Detroit’s Fight to Survive: A Humanist’s Look at the Motor City

Dave Jordano
Dave Jordano
A Neighborhood Group Playing in the Street, North Corktown, Detroit, 2012

The temperature hit 103 degrees on this July day, forcing many neighborhood residents to open up fire hydrants to relieve themselves from the sweltering heat.

To illustrate this week’s cover story on the city of Detroit’s fight to survive, TIME turned to the work of photographer Dave Jordano. A second-generation Detroit native living in Chicago, Jordano returned to his home city three years ago with a mission: not to photograph what’s been destroyed, but to record what’s been left behind and the lives of those coping with it. The photographer spoke with LightBox producer Vaughn Wallace on Tuesday; their conversation has been condensed and edited below.

I’m from Detroit originally. I was born there in 1948 and then grew up in Royal Oak, a suburb of the city. At one time my father was an auto-worker in the Packard Automotive Plant, and after they went out of business, he went to work for GM. I studied photography at the Center for Creative Studies, which is an art school in downtown Detroit.

In 2010, I started seeing all these books about the abandonment and ruination of the city. They were all so empty! I thought, God, this is such a lopsided point of view. The whole idea of what’s come to be known as ruin porn is fascinating and sensual, but it masks the real problem of what’s happening in Detroit. Because the pictures are so beautiful and captivating, it’s easy to overlook their real meaning.

I was disturbed by that. While living in Chicago for 30 years, I never went back to Detroit. I never experienced the slow progression, degradation and emptying of the city firsthand. It never occurred to me this was happening until I got the idea to go back and re-photograph the same scenes and architecture I shot as a student in the 1970s.

TIME

TIME

The cover of the August 5, 2013 issue of TIME, featuring a photo by Dave Jordano.

I had all these negatives with the addresses written down on the sleeves — I knew exactly where they were. So for a week and a half, I completed an entire re-photography project. I had reacquainted myself with the city and was shocked at what I saw. I was drawn in and immediately started shooting the same subject matter as my predecessors, but then I realized that I was contributing nothing to the story of the city.

I asked myself: what can I contribute to Detroit that’s different? What angle can I take that’s more humanistic, more compassionate, than what all these people are coming here to do? I began thinking about the neighborhoods: what about the people who still live here? How are they coping?

So I switched directions.

I started driving around random neighborhoods and just hanging out. I said, I’m going to make this about the people that still live here and my encounters with the folks I meet. And as the project progresses, I’ve gone back and visited the same people and become better friends with them. I’ve returned over and over, trying to get even closer into their lives and homes and backyards. I want to create a more personal way of looking at the people of Detroit — to put a face on the city that I felt was sort of overlooked.

I’ve made over 20 trips to Detroit in the last three years, staying 10-14 days on each trip. But every time I go back, I’m still not used to the way the city looks. I can’t get it out of my head. I wish everyone in the country could tour Detroit and see what’s happened there.

It’s tragic that everyone has turned their back on the city. But I see perseverance and pride. The people I’ve met make do with what they’ve got. For me, when I see people living the way they do, I’m blown away by their positive attitude. Detroit’s a city people shouldn’t write off.


Dave Jordano is a fine art and documentary photographer based in Chicago. See more of his work here.

Vaughn Wallace is the producer of LightBox. Follow him on Twitter @vaughnwallace.


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