Interview: Amy Sacka
Conducted October 2014
Issue No. 6 – December 2014
Amy Sacka is a Detroit-based photo journalist. Her path to photography started when she became a writer at Getty Images. She got to look at professional shots everyday, hear world-class, award-winning photographers talk about their craft and help art directors pick out the best photos for their collaborations. It gave her a foundation for understanding what makes a photo work.
Her current interest is in the city of Detroit. It’s the city next to her hometown and she is fascinated by everything about it. She moved there to discover what it’s really about — beyond the headlines and pictures of ruin we see in papers and magazines.
She is also curious about our culture’s evolving concept of “home.” She believes that with our increasingly mobile, well-traveled world, we’re all encouraged to live anywhere and everywhere. And she personally has – from England to Australia and in various parts of the US. She’s been curious about what this mobility does to our ability to establish roots, to feel a belonging in a place that knows us. She wanted to see if moving closer to home would help her answer these questions, as well as learn more about Detroit, the city so many of us are taught to fear.
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BUFFALO ALMANACK: It seems that the concept of “home” is a central theme in your projects. What is it about photography that makes it such a strong medium for exploration of this issue?
AMY SACKA: Photos are simply a way into the questions I have about home. I’m not sure if they answer them, but they certainly make me think about them. For example, when I was taking pictures of the demolition of The Brewster Projects, it was because I happened to be driving by and something grabbed me visually. Maybe it was smoke from the demolition or skaters skating in the face of it. But later, when I was reviewing the photos, I could hear the songs of people who had lived there. Diana Ross is one of those people. I’d think, “This was someone’s home, and now it’s coming down. There are lifetimes in these buildings.” Maybe they’re eyesores that need to be bulldozed, but there’s also a grief in their removal, a sadness in the passing of things. I remember asking myself, “Will the land remember this history, will it remember the people who called it home? What will revitalization do to our history? Will we forget?” I try to write a little something with all of my photos, and these were the concepts I was thinking about at the time. Photos are always a beginning for me, instigating examination.
BA: As a harrowing “post-urban” space, Detroit’s contemporary identity has been marked and solidified by photography to a far greater degree than most other American cities. The legacy of “ruin porn” speaks to the harmful implications of this process. How did you seek to avoid this trap in your “Detroit Architecture” series? In what ways might you and other local photographers work to foster a positive photographic narrative for Detroit?
AS: Like many photographers, I was initially attracted to abandoned Detroit. Who had seen anything like this? But a lot of that was coming from a spectator perspective. I was on the outside looking at Detroit as something that wasn’t my problem, the car crash on the side of the road. When I moved here, everything became personal. I am living it now. And honestly, taking pictures of ruin became boring to me.
What did interest me were buildings like the Guardian, the Fisher Building, the Yamasakis – stunning buildings that were blocks away from me this whole time that I knew nothing about growing up. I’m doubtful many of my friends were aware of them either. How could this be? And again, it’s not necessarily that the buildings exist, it’s the question – how come I didn’t know about them? Maybe I’ve been missing a big part of the Detroit story. That interested me.
Not to mention all the amazing people I was meeting just walking on the street every day. They were friendly, joyous, welcoming, kind. The Detroit I was getting to know wasn’t something to fear, and that surprised me. That’s what my camera gravitated toward. I didn’t necessarily set out to photograph positive Detroit, I just wanted to shoot what inspired me or what provoked questions in me. Even the good things about Detroit made me question my distant relationship with Detroit in the past. Who are all these people I know nothing about?
That said, I’m not sure I’d encourage other photographers to shoot Detroit in the same vein. Only because I think photographers should shoot what interests them individually. If it’s the ruin of Detroit, maybe that helps the photographer understand the city or their own grief in a more intimate way. Each photographer has to decide how he or she is going to get to the truth.
BA: A number of samples from your “Lost & Found in Detroit” series feature comments from your photographic subjects. How do you approach conversations with these persons? In what ways do these discussions transform the meaning of your images?
AS: The conversations are as much a part of the photo as the photo itself, whether they accompany the photo in a post or just remain in my memory. Sometimes I will see people who look intriguing to me and I will approach them and tell them what I see in them. I often try to ask them about their relationship with Detroit – do you live here, how long, why did you stay, do you want to leave? I am interested in why people come and go, and why people stay – maybe because I’ve always longed to belong to a place, and I wonder what gives people a sense of belonging. Is it being in a place for years on end, is it having a connection since childhood, or is it just that the place suits your personality?
Other times, people will see me with my camera and ask me to take their picture. I admire people who want to show themselves to me. The photo starts the conversation and is a way in to that person’s interior. They might not see it that way, but I do.
BA: “Lost & Found in Detroit” and “The Next 500 Days” are both extensive projects, the former covering a documentary span of 500 days in real time, the latter only now a fifth of the way toward that goal. How have these undertakings evolved over time? What have been the most surprising discoveries you’ve made in their progress?
AS: When I came up with the idea for this project, I was living in Seattle. I had lived in different cities around the world before that, but I never quite felt at home in any these places. I moved back home to Detroit to see if living in the area of my childhood would garner a deeper sense of belonging for me.
In my first series, “Lost and Found in Detroit,” I was freshly arrived and stumbling toward those answers. That series reflects this strange relationship I had with the city – I knew the city because I grew up in the suburbs around it, but there were so many things I didn’t know about it. “Lost and Found in Detroit” feels almost like a traveler’s photos, discovering new sights, sounds and people, and tapping into questions about rootlessness and trying to belong.
“The Next 500 Days” is from the perspective of someone who has now been in Detroit for two years. Now, I actually even own a home in Detroit, so I’m committing myself to being here. I’m interested in how the photos will change as my roots grow. In this series, I think my photos will show a deeper complexity in composition and subject matter. I’m guessing they will lean into more of the issues affecting Detroit, and my own involvement in them as I become more engaged.
BA: How do you approach photographing architectural materials compared to human portraiture?
AS: In some senses, there is no difference in approach. I always lead with feeling. How does what’s inside the frame feel to me? Does it stir something in me? Do I want to know more about it? Whether it’s a building or a person, I’m always sensing something about the geometric beauty of a scene, the spatial relationship between objects, the patterns created by color and lines. But it’s not analytical, it’s a gut reaction to the moment or the scene and how it’s arranging itself in front of me.
BA: What are the greatest challenges of person-centered street photography?
AS: Choosing when to engage and when to be invisible. Most street photographers strive to be invisible. And often the result is photos that exhibit great spontaneity and a very authentic relationship with the moment, capturing how life is truly behaving. There’s a certain magic about that. However, the trade-off can be detachment – a photo that doesn’t get to the interior of people. When I choose to engage with people, I see more, in a very personal and intimate way. There’s a magic about those moments too. I’m always juggling how involved I want to be.
BA: It’s a simple question, but an important one: What makes Detroiters special? What message, if any, are you trying to tell the world about Detroit?
AS: Detroit is true to itself. It’s not trying to be something that’s it’s not. And in that sense, it feels more genuine and real than other cities that have a wealth of financial resources. As far as what I want to say about Detroit, maybe it’s simply that the pictures only tell a sliver of the story, come see for yourself.