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Francesca Bassenger

lmir-uk-cover-300wWith the Pussy Riot trials, the Winter Olympics, rampant homophobia and most recently the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has been very much in the public eye as of late. Many questions are being raised about the role Russia will play in the future with regards to its ability to trade, its power status and the effect all of this will have on international relations.

The Last Man in Russia provides an insight into this vast country’s recent political history, as well as its current political and social problems, by exploring the life of dissident Orthodox priest Father Dimitry. Author Oliver Bullough takes the reader on a long and difficult journey through Russia on his quest for information about Father Dimitry and everything he stood for. At the same time he paints a frank and telling picture of the Russia of today, its people, and the alcoholism epidemic that is killing the nation at a startling rate.

Informative yet full of emotion and insight, Bullough engages the reader with the play-by-play of his adventure whilst also providing a moving account of the nation’s incredible suffering. This book brings it all to life – imagine being imprisoned in a sub-zero tundra camp just for writing a poem, feel the anxiety of  a people who trusted no one and sense the desperation of a starved population stripped of every right.

Russia is a nation that is still trying to break away from its dark and painful past, and Bullough does find glimmers of hope, but there is also the need to remember those who suffered and not allow them to be swept under the carpet by those who would prefer to present a rose-tinted version of events.

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. Images courtesy of Penguin.

Condemned by Robin Hammond_Winner 2013 FEBA

“Wherever there is conflict the mental health aspects of everybody is affected… when you bring in poverty, the little thing that somebody has, he loses it in conflicts, and that frustrates them a lot.” These are the words of Médecins sans Frontiers Mental Health Officer, Birongo Mogaka, at the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya and they hit me like a train.

‘Condemned’ by Robin Hammond is more than a collection of images. The background information and extensive interviews with patients, their families and those who ‘care’ for them, arm the reader with facts as well as awakening them to the horrors of African mental healthcare in the visual sense.

The photo-book was the winner of this year’s FotoEvidence Book Awards and deservedly so. It exposes the social, psychological and physical imprisonment of mental health illnesses in African countries with limited understanding and non-existent resources, and yet it was not always this way. In an interview, Janice Cooper (Country Representative for Health and Project Lead for Mental Health for The Carter Centre in Liberia) explains that before the conflict in Liberia mental healthcare resources may not have been excellent, but a basic system for helping sufferers was in place. Now, what little there was has been taken away. She says “It broke down because fighting forces went into the hospitals…many of the people who were mentally ill were killed or shot…”

As highlighted by Mogaka, conflict is also the source of mental health problems for many African people. Post traumatic stress disorder is rife, not only amongst those who witnessed and suffered horrendous violence but also amongst those who committed it. As child soldiers they were forced to kill under threat of becoming subject to the violence themselves and are now endlessly tormented by the memories of their actions. Many turn to drugs and alcohol to forget in the absence of professional help and medication. Many spend their lives in chains and, without family members to bring them food, starvation in often the cause of death.

Hammond’s images capture the hopelessness of the situation and the overall feeling of helplessness amongst patients. As I look upon an image of a person lying half naked, face down on the floor, in the corner of a bare room with their foot chained… even the word ‘patient’ seems grossly misrepresentative. A lone figure reenacts a fight scene against an invisible enemy, holding a piece of wood as if it were a rifle; the effects of war remain long after the conflict is over.

These may be some of the most shocking and saddening photographs I have ever seen, and I certainly won’t forget them in a hurry. Mental healthcare continues to be overlooked across many developing countries and yet its sufferers are vast in their numbers. Hammond has achieved something incredible here by giving a voice to a group of people who are systematically ignored, misunderstood and ultimately failed by society. His images, however, cannot be ignored and will undoubtedly help to raise awareness.

You can buy the ‘Condemned’ photo-book from the FotoEvidence bookstore.

About Robin Hammond…

Robin Hammond is a 37-year-old freelance photojournalist born in New Zealand. He has been part of the photo agency Panos Pictures since 2007. The winner of four Amnesty International awards for Human Rights journalism, Robin has dedicated his career to documenting human rights and development issues around the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2011, Hammond won the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award which allowed him to document in Zimbabwe for four months. Actes Sud published a book of the photos to coincide with an exhibition of the work in Paris in November 2012. His long term project on mental health, Condemned, was exhibited in September 2012 at the photojournalism festival Visa Pour l’Image.

