Stranger With a Camera

Posted by jdg | 8:55 AM

I still get a handful of emails from journalists every week telling me that they are coming to Detroit and asking me to show them around. I will admit at first I was honored when this happened, but for a while now I have been politely declining such requests, in part because I felt I was being used but also because I'm not sure I'm the right person to be leading such tours. In many ways I am still an outsider here, and while I always try to present a fair and truthful look at the city, I'm not always sure these journalists (and particularly the photographers) even care about being fair or truthful. I went through a period recently where I was really annoyed by all the photographers and documentary filmmakers and journalists scurrying from the same troubling sites to the same troubling sites time after time, fine-tuning their poverty porn, trying to associate factories shuttered in the 1950s with the current crisis facing the auto industry, and in the end only telling a fraction of the city's story. But I have come to a sort of peace with it all. For years Detroiters complained about nobody caring about their economic woes while the economy bubbled everywhere else, and now Detroiters complain because everybody is suddenly here with a camera trying to create a visual panorama of the American economic downturn. We are the poster city for the recession, and complaining about the attention won't do any good. I only hope, as with post-Katrina New Orleans, the attention will make a few more people out there care about what people here are struggling against. Maybe Brangelina will fix up a house here or adopt a feral dog or something.

A few months ago I saw Elizabeth Barret's Stranger With A Camera, produced by Appalshop. It's a documentary about an innovative Canadian filmmaker who was murdered down in Kentucky's coal country in 1967, as photographers and journalists swarmed the region to capture the white, rural face of Johnson's War on Poverty (much as they are swarming Detroit today to blame a long-term crisis of race and poverty on the automobile industry). Barret is a native of the region, though she had a typical middle-class upbringing far different from that of the coal miners who found themselves repeatedly captured by the cameras brought down from the Northeast. Barret uses Hugh O'Connor's murder as the focal point to explore the complicated relationship between those who take photographs and make films to promote social change (including herself) and the people whose lives are represented---fairly or unfairly---by such documentarians. O'Connor was shot in cold blood by the landlord of several run-down shacks where he had just finished filming some quiet scenes of the tenants' family life with his crew. Instead of condemning the act, many locals lionized the killer for taking a stand against outsiders who were unfairly portraying their community as bitterly poor and focusing only on certain aspects rather than the community as a whole.

Obviously, this film resonated with me, having been publicly attacked for doing the same thing here in Detroit with this website. It also helped me better understand why it is I am still so uncomfortable photographing people. Even if done with the greatest respect, it is still a form of exploitation that every photographer or filmmaker must reckon with. Barret's film isn't just relevant for journalists or photographers trying to make sense of the lives of others, but it gives any consumer of news or documentary media something to think about when they read or watch something that purports to tell someone else's story.

Now, whenever a visiting journalist asks if I will give them a tour, I advise them to watch this documentary before they come. It is a bit hard to track down, but it includes several scenes of Calvin Trillin (a personal idol over here) reading from a story he wrote for the New Yorker about the incident (I uploaded a PDF of the article here). And for the most part, I'm still declining to show visiting journalists this city that I am very much still trying to figure out for myself.

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