Ruin Photography as Democratizing Social Practice

In a recent article in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, Þóra Pétursdóttir and Bjørnar Olsen (2014) discuss ruin porn (a.k.a. ruin photography) as a means of engaging with the materiality of (modern) ruin. They define ‘ruin porn’ as a genre of photography that represents “a superficial, one-eyed portrayal of urban decay that ignores its social and political causes and consequences…and which even turns it into something seductive and aesthetically pleasing” (Pétursdóttir and Olsen 2014: 9). Their analysis of common ruin porn critiques falls into three categories in which ruin photographs are positioned as 1). selective and timeless, 2). superficial, and 3). aestheticizing (Pétursdóttir and Olsen 2014: 7). They argue that these seeming shortcomings, however, are what give ruin photographs the ability to express our “interactive engagement with things and ruins,” which is pre-linguistic and physical, and which moves beyond the limits of textual representation.

Pétursdóttir and Olsen go on to explain that these critiques–within archaeology, at least–stem from disciplinary understandings of photography as secondary to academic writing: something we use to supplement or illustrate our interpretations rather than form them. An exploration of what ruin photographs do (i.e. represent an engagement with, fidelity to, and expression of the materiality of ruin) rather than what they don’t do (represent all the complex social processes behind and lived experiences of ruination) can therefore provide archaeologists with an important method for forming and interpreting material engagements with contemporary ruination (9).

It’s refreshing to see a response to the often outright rejection/dismissal of ‘ruin porn’ that views the genre either as a). not a legitimate topic of scholarly concern, or b). as a dangerous subject that has to be continuously denounced. Many archaeological critiques of urban exploration and ruin porn assume that when non-specialists set out to document, engage with, and interpret modern ruins, the result must be superficial and devoid of any understanding of the social and political contexts in which the ruins and their representations exist and circulate. Therefore, the argument seems to go, these activities are best left to the experts, who have been educated and trained to carry out these activities correctly. As Pétursdóttir and Olsen phrase it, for archaeologists:

“[Ruin photographs] indicate lack of commitment, insight or context, and even indicate right out indolence, and thus their production involves a shallow and momentary engagement that touches only the surfaces of things, instead of properly digging them for knowledge…And as follows, of course, that they indicate a lack of any further scholarly work comparable with that left to the real archaeologist: no post-excavation efforts, no analysis, no interpretation. This critique has without doubt also to do with the common conception and use of photography today, as being easy, instant, and something everyone can do…While photography was once reserved for the professional, clever and/or well off, it has increasingly become democratized into an everyone’s means of expression…” (Pétursdóttir and Olsen 2014: 10-11).

This democratization isn’t limited to photography–these practices also reflect a democratization of archaeological methods and epistemologies that is often acknowledged but rarely explored as a source of unease in academic communities. In fact, scholars will often acknowledge this democratization as a positive thing and then go on to focus on why it’s irresponsible and dangerous (essentially because it’s not done by trained professionals–archaeologists, photographers), so it seems like they’re praising one thing and arguing against another, but they’re actually praising and arguing against the same thing.  All methods have limits and blindspots (that’s why we combine them), but the basic usefulness or validity of other methods–those that happen to be used only or primarily by trained archaeologists, for example–are not subject to the same level of scrutiny or criticism that (ruin) photography is.

This automatic criticism of popular social practices transcends disciplinary boundaries, too. I recently had to justify my usage of ‘ruin porn’ in a class title (for a class on different perspectives on ruin porn and urbex) after it was suggested that I was using ‘sensationalized’ language just to draw students in, and that we (in this case, college-level instructors, graduate students, and academic researchers from the fields of archaeology, history, media studies, communications, English, and geography) should carefully consider the various social implications of using this terminology and imagery (which was the whole point of my course). Just using the term ‘ruin porn’ in a class title, with the scare quotes, was automatically considered a misrepresentation, both of the class content and of the message that we want to send to students about the social practice of ruin photography. (I will add, though, that the class title received little or no other opposition in two similar contexts.)

