Photographing abandoned/derelict buildings in Detroit

Discussion in 'Travel' started by david_henderson, Jul 5, 2008.

  1. david_henderson


    I've just read an interesting article on urban decay in Detroit in the UK's Daily Telegraph magazine, illustrated by
    some very good photographs by the Magnum photographer Alec Soth. Which got me thinking that I would rather
    like to spend a few days driving round Detroit photographing these factories, houses and even railway stations and

    But would I be right to have concerns about safety in these environments; and would it be different with two people
    rather than myself alone? And are they hard to find?
  2. I would be more worried about trespassing than safety... Unsure how one would get permission to go into buildings - derelict
    yes, but highly unlikely unowned.
  3. According to some of these lists (e.g., Detroit is the most
    dangerous city in America. St. Louis is number two on the same list. On some other lists, St, Louis is #1 and
    Detroit #2.

    I'm usually pretty optimistic about these things, but sometimes you just have to exercise caution, and areas with
    derelict buildings just might not be the safest places in any cities. Imagine, as a thought experiment, how safe
    you would feel in a particular environment with a couple of hundred dollars pinned on your hat.
  4. Detroit is not a particularly safe city to wander about aimlessly. My wife's extended family is from right outside Detroit and while it may not be quite as bad as they portray it, they have very careful routines that they follow about where they will go or where they will drive, etc., if going into Detroit.

    As to things like railroad stations and hotels and the like, it's probably not hard to locate them, plenty of resources available, mapping services on the net, etc. I would recommend a working with someone very familiar with the area.
  5. Old factories are generally "locked up" and it may not be possible to gain entry. The Detroit police force does work some of the time, so if you decide to trespass -- you may get personal attention. You may also have a situation in photographing some areas...the locals may think you are on one side or the other of the drug trade, so you might be prepared for anything.
  6. Urban decay is always interesting; the closest thing we have to a social chernobyl .. and dangerous. I spend some of my free time in St. Louis' broken down buildings and abandoned rail yards. They are havens for illegal activity, drug abusers, alcoholics, and prostitutes .. the stuff Hollywood has immortalized.

    Most are legitimately accessible .. and nothing is really abandoned as there is someone who owns the property. Your best bet is to have a letter from the property owner authorizing you limited access for photography .. although, some places will not give it to you .. especially if there are workplaces sensitive to hazardous waste storage, et... and some are really dangerous to walk through .. simply because they are condemed with potentially unsafe infrastructure .. you definitely want to have a cell phone and somebody with you to watch your back if given permission to enter.

    You also may find these places harbor transient people, those hiding out from the law for whatever reason as well as the local riff-raff and occassionally packs of wild dogs .. yes, we have those in the City of St. Louis. I've done some photography in such places, but I carry a gun .. I don't rely upon calling 911 and wait 45 minutes for the cops to save my ass .. it's not the wild dogs that worry me.
  7. JDM is right about St. Louis .. I'd recommend staying out of the north side 24-7; south side is ok depending on the time of day. It is comforting to note that most of the gun play is just rival gang related, but recently they've shot a few cops just driving down the street .. but the point being you want to avoid standing in/near the cross fire .. years and years of liberal polcy making doesn't work .. and we've seen an upsurge in violent crimes because of economic issues .. but, Detroit, man I would not even bother going there ..
  8. I can't imagine what you would photograph there that would be worth risking life and limb for. YMMV
  9. The urban ruins of St. Louis and East St. Louis (in Illinois) are very "photogenic", and I may take a few pictures the next time I drive through, but I don't believe I'll be wandering into the ruins (at least not without a police escort). I'll just shoot from the car on the street, thank you. The "dangers" of these strange places are vastly over-rated, but I still wouldn't roam around by myself with a couple of thousand dollars in equipment around my neck! Sometimes you can get access as I did years ago before the renovation of the St. Louis Union Station (now a mall).
  10. david_henderson


    Why are we talking about St Louis please? The question was about Detroit. I'd be interested in hearing from those prople that know Detroit.
  11. Detroit is dangerous, poke about at your own risk. Did you miss that in the replies?
  12. david_henderson