After spending time in Japan, the United Kingdom and South Africa, Robin Hammond currently lives in Paris. He contributes to many international newspapers and magazines including National Geographic, Time Magazine, Newsweek, The Sunday Times Magazine, The New York Times, and Polka. He also works regularly with various non-governmental organizations.

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. With many thanks to FotoEvidence.

’No Place Like Home’ is a visual commentary on contemporary Jewish identity in the UK. Throughout the photo-book, photographer Judah Passow captures this complex and pluralist community engaging in everyday activities. In doing so he explores the contrast and coexistence of tradition, national identity, religion and 21st century living.

There is little to shock or surprise in this book. At first glance these images portray nothing more than ordinary people doing ordinary things, but look a little closer and you’ll see a multi-faceted community that has finally found its place in UK society. No longer muted and hidden, Jewishness is exclaimed loudly and proudly; lit up on the roof of a car or tattooed on the body.

The book captures young and old, orthodox and liberal, pro-Isreal and anti-Zionist all in stunning black and white. It opens the doors to a section of our society that is often perceived as willingly closed and segregated, exploring the topic of integration by portraying Jewish and Muslim children playing together in a Birmingham school.

Passow challenges the stereotype of a people that is steeped in tradition and the ways of old by introducing topics of gender issues and homosexuality; the ordination of female rabbis and lesbian and gay congregations. The Jews of today are not faced with the choice of traditional or modern, they can be both.

’No Place Like Home’ is one of those photo-books that grows on you. It may not pack much of a punch a first, but the more you look, the more you see… and there is so much to see. The introduction provides a lovely insight into the work but the book would nevertheless benefit from captions throughout. Not only this, but it’s a shame that this collection of heart warming images aren’t displayed full page.

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. Photography © Judah Passow. With thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing.

New+Middle+EastThere are few people as well equipped to write an analytical summery of the current and, potential, future state of the Middle East than Paul Danahar.

Having spent the past 3 years running the BBC’s news coverage of the Arab Spring as Middle East Bureau Chief, he has a wealth of knowledge on this incredibly complex and volatile region and its politics. His personal journalistic exploits, throughout his career, allow him to pepper his commentary with anecdotes and snippets of conversations with experts and political leaders from around the world.

‘The New Middle East’ looks closely at the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria and explores their causes and consequences both as unique individual uprisings and as part of the Middle East as a whole. At the same time he takes the reader right back to the very roots of conflicts such as Isreal/Palestine, using history to shed light on the problems of today.

Danahar makes no assumptions about the reader’s pre-knowledge on Middle Eastern politics, history, international relations or Western foreign policy, nor does he complicate matters by trying to be too clever about it. He talks straight, explains clearly and provides balanced points of view from all sides.

Although the book’s main focus is on what the future holds for the Middle East and how this will affect the rest of the world, Danahar also provides insight into the political thinking of Western countries and how this affects their ability (or willingness) to intervene in Middle Eastern affairs.

The chapter on Syria makes for a particularly interesting read as America currently tries to decide on its next move with regards to the Assad regime and their chemical weapons. Ironically, at the time of Danahar’s writing, America showed no interest in taking a hands on approach to Syria and he chides their complacency. Perhaps this goes to show how quickly and dramatically things can change in war.

‘The New Middle East’ is an essential read for anyone looking to better understand the world issues that flash across our television screens on a nightly basis. It’s well rounded, comprehensive and brilliantly accessible.

‘The New Middle East’ is available in the UK from the 15th August 2013.

www.pauldanahar.com

Twitter: @pdanahar

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury, with special thanks to Laura Brooke.

 

Democracy Project’The Democracy Project’ by David Graeber provides a comprehensive look at the Occupy movement and the history of democracy as a whole.

It clarifies the somewhat hazy common perceptions of what the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon was really about. Not what the media said it was about, not even what the ‘not-your-usual-activist’ participant thought it was about, but the true agenda of those who started it.

The book starts out with some insightful and interesting comments about the current Western situation. Graeber highlights the vicious cycle of money and power that makes the rich richer and keeps the law on the side of big corporations. He makes poignant and well illustrated points about corruption, abuse of power, the economy, and society’s learned expectations and acceptance of all of these things.

He addresses issues that we, the ‘99%,’ need to speak out about to actively change… Aaaaaand then he makes the very unconvincing case that socialism and horizontal ‘direct democracy’ are the answers. Sigh.

