‘Detroit: Unbroken Down’ is a long term project by photographer Dave Jordano. Jordano grew up in Detroit and although he has not lived there for 30 years his affection for the place is evident in the pictures. There is a sense of belonging for his home town: rather than perpetuating a ‘ruin porn’ aesthetic which concentrates on crumbling, empty and abandoned subjects, he focusses on the resilience and creativity of many of the people living in the city. This is not a sanitised portrayal however, Detroit has experienced the damaging effects of deindustrialisation more than most in America’s ‘rustbelt.’ Quoted in the introduction to the exhibition Jordano states:
“Most Detroiters wear their pride for their city like a badge of courage, defying all odds, openly admitting that if you can survive here, you can survive just about anywhere. The project bears witness to the fact that Detroit is not a story about what’s been destroyed, but more importantly about what’s been left behind and those who are coping with it.”
These are powerful and impassioned words, and the images show an empathy and respect for the subjects portrayed. The majority of photographs are environmental portraits which are clearly made in collaboration with the people depicted in them. (Although there are some candid street portraits I found these to be less successful.) The notes accompanying many of the images suggest how much the city has changed since Jordano lived there, however, there is a clear sense that by engaging with the local area he is attempting to document, understand and then communicate this knowledge.
Here are some of the images from the exhibition that resonated with me:
Without Cynthia and her family, this image could be read as a record of the ‘ruin porn’ Jordano refers to in his exhibition notes. With the family standing on their porch however, the picture becomes about the bonds that keep family together – rather than the eye concentrating on the ramshackle, rundown appearance of the house with connotations of disregard and disrepair the meaning is transformed into people held together and working to make a life against whatever odds are stacked against them. The makeshift repairs to the property show a necessary and pragmatic approach to living.
The flag in the image contains many connotations, at first I wondered why the family would display the stars and stripes and show patriotism to an ideal that apparently does not support them. The notes accompanying the picture explain that the flag is displayed as an act of memorial to Cynthia’s son-in-law who was killed in the Iraq war. With this added context the initial negative feelings about the flag takes on further significance and poignancy. The duality of pride and the need to remember the ultimate sacrifice of the son-in-law and fact that the symbol itself has directly led to his death is troubling.
Depictions of homelessness in documentary photography have almost become a cliché which in the worst case can spill over into voyeurism and exploitation. Jordano avoids these potential pitfalls with this image of William, a man who according to the exhibition notes prefers to live on the streets in this highly visible part of Detroit (except for the winter months when he stays in a hostel.) The notes state that William keeps a “very neat house” and there is a sense of pride and dignity that emanates from the portrait. I am left with the feeling that William’s choice to live in this way rather than being a sad and lonely existence, the default way homelessness is shown, becomes a liberating way of living – by rejecting the traps of modern capitalism and living a life not defined by money it could be argued that William is truly free.
The photograph of Robert standing in the doorway of his home is a complex an ambiguous image. In the foreground we can see a large, expensive looking chandelier and furniture that looks expensive. Clearly times have changed significantly however from a past which appears to have been quite affluent – the room is untidy and in a state of disarray and disrepair. Thoughts move quickly to how the building has reached this state of decline – what has happened to Robert for his fortune to change so apparently dramatically? Has he gone off the rails? Is this even his house? A snap judgemental view could be that it is his neglect or fault that things have reached this point. The notes provide context for what has happened here, but unlike many of the other images in the exhibition which contain elements of positivity, the future for Robert is much less assured and certain. We learn that the picture shows Robert’s deceased parents house which he has inherited, he is a freelance music producer and is struggling to find work. The house has no running water or heat which led to Robert boarding up the windows and moving out over the winter. This indicated that the house was empty and it was subsequently looted – which explains the disarray in the scene. The looters stole copper piping which led to the basement flooding, and, in the final irony, a $4000 water bill. The future for Robert seems uncertain and difficult which contrasts with the way William in the previous image lives and shows the difficulty of existing despite Robert having skills as a music producer and assets. Despite this the odds seem hopelessly stacked against him.