This tension over democratization is also at the root of the widespread unease with museum selfies or dark heritage selfies. Within a relatively short span of time, many people have developed a public presence online, and technological advances and the creation and expansion of social media networks have made photography ubiquitous. Realms once reserved for various types of experts–including artists, professionals, academics–and public figures have expanded to include anyone with access to the internet or a smartphone. People are documenting and sharing their experiences of heritage sites or ruins, and there’s less of a reliance on ‘expert’ and/or elite interpretations of these spaces, causing considerable tension and unease, not just for the people who are perceived to have the education and training to decide how people should interact with heritage, but also for those that recognize and value that system.

Paul Mullins, in his response to Pétursdóttir and Olsen, discusses ruination as a personal and community experience and ruin photography as a social practice and an “art of the people” (Mullins 2014: 28). Whether we choose to recognize it or not, our ideas about ruin shape–and are shaped by–the social practice of creating ruin art (which has been around in different forms for hundreds of years) and peoples’ actual experiences of ruination (which are also varied). In his comment on Pétursdóttir and Olsen’s piece, Tim Edensor draws parallels between reactions to ruin porn and similar attitudes about tourism photography, which he argues is also usually viewed as a shallow engagement with the subject of the photograph (Edensor 2014: 25). Tourist photos are seen as too instantaneous and automatic, he says, to be considered expressive of the photographer’s experience. He argues, however, that tourists do often reference broader cultural and societal understandings of what tourists are supposed to photograph, but they aren’t robots–they’re people, and they experience the act of photographing something or someone differently. Thus, their photography reflects these different engagements with the subject. As we can see with both dark heritage selfies and ruin porn, however, those individual experiences–if they don’t conform to societal and cultural beliefs about ‘appropriate’ behavior or engagements with heritage–are publicly called-out and attacked. As I’ve written before, the message seems to be that your individual experience is supposed to take a backseat to wider societal beliefs about the subjects in question and how people are supposed to engage with them. Looking at the comments of Edensor and Mullins, we can see how the criticism of ruin porn/urbex and dark heritage selfies stems from the same tensions over who has the right to engage with and interpret these sites/things in particular ways.

The majority of academic criticism of ruin porn/urbex has been along the lines of, “Many/most people living in blight-ridden cities probably view ruin porn and urban exploration negatively because the practitioners don’t engage with the roots of the ruination depicted in photographs, and they don’t know what it’s like to live with blight” (Pétursdóttir and Olsen mention several authors–academics and others–who have made these arguments). It’s not this argument itself that I take issue with, but the fact that we’re still relying almost exclusively on academic experts and other “outsiders” to make it, and somehow this is viewed as different from/better than other seemingly one-dimensional understandings of ruin photography (such as those circulated by the young, white, urban, middle-class people that are the main target of ruin porn critiques). People who interact directly with blight or see its effects on a regular basis are certainly making these arguments themselves, but mainstream media and academic discourse tend to include those voices only indirectly or sporadically. This is partly because the media tends to draw on academics for comments on stories (more on this below), and those academics are often not part of the communities that they’re being asked to discuss and/or haven’t done research on the issues being addressed (they’re asked to apply their knowledge to a different–albeit related–context). Within academic circles, many of the discussions about the ills of ruin porn, if they happen, take place in articles that are relatively inaccessible, both because the discussions themselves are aimed at a group of specialists–archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, geographers, etc.–and thus employ a unique style and reference a body of literature and terminology that only those specialists would be familiar with, and because the articles are usually behind a paywall (an excellent exception is Paul Mullins’ blog post on the subject).

Oftentimes when an academic is asked to comment about ruin porn or urbex for a media piece or even within a scholarly journal, there are few, if any, references to research about actual local experiences and perceptions of these practices. Sometimes the experts being consulted will reference local organizations or news sources, or mention that they spoke to a few residents about it, but there’s not the systematic investigation usually required to back up scholarly interpretations and arguments. So while the practices of ‘ruin porn’ and urbex are presented by many academics as dangerous and irresponsible because they supposedly lack a deeper engagement with the social causes of ruination and local experiences of it (such as could/should be formed through research, the argument goes), when academics represent the experiences of residents in mainstream media or journal articles without basing their representations on either research or firsthand experience, this lack of deeper engagement is not viewed as problematic.