    Carl Stone. Are you getting snitty because I tried to bring the thread back to its intended subject rather than gratefully accepting peoples comments about a place I don't intend to go to. I read your reply. Do you have any experience of Detroit? If you have it would make your point useful, even though I might still be wondering how Alec Soth made his photographs without losing life or limb.
  13. Sorry David, but, you know, you don't OWN this thread. Nor is the topic, which is archived by the way, only about YOUR needs. And as Carl pointed out, there may be some lessons to learn in more general terms. I think your response is where "snitty" enters in.
  14. It sounds like you're "getting snitty". I'm done here.
  15. Here I once lived in the Detroit area and would vist any area there; since I understand the city. I visted my dads old childhood house built about 1900 in the bowels of the city a couple years back. I saw the concrete hand made fenceposts my dad and grandfather made; the cellar trap door for the coal chute. I even talked to the nice eldery couple who live there in the bad area of town. There are good folks in the bad areas too. Some folks are going to have more problems visting bad areas of citys due to ones own attitude; lack of street sense, or looking down at folks. Detroit is on its bum now. Having a local in Detroit as a guide would be a wise move; visting poor areas has risks.
  16. david_henderson


    Frankly, if you can't make an objective contribution to the question I asked, I can't see what is the need to answer at all. If you want to talk about St Louis -or anything else- then you should start another thread. It is not a question of "owning" the thread; more a question really that the anwers to this or any other question from anyone should make at least some attempt to be relevant to the original point, and if that isn't so then you have chaos, archived or otherwise. You may as well chat away about the Philippines or Guatemala or depth of field as St Louis, and if your promoting a cause that responders should be welcome to say whatever they feel about anything, thus turning this into a chat-room, them I strongly disagree.
  17. I was born in Detroit and raised in the suburbs, where I still live. A local guide is such a good idea. You can probably hook up with one here, or contact one of the Detroit area camera clubs (Google is your friend).

    Take a long look at the "Fabulous Ruins of Detroit" website.

    Steel shank boots that can stop a nail are a good thing. So is having your tetanus shot up to date. You have a much greater danger of injuring yourself on sharp objects than of running into "hostiles". Get either a hard hat (and we have so many industrial supply places where you can buy one) or some other form of hat, every time I go urban exploring, crud falls on me...

    Get yourself a Detroit Redwings jacket or cap. There is nothing that will break the ice with Detroiters or suburbanites like hockey. It can be 102 degrees (39 degrees C) in the middle of summer, and Detroiters dripping sweat will still talk about hockey. Don't even mention soccer, in Detroit, that's a kid's game. And don't refer to what we call "football" as "American football", either. In fact, it's best not to use the word "football", at all. Just trust me on this one.

    That aside, MCD, "Michigan Central Depot", "the" train station, the one where you emphasize the definite article, is supposedly the most popular abandoned building in the world. I go there several times a year, and the worst trouble I've ever had was a "move along" once from the police, about 10 years ago. I have never been in the building for more than an hour without encountering tourists. And that is an "owned" building. The way in is not obvious, and a native guide is helpful. You catch me on a day when I'm in the mood to go down just to play my flute in the great hall, and I'll take you.

    Fisher Building 21 is the most "factory" looking building you'll find, park close, do the walk around, you'll find a way in.

    If you go in the Packard plant, there are guards, they don't go far from the guard shack, so enter somewhere else. You will get lost. You will not exit the building the same way you came in. Get a GPS. Once you get out of the building, you will need it to get back to where you left your car.

    Ignore the Philly dude, he's just miffed because our hockey team can eat his for breakfast...
  18. For those interested, the article David refers to is part of a series entitled "The Eagle and the Dragon", contrasting the
    economies of the U.S. and China.

    Part one is here:

    Part two contains the images that inspired this thread:

    Soth would seem to have several advantages over the average photographer on the security front (and this is all purely
    conjecture on my part): Soth typically works with a large, cumbersome, and, perhaps, seemingly worthless large format
    camera. Soth's camera, additionally, does not contain storage for a day's worth of images, and comes with an
    omnipresent assistant. Also, one cannot wholly discount the value in working under the auspices of a major publication,
    at least in securing official approval for photography.

    I might also mention that Soth is a remarkably accessible individual, though he claims to be "sick of email". Why not
    inquire of him about shooting in derelict areas of Detroit? His contact page is here:

    All of that said, it occurs to me that one reason posters may have diverted into discussion of other locales is this: many
    locations around the world (and U.S.) may be quite analogous to shooting the streets of Detroit. In fact, I would suggest
    that your working method in Detroit need not be significantly different than it was when you photographed in India, Morocco, or
  19. That is:
  20. Sound advice from Joe W. I grew up there, have family there, and I go back to visit when I can (or have to). For an outsider, a guide is a must. Getting around in the heart of the city, especially the way it's been chopped into pieces by giant freeways, makes just getting your bearings difficult.

