Photographer returns home to focus on 'heartbeat' of troubled Detroit: People

Dave Jordano, wary of 'ruin porn,' specifically sought signs of life

Photographer returns home to focus on 'heartbeat' of troubled Detroit: People

Photographer Dave Jordano was born and raised in Detroit and spent the earliest days of his career documenting the city’s astounding architecture and its thriving population during the early 1970s.

Nearly 40 years later, decades after he had moved away, Jordano became fascinated with the images that were emerging from his hometown. Photographers were descending on the city in droves to document the burned-out homes, empty streets and abandoned factories that seemed to have overtaken Detroit.

In 2010, Jordano decided to return to Detroit to see for himself what had happened to the city. He was stunned by what he found.

“I was quite shocked,” Jordano recalled. “The areas I had been so familiar with … I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

Jordano began to take pictures of places he’d documented before — as a comparison project. But after days of trekking through abandoned buildings and eying other “ruin porn,” as it is known in Detroit, he began to feel guilty about what he was doing.

“I got a bad feeling about the whole thing. I thought, ‘This isn’t right,’” Jordano recalled. “I wasn’t contributing anything new to the story about Detroit. I wasn’t helping anyone to better understand what was happening there.”

Instead of turning his lens on the decline of the city, Jordano decided to seek out “signs of life,” the Detroit residents who were surviving in the city despite its myriad of problems. He began driving all over the city, venturing into neighborhoods that sometimes looked like war zones, looking for the people.

What he found is the subject of “Detroit: Unbroken Down,” a series of portraits of city residents getting by in a place that is famously dysfunctional. The images go on display Thursday at the United Photo Industries Gallery in Brooklyn and will be shown through March 6.

His portraits include everyone from poor residents living in substandard conditions in blighted neighborhoods to young community gardeners who are using land in the city’s deserted neighborhoods to farm produce. It’s a series that shows the difficult circumstances residents continue to face but also projects hope for the city’s future because of the life that remains there.

Over the past three years, Jordano has gone back to Detroit 25 times — spending a week or two each trip driving all over the city, in some cases using a tank of gas each day. The project, he says, has become “personal” for him, as a way of telling the more human story of what's happening in Detroit as it navigates its way through bankruptcy.

His city, he says, is not the one of “death and decay” depicted in many stories but one of “human activity and movement.”

“The city has a heartbeat,” Jordano said. “People shouldn't write it off."