Alleys & Ruins no. 143, Reckoning (2013, Detroit, MI, 12:00am)
In 2013 Detroit declared bankruptcy – it was by far the largest US city ever to do so. The city was sinking under $18 billion in debt, and a small revenue base. The once prosperous city had shriveled from population flight, and most of the people who remained did so because they didn’t have the money to leave.
Three days after the bankruptcy I was downtown late at night, shooting one of its endless splayed open, abandoned buildings.
In my 22 years of shooting the Alleys & Ruins series, where I’ve had numerous close encounters with people who want to hurt me, I have never taken along a cop. By chance, I happen to meet Officer Nate MacRae the day before, and he comes along to watch my back. When I find this location and tell him I plan to enter the pitch black building with my lights, his eyes bug out. “Hold on a sec!! Are you serious?! You could be attacked in there!!”
He pulls out his flashlight, and with his hand on his gun he enters the building with me following from behind. After looking around corners and walking down hallways, he is satisfied. “Ok, the place is clear. And there’s enough rubble that if someone’s in here, you’ll hear them. Plus I’ll be outside.”
As we step out of the darkness, I wonder why I’ve never taken a cop before. This is so awesome! But I know the answer… I’ve always felt it was cheating. I could hardly call my process guerilla style, if I have the city’s finest watching my back.
Part of the draw of my work, and part of my interest in it, is that there is true drama in the night of my shoots. When I started the series, I would go alone. Eventually I started bringing friends and family to watch my back – usually one or two people. I liked the intimacy and the connection to my setting, and the way my senses needed to heighten in these run down locations. And I always believed my tension would somehow be reflected in the final image. I had to be part of what was around me, not just a detached observer. But having said that, and with my experience with Nate, who was superb, I’m willing to have a little less adrenaline flowing in exchange for a little more peace of mind!
The building is nothing special or out of the ordinary for Detroit. It is the remains of the Westside Cold Storage Company, and Alley 143 shows the main entrance and lobby. Inside, just to the left is someone’s home: a mattress, an old recliner, lots of clothes and shoes… Outside while I’m shooting, a man shows up and begins pacing nervously back and forth 30 feet away. He has no shirt and what’s left of his pants are torn up rags. Sometimes he’s crouching and stares at a blade of grass or at the fire hydrant. By the time I leave I assume I’ve been shooting in his home.
In March of 2012 the building caught fire. The police suspect the fire was started accidentally by someone using a blow torch to scavenge for scrap metal. The fire spread and someone was trapped by it. Unable to escape, he was forced to the rooftop, where witnesses told reporters they saw the man on fire before he jumped to his death from the three-story building.
I returned to Detroit the following day. Largely due to the bankruptcy, I wanted to see and photograph the many locations I had shot over the years. This also gave me a chance to return to Alley 143 and with the daylight explore some more of the interior, and to see the man’s stark home more clearly.
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