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The Work I Was Born to Do

Posted: 06th February 2013
In: Blog
One of the criticisms you most frequently hear about photographs of abandoned buildings is that they are 'exploitative'. Like the use of the term 'ruin porn' as a perjorative description (which I've written separate essays on), I wonder sometimes if the people using it have any clear idea what the phrase even means or how they are using it.

To exploit something has both positive and negative connotations in its definition. "Exploit" can mean to advertise or promote, or to make the best use of something possible. However, the term 'exploitative' is often used as a way of negating or devaluing something. By definition that is to "use something selfishly or unethically".

My chief complaint about people who throw words like 'exploitative' or 'ruin porn' in little snipe-and-run articles or comments is that they casually damn someone's efforts without taking any time to understand them or their context. The people who use these phrases as criticisms not only don't take the time to understand the work they are so imperiously dismissing, but usually have only a hazy insight into what they are saying themselves.

To claim someone is using something 'selfishly or unethically', you first need to have an idea what they are using it for, and how that is unethical, two things that a brief glance can't really afford. I've written about photography of the dead and its inherent responsibilities and problems, and I do believe there is a strong need for gravitas and respect when dealing with the subject. Is it unethical to present an abandoned building as a photograph? It's a tough subject because there are no clear guidelines and people's expectations are all different.

I personally have argued that the jokey, "Look at me, I'm on an adventure!" style of a lot of explorers' photographs is disrespectful and belittling to their subjects. My work centers around the place and not so much my own presence in it, although I don't necessarily think when handled artfully self-portraits are 'unethical'. They are clearly not the center of what I am trying to do, which is offer a eulogy of sorts to the places themselves and the era of our society that they represent. As a sort of coroner of buildings, I try to look for what the causes of a site's downfall were, and what the effects have been. Even so, I simply don't have the ability with the volume of sites I visit to give an in-depth look at each and every one historically. I wish I did, but it just isn't possible. Sometimes I can't write things to go with them. Sometimes I present an image without context or writing. Does this mean I am neglecting that particular place?

I feel like it sometimes, but realistically my time is limited. Shooting always takes priority because it is often very time-sensitive and when a place is lost, so is the opportunity to document it. Processing images is next, and writing, website updates, and researching usually are in the 'when I can' category. Maybe one day if I am financially stable, I can take the time I want on the subject because I am a man of means (and hey, maybe even hire a team of people to work on content!). Maybe then I can afford to flesh out this aspect. Until then, I still would argue that an image without context, presented respectfully, is not unethical. Blaming me for the condition of the buildings, the sadness that one experiences at their waste, or the feeling of hopelessness about their future (and ours as a culture) that they can inspire is ridiculous. I do the best I can to make something useful and beneficial of my work, but there is no way it can singlehandedly repair a sinking ship - not even one. The state of affairs is frequently pretty far gone by the time I get to a place. I can report what I see, and my hope is in what the images and writing inspire others to do or think. The idea of an artist or photographer as a superhero who is responsible for fixing the problems they document is unfair and unrealistic, and often the critique of the privileged, who would rather not be bothered with the issue presented because on some level it makes them feel guilty for doing nothing about it.

Another fun criticism (getting close to the ruin porn subject/essay) is that making aesthetically beautiful photographs of ruins somehow glamorizes them and is unethical. I've retorted that in a funeral, we make the body look as good as possible because we want to see the beauty in who that person was and not just the tawdriness of death itself. I have also retorted that people are not interested in ugly images, and ugly images support the 'these places should all just be torn down' argument, which I vehemently disagree with. By presenting them in as beautiful a way possible, I hope to make you see why they are worth saving and what a crime it is that it isn't happening.

Perhaps the most ill-informed and arrogant part of the 'exploitive' definition, though, is that this work is presented selfishly. The people who claim this often will say, "but look at you! You're selling prints of ruins! Here you are, making a profit on other people's misfortune!"

Anyone who thinks that I make some king's ransom on photographing places and selling prints or presenting work at a gallery is a fool. There is no kind way to put that. My camera equipment, my travel expenses, website hosting fees, my schooling on the subject, and my effort and time so vastly outweigh any financial return I have ever seen that it blows my mind that anyone would even think that I do this for money. Without any hyperbole I can say I will be far in debt for the rest of my life specifically because of this work that I do. In the real world of our Capitalist society, things do not occur for free. Nothing does. To remain even partially solvent I have to work constantly and with so little pay that just reaching the poverty line would be like winning a race. Nearly every means of making money in our culture is exploitative if you cut right down to it, and I have picked one of the least profitable endeavors there is.

