Car in Detroit, April 2, 2011. photo 6: Carlos Barria/Reuters. caption: A woman prays for the future of the American auto industry during a special service at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, December 7, 2008. photo 7: Mark Blinch/Reuters. caption: Larry Finklea eats his lunch at the soup kitchen in the basement of the St. Leo Catholic Church in Detroit, December 17, 2011. )

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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