    I took in a hockey game in February, accompanied by my mother and niece and lost my way back to the car park. Had a taxi not shown up at the critical moment, I know there was going to be some nasty altercation with some street people who had us for marks. Fifty bucks was cheap to get to the car, considering the cold and ice, and the company.

    That said, it saddens me everytime I see another photo spread or story on the demise of a once great American city. All of us Yanks should be ashamed.

    Happy shooting.
  21. Sure, doing this kind of photography is risky. My own experience is that a "quick in/quick out" approach minimizes the risk but does not remove it. I was almost arrested for trespassing in September, 2006 because of miscommunication about what was off limits. I was almost surrounded one night last year by members of what looked to me like a youth gang in Charlotte, NC. In the first case I had to talk my way out of it--and it was an honest mistake on my part. In the second case I had to hop in the car and drive off. I was never more than forty feet from the car. I still haven't given up on photographing the streets of Charlotte at night, but I have to rethink my strategy. Will high ISO and shooting from the car do it? Not always. I have to think about how long it would take to get the tripod down and into the car.

    Is it worth the risk? I don't think that one can ever take the risk out of photography, but the best shots (of a certain sort) can always be risky. For me, I accept that and try to find ways to minimize the risk. I don't see myself saying "I won't try this because it's risky" if the shot is there.

    Anything worth doing involves some risks. It is always a personal call and depends on the situation. I look at it as I do at motorcycling. I know that it is risky, but I love it too much to give it up. I simply try to take steps to minimize the risk: I assume that every driver on the road is out to kill me, is going to capriciously turn in front of me or pull out in front of me, etc. I assume that half of them are blind and cannot see me. It has worked. . . so far.

    In photography, typically I fear the cops more than the locals, for what that's worth, but I do look for scowls if I am shooting on the streets. If I am shooting old houses in the country, I notice if a car slows to a crawl nearby. People can be awfully territorial.

  22. david_henderson


    Thank you all for your input. I'm actually encouraged by some things said here, apparticularly from the viewpoint of access, though I would intend to photograph externally as well as inside (if I can gain access). I'm going to try and build this into my schedule for early or late winter, avoiding the very coldest months, maybe in combination with a few days wandering round Chicago's modern architecture. I also think a local guide is a great idea- indeed I've already searched out the umbrella organisation to which the camera clubs in Detroit affiliate and I think I'll start there trying for a savvy local guide to help me find my way around and keep me from doing things that are stupid in a local context. In fact I've recently returned from Romania and a kind of similar trip. This was conducted in the company of another member, Alecu Grigore, and frankly I could not have done the trip without him.
  23. As a Brit, your travels to the seedier parts of the US should be, shall we say, an experience. I know that you fancy yourself
    as enlightened, but trust me, you are a babe in the woods in these places.
  24. david_henderson


    "you are a babe in the woods in these places" You may well be right , and indeed it may be worse than that for whilst I take sensible care with money and documents etc, I do not wander round places with the thought that people may actively wish to hurt me. But thats why I'm taking on board the the need for a local guide, though sadly there are very many parts of urban UK which are not exactly lands of milk & honey.
  25. For the uninitiated, with all due respect, a local guide will be worth his weight in gold.
  26. I heard of a guy who went from Detroit to the war in Iraq. He suffered from Iraq.

    Michael J Hoffman
  27. Hi David I have never been to Detroit however in my local area in Australia I am reluctant to go out shooting around the streets esp evenings,because the world has changed significantly in the past ten years. My real reason for writing is the industrial hazard aspect of exploring old buildings, such as chemicals, asbestos and the like. I wouldnt be deterred though, Id find a likely prospect and find out who owns it, the safety aspect (human and material) and get permission and go for it.
  28. Michael, I was mugged in Denver. I told him I was from Detroit. He apologized, gave me his gun, his wallet and his watch. Then he backed away very slowly, until he was about 20 yards away, turned, and ran like heck.

    David, "people may actively wish to hurt me". Let me repeat: do not, under any circumstances criticize hockey, or mention soccer.
  29. Robert Shults- great link!!