For me, this is the point where this book stops being credible or interesting. It’s only in the final chapters that Graeber coyly whips off the cloth to reveal that all of these new radical ideas boil down to nothing more than repackaged communism.

Throughout the demonstrations no specific demands for change were actually made, on the principle that the current political system is so corrupt that engaging in it at all is to be a part of that corruption.

Graeber can say what he likes, but I’m extremely sceptical that the thousands of participating citizens that rallied together, forcing the authorities to take notice, intended to waste that opportunity to make a real difference. Especially not in the name of starting a new utopian society from scratch, rather than improving the existing one.

I feel cheated and so should all those people who joined the Occupy demonstrations thinking that they were campaigning for actionable solutions to these serious issues. I wonder how many of them even knew that at the heart of the movement were communist and anarchist ideals?

I digress, this review is about the book, not the misleading notion of the movement itself. I could sit here all day arguing why ‘egalitarian’ societies never stay egalitarian for very long but I’m sure you’re all perfectly capable of reading George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ for yourselves.

My main gripe is that there are two conflicting themes running throughout the book that are presumptuously treated as if they go hand in hand: The inclusive term ‘99%,’ uniting all citizens who want to make their lives and society better, and the insinuation that, as part of that wish, all citizens agree with communism.

Despite this, ‘The Democracy Project’ is an essential read for anyone interested in politics or sociology. Graeber takes the reader into the heart of the protests and tells some shocking tales of the, often illegal, police tactics used against activists as well as random acts of solidarity and kindness.

Even more valuable is his analysis of the various flaws in the current political system and contextualisation of this. Is communism the answer to all our problems? I personally don’t think so, but if nothing else this book questions Western societal norms that we all take for granted and ignites hope in the people’s power to initiate political change.

‘The Democracy Project’ was released in the UK on the 23rd April 2013.

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. Image courtesy of Penguin, with special thanks to Mari Yamazaki.

Last December, Caroline Bruyninckx and Bertrand van der Straten (two Belgians) travelled to La Guajira, Colombia on a journey to discover the effect of the world’s largest open-pit coal mine: El Cerrejón. Due to the mine’s activities and expansion, the people living around the mine, the harbour, and the 150km rail tracks joining them live in deplorable conditions.

Q: How do mines and land grabbing affect people’s everyday lives?

Bertrand: The topic of land grabbing deals with the sense of community, the sense of belonging to a certain territory and to a certain culture. It is definitely complex. Regarding effects on everyday lives, this is where all these different aspects gather and the omnipresence of the mine becomes obvious.

Let’s say, you wake up in the morning because of the heavy machinery or the train passing by. The river where you get your water from is polluted; your livestock will drink from it. If you’re lucky enough, you live in one of the villages that the mine is supplying with water, but this means that you owe them. Your fields aren’t producing much because of the coal being blown away by the explosions; at least the part of it you haven’t sold yet. Anyhow, it allows you to come back home earlier to find a document in front of your door. It threatens you to sell your land quickly, before you get expropriated. It is the second time this week. Meanwhile, your children are playing in the ruins of the house of your former neighbour who has already been displaced.

Q: When did you first become aware of this issue?

Caroline: It’s difficult to tell. I first went to Colombia in 2007 and observed illegal mines in a small town in the region of Antioquia while doing social work. Since then, the issue of the mines in Colombia has always been on my mind.

B: Land grabbing is a subject that remains very much banned from publications. I heard about it during many trips and it has always interested me but I never took the time to dig deeper. I had no idea about El Cerrejón before Caroline told me about it.

Q: How many people were involved in the project?

C: There were only two of us. Originally I was supposed to go on my own and was planning to do both the writing and the photographs. When I was preparing the reportage, I realised that doing the interviews, taking notes, and taking photographs would be a tough job, particularly when taking into account the complexity of the issue. So, I asked my old friend Bertrand (who studied and works in the field of international development) to join me on this incredible journey. He did a remarkable job as a reporter.

B: The project immediately got me enthusiastic, not to mention working with Caroline, whose photographs I’ve kept an eye one for years. I liked the idea of analysing a specific issue in a deeper way. Throughout the entire process I tried to remain objective and readable, finding the right tone so that the photographs and text would match.

Q: How did you gain access?

C: Before going to La Guajira, we tried to get in touch with as many people as possible. The very first ones we wanted to talk to were the people in charge of the mine. We thought it would be the easiest since they had a very well developed website and seemed to be well organised and transparent.

