Blog Post: can't mourn everything
04th November 2012
One of the hardest things is maintaining a sense of perspective and gratitude when things go wrong. Whether it's disappointment or legitimate disaster, it's hard not to feel like you've been failed by others, yourself, the forces that govern the universe. I tend towards depression, anger, and resentment when I believe my hard work hasn't paid off, when I think about all the effort I've put into what I do and how far I have yet to go, when I need other people to follow through on things to move forward and they don't. This is nothing compared to much more severe issues like health problems, losing a job, losing your home, losing a loved one. Nonetheless the outcome is the same: focusing on the problem and becoming blind to the other things around you. It can seem almost impossible to distract yourself from fixating on the issue.
For the most part, I'm not a sentimentalist. The places I have devoted my life to photographing are all evidence of the very real toll of mistakes and misfortune. Wishing them better doesn't really make them so. You can try to spin the closing of a factory in any way you like. You can say, "Look at how beautiful it is now! Life goes on!" or something of the like. People often do. It doesn't change the fact that the site may be an environmental disaster, or that people are out of work because it closed. These effects are things that are implicit in the photographs of the locations, but we are not actually looking at them. The frustration and anguish caused by these cataclysms ripple outwards to create new calamaties: depression, physical abuse, poverty, and suicide, to name a few. Nothing justifies it, certainly not a pretty image of it afterwards. If my home was flooded or burned, how would I feel about someone going through the aftermath to make 'art' of it? I don't really know. As long as it's not injuring someone or worsening their condition, I suppose it's ok, but I wouldn't want someone rhapsodizing about it or romanticizing it.
This work was born of my own pain. I was at one of the lowest points of my life when I really started getting obsessed with abandoned places, and photographing them was a way of looking outside of myself to get away from the crushing weight of my own despair. I could empathize with them and didn't feel quite as alone in my sorrows when I was with them. I don't think I ever lost sight of the underlying costs that a lost school or church or home had. Rather, I felt connected with them because of it. That is my justification, my reasoning that why what I do isn't merely rubbernecking at the social car wreck. I am a part of the accident too. I live in this culture, and its losses are my own.
That being said, I don't know that a perpetual state of mourning is the answer, and sometimes I feel that perhaps it's a bit selfish. No matter how legitimate your suffering, its effect is often to turn your gaze inwards and sever your connection with others and the world around you. It is through sharing the burden that sorrow becomes manageable, and it is through remembering that there is still good in the world that you are able to move on from it. Being thankful for the good things we still have in the wake of a disaster is critical because of this.
Though I'm fully aware of what damage scrapping the streetcar system causes to our environment, our economy, and to the lower income city people who might use these as an alternative to the sometimes unmanageable expense of driving, I'm still glad that I can go here every now and then and be at peace with these old trolleys. I am thankful that I was able to spend a beautiful fall afternoon by myself, wandering through the falling leaves and taking pictures of these old streetcars and trains. I am grateful for the places I have been able to visit and the people who I have met through my travels. I wish that things had worked out differently, that these streetcars weren't left to rot. But, I can't mourn everything all the time. Sometimes I just have to accept things as they are, appreciate what I can, and try to take something useful away from it. There isn't really any other option.
Photograph and text by Matthew Christopher of Abandoned America
By Nancy: Very well said. We all need perspective. Thank you.
By Leona Heraty: Matthew, your comments are right on. I too feel a great deal of sadness when I see an abandoned house or anything abandoned that was once so useful and meaningful to people, like a streetcar or an old theater or factory. Your haunting photos make me long for a simpler time and place, when life was a little slower paced and not so stressful. Yes, I know what you mean about abandoned places making you feel depressed...they make me feel blue too, because I can't understand why we as a society don't do more to preserve them. These places can be spooky and beautiful, mysterious and ominous, all at the same time. Your lovely photos capture all of these things so well, and I applaud you for helping to raise awareness about the importance of honoring our history and those who helped to build our great nation by preserving these structures as much as possible. When they can't be preserved, I think it's wonderful also that your photos form an important archive of these abandoned places for future generations to learn about American history. Thanks so much for all of your hard work and keep on doing what you're doing. :-)