    Joseph Wisniewski- fine post! By any chance, did you have a relative named Joan, who worked for the Court
    system, and is deceased?? If so, I knew her and worked with her for many years.

    David, the Detroit story is a sad story, and reflects the trends and misfortunes of America in general. There are
    many misconceptions bandied about concerning the "riots", which actually was in no way any kind of protest, social
    statement, or political movement. That was opportunitically claimed as such by those who had an agenda and could
    use the situation towards that agenda. It was in reality low-life mentality of thievery and vandalism gone wild. I
    know because I
    was right there living in Detroit during this time. People driving up to stores in Cadillacs, smashing through windows
    with bricks and making off with TV sets and the like. Gang members and dopers looting and torching businesses
    and homes.

    I was born during the great depression in Detroit. This was also the social leveler, because unless very well off,
    everyone had virtually nothing- like us. I grew up in Detroit and lived there most of my life. I went through school,
    struggled with poverty and unemployment, held various jobs, including at Dodge Main for a brief time, and worked
    downtown until my retirement. I saw it all first-hand. More misconceptions yet have become entrenched about the
    role of freeways, and why people left Detroit. If one goes against the grain instead of repeating these views, it is at
    the risk of being branded as politically incorrect and as a racist. It was not about the color of skin. It was about a
    drastic rise of crime and drugs, which plagues Detroit to this day, and about a "street" counterculture taking over.
    Many businesses left because they were being victimized, as were the citizens who left. We were dirt poor, but we
    had a safe neighborhood until later times. We did not turn to crime and drugs, nor join that counterculture. People
    act as if those that did had no choice- but that is not true. We loved our old nieghborhood and left most reluctantly.
    Black families have been leaving for the same reasons, but it is not called "black flight". Detroit *used* to be an
    exceptionally nice place to live. The decline and physical, as well as social, decay have been amazing.

    Winters can be rather harsh. I do not know what kind of seasonal atmosphere you have in mind. And summers can
    sometimes be hot and not best for sightseeing. Feel free to e-mail me. Perhaps I can be of assistance.
  30. About four years ago I worked for a financial services company doing anti-money laundering audits of money transfer agents in cities across the U.S. They don't put those agents, mostly check cashers and payday loan shops, in the nicest areas. I went to some pretty rough spots, but Detroit scared the s**t out of me. A store owner looked at me like I was a ghost when I walked into his place at noon. Asked me (a white guy) what I thought I was doing in that section of the city alone. When I left, he called the police who showed up and stayed in the parking lot until I got in my rental car and drove off. I accepted the first job offer that came along after that....

    You guys that are comingt down on Carl about Detroit need to listen more closely.
  31. David, come to Greece. You can go anywhere, anytime and you can take photos of anyone and anything (except military installations) without being bothered.
  32. If you can afford it, contact the people at this website and ask if there are any retired or laid off officers that have knowledge of the Detroit area. And would be willing to drive you around to your chosen areas for a fee plus gas and food. With any luck you will find one who also is into photography.

    Just having the membership card, he may be able to get you into places that might have otherwise been off limits.

    Heck, it would be worth it to not have to drive there. Anybody thats been there will tell you that the drivers are quite crazy also. I lived in Flint Mi. 48 yrs, the last 26yrs on its east side. I now live in the Upper peninsula of Michigan. I have been to Detroit many times and having street sense is exactly what it takes. Just looking out of place can be a big mistake.

    Having a retired or laid off police officer, that knows how to find what you want, drive you there and watch your back
    would be invaluable. Maybe start at $300.00 US a day. (I'm only guessing on this)
    Be willing to leave your Email address and Phone number.
    I am in no way affiliated with these people, although my father who is now deceased, was a member. And I was always amazed at how many doors were opened just by showing identification.