Yet the critics love to paint you as the photographer, sitting on your lofty Photographer's Throne, which you bought with the untold riches you made selling a handful of prints, looking down on the misery of others and smilingly milking it for every cent you can. This is perhaps the most offensive part of the term: that I am capitalizing on the misery of others for my own gain.

Maybe in an ideal world this school would still be open and I'd be teaching in it.

I live in the country I am taking pictures of. I do not live a life of privilege or wealth. The communities I photograph most are the ones geographically closest to me. You know that factory I photographed the ruins of? If it were open, maybe I would have a job that paid reasonably well there, with benefits even! You know that asylum I took pictures of? Maybe I could have got care there for my depression and anxiety. Can't afford that now. Those schools that closed, my (potential future) kids and the kids of my friends could have got a better education there then they can in the deteriorating, underfunded, and overcrowded system that exists now. Maybe if that church weren't abandoned I could have found solace or a sense of community there, rather than being stuck with the barren wasteland of sagging malls and chain restaurants that is often all that I see left of neighborhoods. I live in this country, and I love the ideals it was founded on. I hate seeing it buckling under its own weight and painfully falling apart. I can't escape that. This problem is very much my problem, as much as it is that of everyone else struggling to get by in America. This time is my time, and its sorrow is my sorrow. I have every right to speak about it and make my work about it.

So, if you want to elevate yourself above what I do by judging it without taking any time to understand it, I can't stop you. I can judge you too, and I do: I think people who do such things are pompous and superficial asses who feel they have a right to dissect the work of others with the dull scalpel of their own rhetoric and language they barely know how to use. I think such people are (perhaps willfully) blind to the scope of the problem that this phenomena represents, both on a local and a national level. What I do isn't perfect. I have dedicated my life to it because I feel it is important and I hope it accomplishes some Greater Good, but I have no control over what its actual effects are. I am throwing this bottled message into the ocean in hopes that whoever recovers it, in whatever time and place they are at, they can understand the slow-motion train wreck that I see unfolding before me. Maybe that will happen in time to do something about it, and maybe it won't. Maybe it will only serve as a snapshot of a moment in time, and show what that moment was - not the past of the places I photograph, a time which is already gone. I'm trying to record the present, MY present, and the era I live in.

It's a sad era, full of the loss of beautiful places and ideals and their replacement by a cheap and unfulfilling dogma of squeezing the last bleeding pennies from your own culture and countrymen no matter what the disastrous effects of your actions are. When I look at the world around me, the wastefulness, neglect, and decay are what I see around me and if I want to be realistic and true to my own inner voice, they are what I have to work with. I don't owe you any explanations or excuses for that, even though I often give them in hopes that perhaps someone out there might see the validity to it. If you think this work is exploitative, by all means, please go back to the comforting light of your television shows and the shimmering ideology that everything will be fine if you just sit on your ass and buy more and use more.

In the meanwhile, I'll be out in the ruins, doing my best to mine something meaningful from the devastation. It's not the happiest lot in life, but it's the work I was born to do.

To see the full gallery of images from the Julia de Burgos Magnet Middle School (or Northeast High School or Thomas Edison High School, if you prefer), click this link. Image and text by Matthew Christopher.

If you're interested in more Abandoned America blogs, follow this link. If you enjoy my writing, check out my books: Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream (Amazon / Barnes & Noble) or Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences (Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Signed copies).
If you are interested in purchasing an Abandoned America print, please follow this link!


Photo comment By Dan: Anyone who documents "the abandoned" are not exploiting the structure. We are trying to tell the story of the location in its current state. Those who think this is "exploitative" or "ruin porn" are missing the bigger picture. For me, this picture is the history of the location, what was it like to work there and/or why did this location become abandoned. Can someone explain the difference between photographing an abandoned building vs an historic site? Matt, keep up the great work!!!!
Photo comment By Claudia McGill: Thank you for saying this.
Photo comment By Christine: It's amazing the vastly differing opinions that people can have. I have always considered photographs of abandoned buildings to be hauntingly beautiful. It has never even crossed my mind that others would consider this exploitative. What is there to exploit? The photographer did not cause the subject to fall to ruin for hopes of financial profit.
Photo comment By A R Charlevois: Beautifully written, beautifully photographed. I wish I'd stumbled on your work earlier. Well done.

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