Even though we hoped naively to get an answer from them, we never managed to talk to anyone. The call always dropped as soon as we mentioned the purpose of our visit.

As for the people affected by the activities of the mine, we got in touch with them through different groups on Facebook. Many got back to us very quickly. We met them as soon as we arrived to La Guajira and from there they helped us get in touch with indigenous communities, people who lived in remote areas of the region, etc. They were incredibly helpful.

Q: Are there any organisations or government bodies who provide assistance to those affected?

B: Most of the work is done by grassroots organisations. Their work is hard and often unsuccessful but their determination is considerable and will hopefully enable them to achieve what they are fighting for.

At the same time, El Cerrejón is trying to create a good public image for itself and has created a complete foundations system. They are four foundations in total: Foundation for progress, for water, for institutional strengthening, and for indigenous development. However, from what we have seen, they only help a few individuals. Their projects are irrelevant, not sustainable in the long run and utopian. The communities that are supposed to benefit from it are not integrated in the process at all.

At the government level, things get a little bit more complicated. The government and the mine are very much linked. They share common interests. Not only this but the law has changed over the years giving less rights to the indigenous populations and more rights to the mining organisations. The new mining code makes it easier for multinationals to grab land.

Q: Did you observe the community as a whole or did you come to know individuals?

B: Many different communities exist in the region: Afro-Colombians, Wayuus, fishermen, farmers, shepherds, traders, you name it! So it was important to meet as many of them as possible to get the complete picture. We spent a few days in each of the different communities and inevitably we got to know some individuals better. While staying in the communities, it was important to find the right balance between being invited and positioning ourselves as observers.

Q: Can you tell us the personal story of one of the people you met?

C: The first person that comes to my mind is Vicenta. She is the person that had the most impact on us. Two years ago, the Cerrejón had decided to deviate the River Rancheria. La Guajira is a semi-desertic region, so you can imagine its people’s reaction when they heard the news. Vincenta, one of them, decided to tell the president what she had on her mind.

Vicenta is a writer, an excellent one, and the letter she wrote was incredibly moving. It has since been translated into four languages and was spread all over the world, gaining international attention. She never thought that her letter would be such a success. In the end, it was decided to postpone the rerouting of the river. The president never officially answered the letter but that episode was a big victory for the Wayuus, the first one in 30 years.

Q: What was the main goal of this photo-project?

C: The current situation in La Guajira is completely ignored in the media. We therefore want to bring it to a large audience. Shooting the story was also an incredible experience for us and our will to reveal our findings is greater than ever.

B: It was a terrific personal experience. Having the opportunity to spend a month over there, meeting all these people, get to know them and having the time to try and understand what they are facing and how they are facing it was really interesting. This brings it back to the publishing part; the story is worth sharing!

Q: What is the next step?

C: We are currently working on the layout of the book that we will self publish. We also hope to get published in magazines.We’re also planning several European shows. We’re already in touch with galleries in different European cities. In order to make it happen, we need help with printing the photographs so we just started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo for this purpose.

To find out more about the Mushaisa project and to see more work from Caroline Bruyninckx and Bertrand van der Straten visitwww.mushaisa.info.

Photography © Caroline Bruyninckx. Interview conducted by Francesca Bassenger.

Black Banners - coverAli Soufan is a former FBI special agent and renowned counter-terrorism interrogation expert. His book ‘The Black Banners: Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda’ provides a chilling account of the fight against terrorism over the past 20 years, and is quite possibly the most essential read on the subject out there at the moment.

Soufan provides a look at the inner-workings of Al Queda including detailed information about individuals and the group’s structure. He discusses their ideologies, and explains how knowledge is the key to coercing Al Qaeda members into cooperating. Not water-boarding.

He takes us inside the interrogation rooms and provides first hand accounts of other borderline-torture interrogation techniques implemented by the CIA, which they later excused with false information about the results these techniques produced. Time and time again the distrust between the CIA and FBI is highlighted, leading to a series of missed opportunities and the failure to intercept terrorist plots such as 9/11.

Most shocking is the politicisation of national security by the Bush administration and the affect of this on the FBI’s work. Through Soufan’s account, the harsh and glaring light of truth is shone on scandals that, until recently, were hidden in the murky shadows of ‘classified information.’ An absolute must-read.

‘The Black Banners: inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda.’ was released in the UK on the 26th July 2012.