Hakeem’s story is one of hope and redemption. After losing his business and splitting with his wife he converted to Islam and found salvation. He bought a run down house for $500 and now makes a living fixing cars. The picture here shows Kareem in a room in his house he uses as a place of meditation and reflection. The writing on the walls are inspirational quotes and phrases of wisdom he has collected and which he uses as a highly visual way of guiding his moral and spiritual life. Robert no longer sees himself as a victim but rather someone who believes adversity builds character. I spent a great deal of time reading the phrases on Robert’s wall, but rather than the content I was most affected by the way he has written them on the wall. The various coloured pens, differing tones of paint which show how some quotes have been erased to be replaced and the sheer amount of work on show all lead to a picture about Hakeem which is inspirational in that it is clear that this system of self reflection is something he needs to do to keep himself on the straight and narrow.
The first thing that I was drawn to in this image is the inquisitive look of Calvin’s dog and the way it stands between his legs, paws resting on his owners feet. Here animal and owner are shown as companions with a clear bond, the expression of both Calvin and his dog suggest a wary friendliness which is ambivalently both inviting while suggesting that they remain on their guard – perhaps a necessary sate of mind for living in Detroit. The exhibition notes quote Calvin in a way that could be a metaphor for this particular world view, “there are no bad pit bulls, only bad owners.”
This image has the appearance of a more traditional street photograph, and although interesting in its own right I find it jars with the other pictures in the exhibition. Unlike other images that have been shot in collaboration with the subjects this photograph appears to be a candid shot (backed up by the fact that the caption is ‘injured man walking’ rather than letting us know the man’s name.) The elements of the scene that seem to have attracted Jordano to photograph it are the utility pole with stuffed animals, (a memorial to someone who was killed on that spot) the painted wall and graffiti. The inclusion of the sole human figure in the shot seems calculated rather than serendipitous – I imagine Jordano setting up his camera and waiting for someone to enter the frame before pressing the shutter at the exact moment that they become juxtaposed with the word ‘shit’ spray painted on the wall behind them. More than that, there is a potential cynicism with the man shown being a ‘type’ rather than a fully formed person with a back story – an approach quite at odds with other pictures in the series that are at pains to humanise the people photographed.
Looking through the exhibition comments book before I left, I was struck by an impassioned attack on Jordano and some of the images shown. ‘The Darkness in the Light’ is an ongoing portrait series made in tandem with ‘Detroit: Unbroken Down‘ but concentrating specifically on women who are caught in a vicious cycle of substance abuse and prostitution. A few of these images are shown as part of the exhibition and the accompanying text makes it clear that the pictures are from this offshoot series. Their difference is also apparent due to their minimal captioning featuring only the first name of the subject, location and date, which contrasts with the extensive notes from the other pictures. For me, this showed both a respect for the women photographed while not leading the viewer into making definite assumptions about the women featured. From his website Jordano states that he aimed for the viewers reading of the images to be ambiguous and for alternative possibilities for the women shown to be considered. The exhibition critics however felt that the lack of text meant that Jordano was suggesting these images, and the women in them, are less important than the men in the other photographs. While I can understand the feeling expressed I do not believe it is a fair or accurate assessment of Jordano’s work and indeed his intent. The reaction however is an interesting one as it is the captions and not the photographs that have led to this assessment, for these particular visitors the ambiguity that Jordano hoped to achieve proves problematic rather than liberating and leads to conclusions about the photographers intent being made.
The main things I will take from ‘Detroit: Unbroken Down’ are how knowledge of a particular area, repeated visits and collaboration can invest photographs with an integrity that cannot be faked. Jordano’s attempts not to emulate the ‘ruin porn’ mode he dislikes while not sanitising the reality of the poverty that exists in Detroit is something to be admired and something on my mind as I think about my relationship with my local area and how I choose to photograph it working towards assignment 1. The long term project that has emerged from his Detroit visits seem to have evolved and developed through the work itself which reminds me of the need to photograph with an open mind and unbiased eye.