The Problem With Depicting Cleveland




The Smithsonian Mag's April issue had a nice piece from native Clevelander Charles Michener on the hope and revival of our humble town. It stopped short of glowing, but nevertheless took readers on a guided tour of reasons to be thankful for Cleveland.

Greg Ruffing was the photographer for the article, and he writes on his blog about the troubles of capturing the Cleveland Michener described and the Cleveland he sees on a daily basis. We all might be happy in Cleveland, resolute in defending Cleveland, and cheerleaders for a city that both deserves it and needs it, but blind optimism isn't good for anyone, and Michener's honest internal dialogue about depicting Cleveland is thoughtful and worth your time.

An excerpt after the jump.

So, really, what is an honest depiction of this city? In other words, where does the truth lie about the current condition of Cleveland? That is, of course, swimming amongst the vast swirls of grey in between, the area that can oftentimes be hardest to portray photographically. In the eye of some viewers there is little tolerance for ambiguity or pondering questions in photographs; they expect images to be direct, to-the-point representations that oftentimes serve to merely confirm previously-held suppositions. If a viewer wanted to believe that Cleveland is on the upswing, then their experiences with my photographs versus Suau's would be markedly contrasting, and vice versa for someone who feels that Cleveland is not quite out of the woods yet.

Long story short, I'm happy with some of these images I created for the magazine, and happy to contribute to an editorial piece that may provide a temporary feel-good for the audience that seeks it (current or former Clevelanders, or whoever else). And I appreciate Michener for not sliding too far off into the realm of blind optimism.

But I can't stress enough that pictures and words such as these should not be taken as a declaration that everything in this city is all rainbows and puppies, or further that an "I love Cleveland (even though I only ever go into the city itself for sporting events and complain about the potholes and the parking)"-type of absentee boosterism is an acceptable form of civic engagement.

I know we're all ready and hoping to celebrate crawling out of the "Great Recession", and ultimately this article serves a positive purpose by helping to temporarily inject a sense of confidence in a city I've long felt was lacking in that category (we do love our self-deprecating humor, after all). However, in context this article should be heralded for exactly what it is: one small chapter in the very long and very complex novel of this city.

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