As I mentioned above, this is partly a problem with mainstream media, which tends not to draw on actual local, firsthand experiences in any systematic way and instead privileges academic insight on the issue, both because academics are viewed as experts and because it’s quicker, easier, and cheaper to give a professor a call than to actually fly to Detroit, talk to people, and do your own in-depth investigation. But this tendency of the media not to dig deeper also reveals and exists in relation to wider societal attitudes about expertise and who is qualified to comment on these issues. The very processes that result in the privileging of academic voices in societal discourses also shape and influence who becomes an academic in the first place (i.e. who has ready access to the education and resources required to become an academic). My concern is that by not recognizing or investigating the challenges that popular social practices like ruin porn and urbex present to our understandings of expertise and who can represent whom, academics may unwittingly–while intending to use their background and training to draw attention to these important issues–reproduce the same one-dimensional representations of ruination that they’re trying to challenge.

Do archaeologists have a professional obligation to take the social consequences of their work, including work that involves present-day communities and groups, into consideration? Yes. However, the academic denunciation of ruin porn and the discussions about its social impacts that are meant to encourage constructive criticism of the practice can also work to stifle it on multiple levels, because labeling something as professionally unacceptable is to deploy the expertise of archaeologists (we decide what those ethics are and how they direct our research practices) and thus polarize the debate into Experts vs. everyone else. As Pétursdóttir and Olsen point out, when you essentially accept the labeling of the practice as ‘porn’ and use that to make an argument against it as professionally unacceptable, you automatically shut down or severely limit discussion of it in certain ways (because people become afraid to engage with the subject). In fact, many disciplinary discussions about professional responsibility and negative social impacts work to police these kinds of popular social practices rather than encourage actual debate about or explorations of them.

So what’s the solution? More research into ruination as a lived experience, for one thing, so that academics and others can draw on it to form ideas about who or what is missing from ruin photography. I’m not arguing that we need academic research to recognize or see that there are negative social impacts associated with ruin porn and that the practice doesn’t always allow for the articulation of the social complexities behind the imagery–that isn’t the case at all. But if academics are going to make arguments based on this recognition/observation that call for a more complex and fully-formed understanding of what those impacts are and how ruin photography operates and circulates more broadly, then we should be doing the research that we’re calling for and that we see ourselves as uniquely qualified–by training and education–to do. We also need to consider whether ruin photography as practiced by non-specialists is incompatible with the archaeological methods favored by trained archaeologists, and whether or not the two methods and groups of practitioners can be combined to provide the multidimensional understanding of urban ruination that so many are calling for (and I definitely think they can).

Community-based participatory research (CBPR), in which people affected by or involved with the issues being researched (which are often chosen by communities to begin with) are involved as equal partners in the research process–is a way to bring those community and individual experiences to the fore so that they’re directly represented instead of being interpreted by and mediated only through academic researchers. In this case, both local communities impacted by blight and ruin photographers/urban explorers engaging with it would be excellent groups to work with (and some researchers have already started down this path, though not with an explicit focus on CBPR–see Nemeth 2013; Schalliol 2014; Slager 2013).

Works Cited

Edensor, Tim

2014  The Multi-sensual Image and the Archaeological Gaze. Comment on Pétursdóttir, Þóra, and Bjørnar Olsen, “Imaging Decay: The Aesthetics of Ruin Photography.” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 1(1): 7–56.

Mullins, Paul

2014  Imagining Ruin Images: The Aesthetics of Ruination. Comment on Pétursdóttir, Þóra, and Bjørnar Olsen, “Imaging Decay: The Aesthetics of Ruin Photography.” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 1(1): 7–56.

Nemeth, Katharine

2013  “Ruin Porn” or the Reality of Ruin?: A Rhetorical Analysis of Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled. M.A. thesis, University of Cincinnati. Retrieved from

Pétursdóttir, Þóra, and Bjørnar Olsen
2014  Imaging Decay: The Aesthetics of Ruin Photography. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 1 (1): 7–56.
Schalliol, David
2014  Sociologically Informed Urban Photography. Office Hours–The Society Pages. URL:
Slager, Emily
2013  Touring Detroit: Ruins, Representation, and Redevelopment. M.A. thesis, University of Oregon, Eugene. URL:


      1. EVERYBODY has taken a photo there. It’s in the Lee Plaza ballroom. I used to live near that building, and it’s really sad to watch its deterioration over time. Hopefully it still has good bones.

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