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. Image courtesy of Penguin, with special thanks to Karen Browning.

Yves Merchand and Romain Meffre are two photographers from Paris who met in 2002. Finding that they often photographed in the same places, with very similar results, they eventually decided to work together.

In 2005 they began collaboration on a project that meant, that over the next five years of their lives, they would travel to Detroit seven times. Each of those visits was spent photographing the city’s crumbling, abandoned and dilapidated buildings.

Detroit was once a symbol of the American Dream. The booming auto industry of the 1920s made it a city of growth, affluence and modern thinking. In many ways it was pivotal in the creation of the world we live in today. Now however, it holds an entirely different image. Riddled with gun crime, drugs and arson attacks, poverty is rife and many houses have been left to decay or have been burnt to the ground altogether.

For the residents who remain, these eye-sores are a painful reminder of the tragedy that has befallen their once glorious city. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that upon beholding Merchand and Meffre’s work, ‘The Ruins of Detroit’ can be seen as nothing short of stunningly beautiful.

They say, “At first, in a very candid way, there’s nothing more attractive than visiting something mysterious like an abandoned castle or an abandoned theatre. In a second reading, ruins are very evocative of our human nature and its paradoxes, our spectacular ability to create and self-destruct.”

Merchand and Meffre are not alone in their fascination with ruins. ‘Ruin Porn,’ as it sometimes referred to, is a growing sensation amongst photographers and photo-bloggers. Even the film industry has used Detroit as a backdrop for scenes of American destruction. Red Dawn 2 for example (a film about Chinese communist occupation of America) was shot in Detroit.

It’s easy to see the appeal. The buildings are not only beautiful in a physical sense… beams of light shining through holes in the ceiling, colours peeling away from walls… they are also beautiful in what they represent. They capture the past, present and future. They allow you to imagine the many lives that have passed through them, like an archaeologist looking over an ancient Roman settlement, but at the same time they provide a chilling warning of what the future of the world might one day become.

You can see more of Yves Merchand and Romain Meffre’s work on their website. One of their images was recently used for the cover of ‘The Last Days of Detroit,’ a book about Detroit by Mark Binelli.

Written by Francesca Bassenger
Photographs © and courtesy of Yves Merchand and Romain Meffre.

The Italian island of Lampedusa is a thriving tourist destination attracting people from all over the world, but not all of its visitors are holiday makers. For years staggering numbers of migrants have been landing on its shores, having survived the treacherous boat journey from countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Their intended destination is mainland Europe: Their dreamland of opportunity.

A large proportion of the migrants come from Libya, trying to escape persecution or looking for work. Although the journey from Tripoli (in Libya) to Lampedusa takes approximately 16 hours by boat, bad weather and other unforeseen circumstances often result in it taking much longer. People regularly drown in shipwrecks or die of thirst along the way.

Having heard stories about the migrants and the poor conditions in which they were being kept when they arrived, photographer, Simone Perolari and his journalist friend decided to make the trip to Lampedusa in 2004. What they witnessed confirmed everything.

“We were led to the place where the boat arrived. It was being dragged by the border control officers. It was the beginning of a traumatic experience. Seeing all those people arriving, counting the men and women as if they were objects, helping women and babies. Everything left us in shock. On the first night the people were sent to a place called the ‘shelter’ (which had nothing of a shelter about it) and then they were left to themselves.”

Perolari is referring to the ‘Contrada Imbriacola’ initial reception and accommodation centre. It has since been criticised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for its inhumanely cramped conditions. In 2009 it was found that the centre, designed to house a maximum of 850 people, was actually housing approximately 2000 with many sleeping in make-shift tents outside.

“The lucky ones, in 2004, were sent to (mainland) Italy and then, according to the authorities, transferred to their country of origin” says Perolari. “It is clear that no one goes back though, they all become clandestine and outlaws. The unlucky ones were sent back right away, forced to reorganise a trip to Europe and relive this dangerous and life-threatening experience.”

That very year an agreement, that defied existing national and international laws, was made between the Italian and Libyan governments. It obliged Libya to accept deported African immigrants from Italy, despite lack of endorsement from the European Parliament. This led to an overwhelming number of deportations to Libya in 2004/2005 and denied many the right to apply for asylum (a violation of the Geneva Convention, signed by Italy.)

“This work, being the first important experience of this kind for me, was probably the most difficult. I couldn’t understand why the legitimate desire to achieve freedom and better living conditions resulted in men being treated like animals and risking their lives for nothing.”

