My photo essay includes five images, five different views of the same city. LeDuff’s essay includes ten, yet I would argue that he only really succeeds in portraying the city in a negative light through the photographs. He chooses to show a funeral, a morgue, and a young child wandering around amidst trash and debris. While he incorporates a few optimistic images, the majority of the photographs depict Detroit as the place most of us imagine when we hear its name. LeDuff has hope for the city, which is why he chose to write a book about it, but his overwhelming pessimism trumps any positive pictures and hopeful words. I firmly believe that among the ashes and grime and destruction there is a spark, and demonstrating this with pictures would augment a sense of hopefulness in LeDuff’s writing.
Online I found the image of a building spray-painted with the word “Zombieland.” The name of a movie about an apocalypse, “Zombieland” suggests fiction and fantasy, but the implications are all too real for Detroiters. This is the side of Detroit that LeDuff depicts the most, and it is arguably the more important side for Detroit: An American Autopsy, since he is trying to show Detroit as it is, not as it could be in the future. Despite this, exploring the opportunities available in Detroit might enhance, rather than oppress, the idea that nothing is being done to fix the city. Grace Lee Boggs said in an interview on YouTube, “The tendency is to look to existing structures for leadership.” This statement applies perfectly to Detroit. By looking to current systems of power, Detroit is indefinitely stuck in a cycle of poverty and crime. LeDuff writes about the poverty, crime, and corrupt government, but he doesn’t tell his readers where to look next.
The next picture greatly contrasts with the first, although both include buildings labeled very clearly with statements about the city. In the first image, the building is missing windows and devoid of life. In this image, on the other hand, a sign reading “Opportunity Made Detroit” is hung on a well-maintained building in the heart of the city. Opportunity is something that LeDuff doesn’t mention much. He does talk about the hard work of the firemen, and he highlights the potential children have for the city through Keiara Bell. In the book, for example, when Keiara is asked about the “Shrek incident” involving Monica Conyers, she says, “You’re an adult… we have to look up to you… we’re kids. We’re looking on TV, and, like, this is an adult calling another adult Shrek? That’s something a second-grader would do” (70). Bell is wise beyond her years, lecturing a much older politician on how she should behave in public. Despite examples like this, in which he highlights some of the potential the city’s residents have, LeDuff never states how Detroit could be better and he never explicitly tells his readers that Detroit could be a great city once again. Although I suppose he might not believe Detroit has this potential, he loves the city enough to move back to it after so many years away.
Next, I included two more pictures of destruction. A halfway-burned house and a window devoid of glass appear to be anything but hopeful. Homes are meant to be safe spaces, and these are eerily empty; something more is missing besides the windowpanes. These are both images from Earthworks, an urban farm. Urban agriculture is an increasingly popular use of empty space in Detroit that I noticed LeDuff fails to mention. This is an extremely important part of Detroit’s growing culture, and I think it would greatly benefit the book to include a piece on urban farms, whether LeDuff is for or against their installation. They are making use of space in the city that would otherwise remain stagnant. My final image was also taken at Earthworks, although it differs in theme from the other two I took there: it is a picture of a sign that reads, “Community Orchard.” A strong sense of familial loyalty is often present in LeDuff’s writing, but a sense of community is limited. The firefighters clearly have a bond, shown when Walt Harris dies, but it seems that many people have the “every man for himself” mentality. Even LeDuff leaves his troubled niece in an apparent time of need when he believes he needs to protect his immediate family first. There are incontestably other vital communities in Detroit, yet they are not included in the book. Communities are crucial in the development of a metropolis, and photographs of the ones in Detroit would be concrete evidence that people are attempting to better the city.
Charlie LeDuff’s images, while compelling, do not give the reader hope for the city. Instead they depict a dark, unhappy Detroit. Only a few photographs are somewhat lighthearted: “Summer Night, Belle Isle,” “Man and Child, Belle Isle,” and “Praying, East Side.” Two of these were taken at the same location, and therefore LeDuff fails to show hope for the city as a whole. For someone who moved back to Detroit with his children and wife, he certainly does not portray the city as a desirable place to live. Some of the more jarring images in his photo essay include “Unclaimed Dead, County Morgue, Midtown,” “Funeral of an Innocent Boy, East Side,” and “Child, East Side.” All of these have a dark theme that explores the effects of poverty and crime in the city of Detroit. They are blunt, harsh, even upsetting. They hit the reader head on. He retains at least some residual hope, particularly at the end of the book when he sees a young deer standing just a few feet in front of him: “In that field of death covered with vines and grass, it was true what Tyrone said. You ain’t gonna be reincarnated, so do the best with the moment you got. I don’t believe in reincarnation either, but I do believe in symbolism” (285-286). The deer is a symbol for the hope in Detroit. It seems out of place, but it is there, and it is beautiful. An image of the deer, had it been included in the photo essay, would have left the book on a positive, if not hopeful, note. Instead, the last picture LeDuff chooses to show his readers is of a house fire.
I did include gloomy, dejecting pictures, but I also included some optimistic images as well, and this is the big difference between my photo essay and LeDuff’s. He chose to focus both his book and his essay on the despair and heartbreak of Detroit; I, on the other hand, wanted to show both sides of the city. LeDuff very nearly ignores the good parts of Detroit, avoiding discussing the more vibrant downtown at all, and puts all of his energy into portraying the bad. If people have no hope, they have nothing to work for. LeDuff puts the book and the images in our hands, and it’s almost as if he says, “Here, read about how much Detroit sucks.” The book is inarguably well written and entertaining, but where are we, as his audience, supposed to go next? The American public will continue to act helpless, unless someone steps up and provides a solution. We are able to clearly grasp what LeDuff intends, and that is to share with his readers the despondency that comprises the city of Detroit. What we are not able to clearly grasp is what he wants us to do with that knowledge. Some pictures of hope rather than just despair might be the motivation LeDuff’s readers need to begin to solve the urban crisis that is Detroit.
Grace Lee Boggs on Leadership. Prod. Fetzer Institute. YouTube. N.p., 18 May
2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/
Pooley, JD. “Graffiti covers an abandoned building in Detroit.” The Guardian.
Guardian News and Media Limited, 19 July 2013. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.
Reuters. “‘Opportunity Made In Detroit’ banner seen on the side of a building.”
ITV. ITV, 18 July 2013. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. <http://www.itv.com/