    I do really hope this helps, because sometimes a picture can be worth a thousand words, and Detroit, Flint and Saginaw can use all the help they can get.
  33. Detroit is by no means a safe city, not matter how you would like to describe it. It's a drug infested urban blight which is trying to rebuild. As with any type of shooting of this type of subject, one would be crazy to go it alone. A very good site by someone well familiar with the city:
  34. As a real estate appraiser, my work sometimes takes into rough areas, including the City of Detroit. The best time to go into these areas is morning. Most of the troublemakers are out and about roughly from mid-afternoon to late at night and are usually in bed from around sunrise to early afternoon. While some unsavory people may still be up, most of the people you'll meet during the morning hours will be the more honest and upstanding type. Another thing that so far has kept me out of trouble is the right attitude. You don't want to walk in cocky, but you don't want to have that look like you're a wounded gazelle who just wandered into the lion exhibit at the zoo either. Always be aware of your surroundings, but don't be looking around so much that it's obvious to the locals. When asked what I'm doing, I let them why I'm there, thus they know I'm not the police or anybody else who may cause them trouble. Also, trust your gut. If something doesn't feel right, it's probably best to leave. Finally, keep in mind that if you're in a car, you are not unarmed. If things go really bad and you find yourself in a car surrounded by those who mean you harm, hit the gas and get out, no matter who's in the way.
  35. Popular Photography ran a story on this type of photography within the past year or so, profiling a photographer (whose name I forget) who makes a speciality of it. They addressed most of the issues mentioned here, including trespassing, physical risks like get cut on rusty metal, criminal risks like run-ins with unfriendly people who may consider these buildiings there turf, etc. Worth looking up in their on-line archives.
  36. I don't understand all the doom and gloom in many of the responses. 1) Any place can be dangerous. 2) Trespassing is not a capital offense. 3) Art is art. Some images ARE worth the risk.
    Go. Explore. Shoot. Have fun!
  37. I think were all missing out something very important here, clothing it you look like a target you ARE a target i would suggest trying to look a bit local, perhaps even go as far as too look scruffy and like you have no money when infact, lets say you had a ragged backpack you have alot of cash (Your Camera) that the people who would harm you cant see.

    I mayself go by a few simple rules (Im in england in a pretty dodgy place)

    1) Dont stand out, if everyones in black, dont wear pink.
    2) DONT LOOK AT THEM, serriously these people are complete idiots they deem looking at them to be "An insult" and will gladly beat you up for looking at them. (However this doesnt mean you should watch out for them)
    3) Travel light, if you need to run you dont want a 2 stone backpack on your back.
  38. I may be the only person responding who not only lives around Detroit but photographs there as well. There are areas you can shoot in all day and there are areas where you will feel distinctly uncomfortable. The old derelict train stations surrounded by barbed wire. It is also within a few blocks of a nice, friendly area called Corktown, and within a couple of blocks of Mexicantown. You can wallk around it all day without trouble. The Highland Park area where Soth shot a few pictures is partially very bad. It also has many schools, churches, strip malls, and blocks where things are fine. That's what makes Detroit fairly unique. You ca walk 10 blocks and pass through some of the worst poverty, abandoned houses and debris, then end up in a nice, neat strip mall or see a church that is as tidy as anything in the suburbs. The downtown is perfectly safe, although it too has some derelict-- and highly photogenic-- buildings. <p>I'm a white guy who's shot in Dertroit for years. Never had any trouble. There are places I never went to, but the mass hysteria that emanates from some of the replies is IMHO a bit unjustified.
  39. Greece? No manques?
  40. Of course, there are other cities in the US with major urban decay that are not as dangerous. I've had an ongoing project photographing urban decay in Scranton PA, where the crime rate is fairly low. Crime rates are readily available on the internet. Just look for cities where population has dropped enormously (like Buffalo NY, down from 1 million to under 100,000).

    Or you can do what I did when I was photographing the 9th ward in New Orleans, keep a large dog tied to your belt.

    That said, I have come very close to being assaulted on more than one occasion. But neither time was in a bad neighborhood.
  41. Andy is right. The situation changes rapidly and is neighborhood specific. Other suggestions here are good
    common sense. Of course, of primary consideration is where to look for a hotel. Downtown would be good, but on
    the expensive side. But there are suburban areas with hotels for less within easy reach of center city. A car is a
    must, because public transportation here is very inefficient or lacking.

    Aside from the blight, there are other points of interest, some of which reflect upon Detroit's story. Amongst these
    are the world-famous, huge Henry Ford museum, nearby Greenfield Village, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit
    Public Library main, and Belle Isle, an island park once considered one of the finest parks in America. I grew up so
    near it we considered it as our extended back yard. A hop across to Windsor, Ontario, Canada is also worth a
    thought. Since neighborhoods there are of similar vintage and style, comparisons can be observed.