Moved and troubled by the plight of the migrants, Perolari went on to photograph similar situations in other European countries in collaboration with Amnesty International. In 2009 he travelled to Patrasso in Spain, and in 2010 to Calais. He was also commissioned by Amnesty International to provide photographs for the ‘Invisibili’ campaign; an Italian and Belgian campaign aimed at raising awareness of the rights of undocumented minors in detention centres.

“After Lampedusa I went to Mellila, a Spanish enclave in Moroccan territory, where the situation was no better. That said, in 2005 the refugees were given maps and could at least enter and exit the refugee centre. Unlike Lampedusa, Melilla is not a tourist location, so they were given more freedom but still had no chance of reaching Europe.”

For many years in Lampedusa, the government had ensured that the ‘ugly’ issue of immigration was kept well away from the island locals and holiday-makers. Migrants were confined to the centre for weeks, before being transferred to other mainland centres. Perolari describes it as, “A real island prison where human rights are optional.”

In September 2011, a riot and arson attack at the centre resulted in 800 migrants escaping onto the streets of Lampedusa, where they were met with hatred and violence from police and fascist thugs. Shortly afterwards, almost all of the escapees were rounded up and deported and the centre was closed.

The closing of the centre meant that future migrants arriving by boat would have to face a significantly longer journey to the Sicilian harbour of Porto Empedocle, located an extra 200 kilometres away. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva criticised the closure, saying that the longer journey would cause an increase in migrant deaths. In 2011 alone, 1931 migrants are thought to have died whilst making the crossing.

It was around this time that Lampedusa had been experiencing an unsurprising surge in asylum seekers from Libya, following the outbreak of the NATO war against Muammar Gaddafi and his regime. The already stretched facilities on the island struggled to accommodate the hundreds of Libyans arriving on a weekly basis.

The centre finally reopened in July 2012 with a maximum capacity of only 350 places. Today its problems are even worse than before, with continuing high numbers of migrants, extreme overcrowding, and frustrated locals.

Lampedusa is only equipped to function as a stop-gap, where migrants stay for a maximum of a few days before being sent to mainland centres. Nevertheless, due to the continuing failure of the Italian government to put any regular transfer schedule in place, most are held for over a month. They sleep on the floor in crowded rooms where minors and adults are mixed, they receive little food, and only have access to extremely basic amenities. Unless the Italian government stops ignoring the issue, this inhumane treatment will continue indefinitely.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER.

Simone Perolari is an Italian photographer living in Paris, represented by the LUZ photography agency. His photo-project ‘unWelcome’ documents the struggles faced by migrants in immigration centres across Europe. To see more of his work visit www.simoneperolari.net

FIND OUT MORE.
www.migrantsicily.blogspot.co.uk/p/lampedusa.html
www.wsws.org

Written by Francesca Bassenger with many thanks to Simone Perolari.
Photographs © Simone Perolari.

detroit

Mark Binelli’s book ‘The Last Days of Detroit’ is an engagingly detailed portrayal of a conflicted city. Crime, arson, desperation and extreme poverty mix with art, glimmers of hope, and regeneration schemes.

Chapter by chapter, Binelli guides us through each of these elements aided both by the city’s history and his own. Having grown up in Detroit, his views are not without a hint of bias (or heightened insight depending on which specific point in the book we’re referring to) and rarely without a peppering of ironic wittiness.

Having experienced the boom and subsequent bust of the auto industry, Detroit is city that can’t help but look back with nostalgia at what it once was: A thriving symbol of the American Dream. Now, derelict, empty and lacking even basic amenities those left behind face a daily struggle against crime and poverty. ‘The Last Days of Detroit’ tries to make sense of how it all came to be and, with significantly less certainty, what Detroit will become.

For a while now journalists and photographers have shared an almost perverse interest in the strangely beautiful dilapidation of Detroit’s houses, schools and theatres.

It’s a phenomenon that has earnt itself the name ‘ruin-porn’ (Yves Merchand and Romain Meffre produced an entire photo-book on the subject entitled ‘The Ruins of Detroit’ in 2010.) But this interest is now going one step further with artists snapping up cheap houses and warehouse spaces and converting them into studios. Could this be the beginning of a trendy, arty new Detroit?

‘The Last Days of Detroit.’ was released in the UK on the 10th January 2013.

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. Image courtesy of Random House.