Photograph by Andrew Moore.

Photograph by Andrew Moore.

I think of globalization like a light which shines brighter and brighter on a few people and the rest are in darkness, wiped out. They simply can’t be seen. Once you get used to not seeing something, then, slowly, it’s no longer possible to see it.
—Arundhati Roy

Ruin porn. It’s nasty and enticing. It has risen in popularity in the last several years as large-scale economic, environmental, and technical catastrophes leave physical destruction in their wake and the Internet provides ever more platforms for circulating their images in real time. But there is a problem with ruin porn. It’s a political problem.  Photographer John Patrick Leary writes that ruin porn:

aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city.

In short, ruin porn hides more than it shows. It creates the hyper-visibility of some elements of crisis, usually infrastructural damage and death, while simultaneously making others invisible, namely the social and political forces that engender uneven patterns–and origins–of damage and recovery.

This is particularly true for certain types of harm. Harm that is not cinematic, that is hard to see, that is systemic rather than eventful, that is “slow.” In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon coins a term for this kind of harm: slow violence.

By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales. In so doing, we
also need to engage the representational, narrative, and strategic challenges posed by the relative invisibility of slow violence (2).

Since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the capacity for waste to create slow violence has been acknowledged in policy and scientific circles. Yet, the “spectacular” and “instantaneous,” the charisma of the event, continues to be the dominant mode of representing and understanding harm. Ruin porn wins every time. And it continues to put hard edges on the temporality of harm: they are photos of after-the-event.

Image of Chernobyl, where a catastrophic nuclear accident  occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.

Image of Chernobyl, where a catastrophic nuclear accident occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. The disaster has both event-based, fast disaster as well as a slow violence from continued radiation that Nixon and others have written about.

Not only does ruin porn make certain people and struggles invisible, and make slow violence looks like events, but some genres also encourage the “nature-and-time-will-heal” argument. In this type of ruin porn, human-created infrastructures begin to decay or provide support for a creeping wilderness. This narrative leverages the ability for industries, governments, and corporations “to privatize profits while externalizing risk and cleanup, both of which can be delegated to “nature’s business'” (21). These images imply that nature “cleans up” after spills and catastrophes, erasing harm with time, even when invisible harms remain.

Thus, Nixon and others call for artists, writers, scientists, and media-makers to “devise arresting stories, images, and symbols adequate to the pervasive but elusive violence of delayed effects” (3). Image-creation is deeply ethical. The constant creation of ruin porn hides certain types of harm, certain types of people, and certain political realities. The ethics of art and photography are acutely neglected, but they begin to emerge here. Ruin porn might be properly called wrong in that it perpetuates slow violence.

Leary, John Patrick. (2011). “Detroitism.” Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics, January 15.
Nixon, R. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press.