    I also wonder what other plans you may have to visit other areas of the country. I have some suggestions you might
    consider, in the light of historical interest.
  42. Just because one goes to high crime areas and makes it out okay doesn't mean one wasn't in danger. Could be luck, could be Providence, but it only takes one mugging, knifing, shooting etc. to ruin or end your life. Perhaps it's worth the risk if you're on assignment, making a living with the camera - I guess I would evaluate how worthwhile the risk is - to what end am I risking a beating or worse? If you are merely after decaying buildings, there are scores of them elsewhere, as one person pointed out. Fact is, America is a freakin' violent place - especially in the cities. Always has been - this is nothing new. But as the facts show, Detroit has very high crime rates. New York by comparison is a super safe place these days. As are any number of other U.S. cities. I don't need to go to Baghdad either to know it's not a place I want to be right now (unless Magnum calls up and asks me to go - haha.) So if Detroit has the highest crime in the Nation, I'm not going there. Not to mention I'm p*ssed off at the Wings for beating the Pens for the Stanley Cup this year :)

    Here's a story about a journalist (sans camera - print journalist) who got attacked in Detroit earlier this year, and they didn't even take his money...
  43. In my opinion it would be far more interesting (and safer and cheaper) to photograph the changes in China than the
    decay in U.S. urban centers - there are lot of neighborhoods in the major cities that are getting torn down and provide
    pretty good subjects. I wandered all over Beijing a couple of years ago with little mandarin knowledge and an obvious
    foreignerness (I couldn't pass for a resident of East Asia in a million years) and got nothing but smiles photo
    opportunities wherever I went (and no matter how run-down the neighborhood looked).
  44. Carry a handgun concealed, seriously.

    It sounds dramatic, but I wouldn't go to those places without one, but personally I'd be too afraid to go anyways.
  45. I have enjoyed photographing abandoned mill sites New England for a year now. Most of them are over 100 years old, some of the much younger. In New England, they are usually brick walled, wooden beamed shells, sometimes containing dinosaur-scale machines of unknown function. We search old cities built on rivers for these water powered relics.

    I am drawn to these dark, silent monuments to industrial boom and bust. Despite their disuse, the vanished human element is somehow paplable. Though these buildings are usually boarded up and fenced off for liability purposes, there is usually a way in somewhere. The risks of exploring them include weakened wooden floors, unprotected stairways, sharp objects penetrating the soles of shoes, homeless occupants who may not appreciate your visit, all of which are accentuated by the poor lighting (which also adds to the evocative photographic) atmosphere. These risks can be mitigated to some extent by reasonable safety measures, but I would not knowingly risk my life to take pictures.

    Having said that, I broke my arm in a fall in such a building on account of my own carelessness. So much for safety measures. Human error took a higher toll in this environment. I will probably return to this setting, denial being a powerful rationale.
  46. Just don't go. I mean it. Don't be naive about the danger. Don't expect anyone to help you. You've been warned. Bob from near Detroit.
  47. Michael - No relation to your Joan Wisniewski. It's a very common name in these parts, I worked at one Ford office where there was another Joseph S. Wisniewski (absolutely no relation) down the hall. Caused the mail room no end of confusion.

    Andy - You're not the only one. As I said earlier, I both live and photograph around there. But if you know a way into the GAR that doesn't involve climbing up 3 stories on the outside of the building, I'm all ears...

    Ken - so bitter. Philly too? Or some other team the wings chewed up?

    Michael (again) - "Of course, of primary consideration is where to look for a hotel." There's really only one choice, isn't there. The Leland. ;)

    Matthew - thank you for being the only one of the Detroit bashers to admit to hockey jealousy. ;)

    Paul - "The risks of exploring them include ... sharp objects penetrating the soles of shoes" In New Mexico I stepped on something called a "horse crippler cactus". Aside from being able to pierce tough shoes and penetrate a foot right to the bone, the needles contain some sort of mildly toxic resin which makes the healing process slow and painful.
  48. John - There is almost no photographic subject more appealing to me than old "industrial revolution" era decaying buildings and architecture of yesteryear. I live in Dallas, TX, which is geographically pretty distant from the steel, railroad and other heavy industrial enterprises of the northeastern US. I am planning a trip in the near future to travel 'up east' to do a series of photographs on this under-photographed (IMHO) subject.

    Detroit wasn't on my list, but what is on my list is a great deal of planning and preparation, including scoping out some prospective sites/areas in Google Earth and doing some research on who owns - it is often city property - and from who (and how) to request access to these locations. The safety of a particular area is one of the main concerns, as well as finding a 'guide' who could help to conduct you around once access permissions have been obtained beforehand. David Smith's excellent suggestion of contacting the local fraternal order of police is one I will surely pursue.

