With “Detroit, Unbroken Down” Dave Jordano shows where religion really happens

Outdoor Church Service, Eastside, Detroit 2010. Photo by Dave Jordano.

When The New Yorker featured Dave Jordano’s work in 2009, he had just finished “Articles of Faith: African-American Community Churches in Chicago,” a straightforward visual index of sacred spaces that was big on color and limited in scope. It was the sort of project a photographer might create if he were asked to produce a religion series from scratch: the first logical move would be to find the places where religion happens, right?

Jordano has since switched his focus from Chicago to Detroit, and in doing so he seems to have discovered that most religion actually happens outside the church. One of the best features of Jordano’s ongoing series, “Detroit, Unbroken Down” is his fresh approach to religion that recognizes faith practice in its everyday forms, carried out not only outside of church buildings but even outside of defined religious structures and institutions.

When it comes to religion, “Detroit, Unbroken Down” is more complete than “Articles of Faith” because it explores religion as it is commonly experienced, even when those experiences fall outside of what we would normally consider religious. Take roadside memorials, for example.

Two Friends Pose in Front of a Memorial, Eastside, Detroit 2014. Photo by Dave Jordano.

In Detroit, lives lost to accidents and other tragedies are often commemorated with toys, balloons and teddy bears that scale nearby street lights and utility poles. Though spontaneous and fitting into no codified orthodoxy, these secular memorials are as much a part of the public mourning ritual as prayerful funerals and burials. The memorials rot and fade over time, but the Detroit municipality is reluctant to remove them because they designate sacred spaces. And while anthropologist Lisa Flagg insists that roadside memorials are better described as “ritualized performance” than religion because they omit overtly religious imagery like crosses, they are still as much a part of the conversation on the role of religion in Detroit life as “Articles of Faith” was in Chicago. It’s a complex conversation that Jordano is attuned to through the sheer amount of presence he has in Detroit, a conversation many photographers simply wouldn’t be able to engage.

Street Memorial, Westside, Detroit 2015.

Jordano’s photos look beyond both physical church buildings and familiar religious iconographies into the community-building rituals and practices among Detroit residents that work alongside or even take the place of established religion. This expanded definition of religion recognizes the little syncretisms — blends of religion and local culture that flirt with the edges of orthodoxy — that make Detroit religion distinctive. Jordano sees where most religion really happens: in the vague cosmological references that have more purchase on the street than in seminaries, in the vernacular of everyday life whose biblical origins are long forgotten.

Abandoned Trailer Home with Graffiti, Chene Avenue, Detroit 2011. Photo by Dave Jordano.

Among these syncretisms are those found in “Dee’s Dresser, Southwest Side, Detroit 2011” (below). This is the kind of image that deserves a large print because it tells us so much of what’s important to Dee: girls, music, family, humor (the high school diploma in the upper right corner is an ironic fake), through objects and images that line Dee’s wall like little icons. Among all of these objects, buried between a stereo, two decks of playing cards and a crushed soda can, is a leather-bound Nelson Study Bible.

Dee’s Dresser, Southwest Side, Detroit 2011. Photo by Dave Jordano.

Of course churches are still an important part of the vocabulary of religious life in Detroit, and Jordano continues to produce great work there. But “Detroit, Unbroken Down” illustrates that great visual storytelling about a complex and all-encompassing topic like religion necessarily stems from intimacy with one’s subjects, not previous expectations for what should qualify as religion. For Jordano, religion was unavoidable; by refusing to locate it only within church walls, he gives Detroit one of its fairest and most holistic representations yet.

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