At the end of Charlie LeDuff’s novel, Detroit: An American Autopsy, he includes a photo essay depicting all of Detroit’s squalor and misfortune he had detailed in the novel. The purpose of this is to not only to prove to the reader the reality of the novel’s accounts, but also to help keep the city’s plight in the mind of the reader, even after the book is finished. LeDuff chooses to illustrate the city with images of prostitutes stumbling over factory ruins, burning homes, and teenagers in caskets, fatal victims of the streets of Detroit . LeDuff accurately paints a picture of the city with his photo essay; however, it should not be assumed that his painting is complete. My photo essay works as a supplement to his, filling in the gaps of Detroit that he failed to represent, both in the novel and in the photo essay.
LeDuff spends a chapter of his book narrating the boom and bust of Detroit, but only provides photos for the fall of the empire. To compensate for this, I included the photo, “Looking up Woodward Avenue,” which depicts the “swell old days of soda fountains and shopping stores and lazy Saturday night drives,” as LeDuff quips in the novel. The historical photo amplifies the city’s current state of destitution by working as a contrast to the multitude of photographs of urban decay both in the novel and media regarding Detroit. Without this photo, the reader would lose the vital understanding that Detroit’s prime is not something that is falsely embellish today; it undeniably existed, which makes the city’s current state all the more devastating. The following photo works as a contrast in a different way. Instead of working to exemplify the difference in wealth between decades, the second photo shows the present difference in wealth. The juxtaposition of a dilapidated home against the sleek façade of the Renaissance Center skyscrapers in the background perfectly illustrates the disparities in wealth in Detroit, making it almost appear as if they are of two different cities. LeDuff’s photo essay doesn’t represent the fact that affluence does exist in Detroit (however unfairly), which may give readers the idea that Detroit is purely made of ruins. Wealthy parts of Detroit, surreally and seemingly untouched by the economic collapse, exist just as equally as the impoverished parts, so it’d be fallacious not to include them in an illustration of the city.
LeDuff also periodically writes about the reclamation of the city by nature. Indeed, the ending of the novel is a touching, almost mystical, scene in an overgrown lot, in which he meets a stray fawn. To represent this descent of nature upon the city, I included the photo “Feral House,” which shows a house almost completely swallowed up by vegetation. LeDuff doesn’t include, though, the fact that some Detroiters have taken advantage of this natural homecoming and used it to better the community in the form of urban farms, as I show with the picture, “Donna’s Plot,” which shows a community herb garden next to a blighted house. With thousands of overgrown, vacant lots in Detroit, there have been hundreds of groups that have taken the initiative to turn over that extra space into gardens that sustain the community with fresh produce, an outlet for energy and creativity, and a sense of unity. The urban agriculture movement is so prominent in Detroit, in fact, that it is one of the biggest in the countries, and possibly in the world. The resourcefulness and ingenuity of the Detroit people is not something that should be ignored.
Unfortunately, LeDuff strongly focuses on the misfortune of Detroit, both in his novel and in his photo essay. While his job is to report the “news,” he almost solely focuses on the burdens that Detroiters shoulder, sometimes even portraying them as helpless to rectifying their condition. In the context of social climbing or overhauling Detroit City Council, most Detroiters are helpless. But in many cases, Detroiters are doing what they can to make a difference in their city, which is why I included the final two photos, “Motor City Blight Busters” and “Occupy Movement in Detroit.” Community organizations like Motor City Blight Busters work to demolish some of the thousands of dangerous and abandoned buildings, clean up neighborhoods, and paint buildings that need it in Detroit. Additionally, thousands of Detroiters have used the protests as a way to voice their opinions of Detroit’s condition and let it be known that they are not passive to the state of their city. It has to be acknowledged that thousands of people are working vigorously, every day, to make their city a better place to live in, because really, they don’t have the option of living anywhere else. The people of Detroit are not as unresponsive as LeDuff portrays them.
When you close most books, you usually close their literary world with them. However, Charlie LeDuff’s book is about a place that still exists, even when the reader closes the back cover. The importance of the photo essay is clear: it’s essential for connecting the reader to the real, breathing (however shallowly that may or may not be) city that is any certain number of miles away. It’s even more important, then, that the photos create an accurate and complete picture of the place they’re depicting. Charlie’s photos portray the authentic, raw hardship of Detroit, but fail to recognize the numerous positive developments that thousands of people have exerted energy into making. My photos work as photographic proof of these positive developments in Detroit that exist just as much as the ruined parts of the city. Together, the contrast of both my and LeDuff’s photo choices create a complete picture of the colorful Detroit for the readers, both shadows and light included.