    The last point I was going to make, as has already been mentioned is: There are literally hundreds and hundreds of locations with just the kind of subjects you are looking for, and unless there is something very specific to Detroit that you want to document, you can likely find any number of locations that are safer, offer much easier access, and possibly even more historical significance if you are going for in Detroit.

    Good luck and stay safe - - - oh, and it really doesn't hurt to "dress the part" either! If you look somewhat like a homeless guy, you are likely to attract much less attention.
  49. Chicago? Did someone say Chicago?? Hey, drop a line if you need someone to point out the highlights. Besides all the great architecture, we do have layers and remnants of industry throughout Chi-town. Feel free to look me up if you could use someone to show you some hidden gems to shoot.

    But to contribute to the post:
    I agree with the previous poster that most of the danger tends to be exaggerated. I'm more afraid of getting busted for tresspassing than running into another human being. That being said though, I do tend to be on extra alert when wondering in a new place. I'm no expert veteran, but from my experience, the ones you have to look out for are the material scavangers. I'm there just taking pictures, but they are there stealing property, so they have more to lose if they get caught. Also, there's always the physical dangers as already mentioned. You don't want to become another Nichols. If you can find someone that already knows the area, and even better, knows the buildings, then all the better.
  50. When I vist Detroit I enjoy talking to folks about stuff that made my childhood; Bob Lo Island trips; trips to the Ford Motor steel mill; the Ford Rotunda, vist to the Detroit Salt Mine; trips to the Vernors or Strohs plant; Etiowiteedannenti trips again; vists to the zoo; the Franklin cinder mill; being at the FIRST Kmart that opened in the world; going to Windsor and buying Matchbox cars for a super discount; buying firecrackers in Windsor; seeing the old Michagan Central station where my grandfather worked from the 1900's to 1940's; Sanders fudge. On telegraph road; ie US 24 when I was a kid many traffic signals didnt even have a yellow light yet; the lights went from green to red; with no yellow; and cars didnt have seatbelts, tires were bias; many cars still 6volts still; big worries about the "bomb"; since Detroit was a industrial target. One neighbor in Detroit had the full tilt blast fallout shelter; abit more than a fallout shelter. He had the circular slide rule with blast radius; overpressure in psi, versus megatons and drop height etc. I think the windows on a standard house give at a 1/2 psi pressure; there was a tick mark and note on the slide rule at 1/2 psi. The had this electric and also a hand crank blower with hepa filter etc that ran down to the basement bunker. In Detroit many buildings were influenced and designed by the famous architect Albert Kahn.
  51. Some of my income is derived from photographing abandoned industrial plants. I have an open commission with the Calumet Heritage Project to photograph the ACME Steel Coke plant on Chicago's notorious South Side (q.v. Detroit or Chicago--these are dangerous places. DO NOT GO ALONE! I've had guns pulled on me in such places. They were scrappers that thought I was going to steal their haul. I convinced them I was just a crazy photographer. I don't go alone anymore. The allure of such surreal landscapes compels image-makers to enter them, even at their own peril. Just be careful.
  52. I think Don hit it on the head as to the motivation - many photographers are chasing the surreal in their photography. After all, that's what cameras do best. And abandoned buildings, especially industrial one, have been accepted by our community as one of the best places to make such images. I can see why you want to go.

    Also just wanted to say to Joe that I didn't mean to come off as a Detroit-basher - I know there are many fine sections of the city, but typically these abandoned industrial areas are in the higher-crime areas of the city. In my case, growing up around Washington DC, I can tell you that we used to have the highest murder rate in the country back in the 80's. But if you only went to Northwest (where all the monuments, government buildings and museums are) there was virtually no crime. But venture across the Anancostia River to Southeast DC, and it is a whole different world, full of crime. So my guess is Detroit is similar in that the majority of the crime there happens in specific places - unfortunately, you are needing to photograph in those places.
  53. On the topic of getting a local guide... someone with local knowledge can be a great help when photographing unfamiliar territory regardless of whether or not the area is "dangerous". Your guide can help you pick out good subjects, navigate, point you to the best greasy diner, and so on. Of course they can also watch your back when you are immersed in making an image and all that other good security stuff.

    People use guides all the time for fishing, hiking, rafting, golfing (caddy), so why not for photography too?
  54. You might try the Detroit Film Office:

    They might be able to help you get into some of the desired locations legally.

    Good Luck
  55. Damn. All these posts must be getting you paranoid. Sure Detroit is dangerous, but if you are serious about urban photography, nothing is without risk. I know people that travel to war zones in Iraq to take photographs. Now thats dangerous! I would insure all the equipment and not carry too much money and stuff on you when you explore. The police will honestly not bother you too much as long as you tell them you are taking photos. But just in case I would make sure you had lots of money to cover the trespassing charge (not a joke). You can also have stuff like fence cutters, small ladders, flash lights, thick rubber matts (to get over barb wire), work gloves, helmets, steel toe boots, and dust masks to help you explore abandoned buildings.

    But just so I don't sound like a bad influence, if you do get mugged, just hand over your stuff and don't be a hero. Good luck.
  56. "I would suggest that your working method in Detroit need not be significantly different than it was when you photographed in India, Morocco, or Cuba."
    I've been to all 4 places mentioned above. Feeling safe and secure in Detriot is exponentially more elusive compared to the other 3. The 3 other places are reknown for touts - locals who wiill approach you to gain some economic advantage but the hope is for a mutual economic exchange, bet it for cigars, carpets, whores or transportation. Detroit the exchange will not be consensual. In India I was harrassed non-stop by most every shop owner and taxi -bike wallah. Morrocco a little less so. Cuba was not nearly as intense but I never feared for being robbed in any of these places. Muslim countries are far far safer, Theft is rare, very rare. And state imposed penalties on crime perpetuated against tourists by the cuban gov't has created the intended deterrent effect. these places are safe. Comparitavely, Detroit isn't and rarely feels so. I've witnessed a robbery there as well as a lunatic attacking a small kitten with a 2x4 slab of wood. The scary areas can be photographed - but only with an increased amount of risk. Make sure the camera is not openly displayed when not being used. Dress down, very down. I'd put my unease in Detroit on par with photographing Rio de Janeiro. It can be done but not without considerable risk, especially if you don't play the part of a even should try to walk the same way some of the locals not afraid to look the locals in the eyes and nod. Every bit helps. I even take up smoking when I travel to certain parts.
  57. david_henderson


    Phil. I've photographed in all those places too, without incident albeit with some irritation from time to time. Believe me, I never thought that photographing in Detroit would be anything like those places- I mean I've never started a thread here asking whether I'd be safe travelling to Cuba! Thanks for your concern and help.

    Incidentally, Mick Brown, the journalist who wrote the original article has contacted me privately to give his perspective, which I thought was really good of him. Apparently he'd seen the thread here!
  58. And what was Mr. Brown's perspective on the matter?
  59. david_henderson


    Much the same as most of the people who live/have photographed there. they had no issues in several days photography as a three, and the streets were pretty much deserted, though he found the worst areas a little nervy. Tends to support the view here that having a local guide would make things easier. Not at all discouraging and gave some great web-links to some interesting buildings.
  60. I have been all over the USA, Europe, Central America, and Southeast Asia, and the only time I have felt unsafe and concerned for my safety was in Detroit. I felt like I was in Beirut after the Israelis occupation.

    There are business class downtown hotels that are connected by a secured monorail with access only from the hotels and various mini malls also with high security and the various stops are patrolled and actively monitored by CCTV 24x7. If you exit to the street you cannot return except by going back into the hotels and mall spots.

    To go walking about alone with thousands of dollars of camera gear without an armed security person seems like more of a risk than is necessary or prudent considering the value of the pictures. No doubt there are safe areas, marginal areas, and are you out of your mind areas but only a native would know which were which and at what times of the day.
  61. There's reason RobotCop was set in Detroit.
    personally i was blown away more when I drove through Gary, Indiana in the early 80's. i doubt if much of the deserted rusty factories are still standing.
  62. David Henderson, did you ever go? What was your experience? Does anyone have recent experience to report?
  63. david_henderson


    I did not go. I did try to recruit a (paid)guide through the Detroit Camera clubs and wrote to their president to ask whether he might circulate my request to the constituent clubs but got such a negative, rude, response from someone that you'd expect to be supportive of photography that I just gave it up as a bad job.
    For what its worth I think a lot of the better places are demolished now, in Detroit and also elsewhere.

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