mobile photography technology, culture and community

Exposure: Tony Majka captures bankrupt Detroit


When Tony Majka was growing up in the rough neighborhood of Brightmoor, Detroit, he would watch his grandfather develop photographs in his darkroom. Fascinated by photography, Majka went on to study in a bit in college before moving on to other interests.

Majka moved back to Detroit 10 years ago, only to find a ghost town. The collapse of the auto industry and rising crime rates sent residents fleeing to other parts of the country. Homes were abandoned and some neighborhoods were left almost empty.

Astounded by the devastation, Majka started photographing his hometown with his iPhone. After he found Instagram, he realized that he could use mobile photography as a way to raise awareness about what is happening in Detroit.

"Parts of Detroit are beyond repair," Majka told Connect during a phone interview. "There are blocks and blocks of abandoned homes, sometimes 50 in a row, and only one will have someone living in it."

Majka's photos of Detroit reflect the devastation. Huge, victorian homes sit abandoned with vines covering the walls and wood blocking out the windows. Often, furniture and personal items are left in the house, almost as if people just disappeared.

"Literally, these people just got up and left," said Majka. "And they left their stuff. To me, that’s amazing. There’s baby toys, cribs, albums and records. These people left under the cover of darkness."

With unemployment crippling the city's once-vibrant workforce, an underground economy in the form of gangs has emerged. Majka, when entering a new neighborhood, will first introduce himself to the gangs.

"One of the first things that they say to me is 'no big cameras,'" he said.

Equipped with only his iPhone, Majka enters the abandoned houses, taking quick photos of his surroundings, sometimes including the squatters living there.

While Majka has a DSLR, he never takes it with him when he's photographing abandoned houses.

"When you are out there on the street, going into an abandoned house, you can’t sneak a shot with a big, fancy camera," said Majka. "If the people in the area see you like that, you’re bait."

With more than 350,000 Instagram followers, Majka's photos get thousands of likes and hundreds of comments, many of which reflect on the tragedy of Detroit.

"A lot of the times I get people saying ‘you're so negative.' But it's what I see, it's what I do," said Majka. "It’s not like I'm from Florida where I can take photos of sunsets and beaches."

Sometimes, Majka's photos seem to show the glimmer of hope in Detroit. Majka will frame an abandoned house with wildflowers or swingsets. He also has an eye for color, sometimes keeping a scene black and white with a few pops of color, almost to say "see, it's not so bad here."

Majka's commitment to smartphone photography is evident. He loves the ease of smartphone photography compared to the darkroom days of the past and he feels that his iPhone gives him access to places that his DSLR never could.

"That's how you identify a real urban explorer," Majka said. "They don’t use big fancy cameras, they use smartphones."


Total comments: 23

very visual shots but too much processing IMHO


i like his subject matter and he captures well but processing is the other 50% of photo making and inappropriate processing can work against your shot, like the many i see above.

they are heavy handed, inconsistent, severely overprocessed to the point all you see is the processing, which is really unfortunate given the subject underneath all that junk is actually good.

the subjects all have something to say but being drowned out by the visual noise of these random filters. and what is with the "real urban explorers use phone cameras"? what's up with that.


Yuk, Instagross.


Photography takes many forms. Sometimes it is about the art. Sometimes it is about the equipment. In this case it is about the subject.


"Ruin Porn" has been written about and discussed extensively in art photography circles. Check it out. If you have to sneak your photos with an iphone, perhaps you should be questioning the ethics of taking the photos in the first place. Even photographers with "big boy" cameras can work safely in impoverished areas. The difference is that they respect and interact with their subjects.

Edited 14 seconds after posting
1 upvote

interaction with subjects normally means posed shots
I don't like that, very artificial
People in places should be observed


"he feels that his iPhone gives him access to places that his DSLR never could"

In Brazil, even an iPhone is a bit risky. I prefer using a Nokia camera-phone or a premium compact camera which look more like "cheap consumer stuff" so I don't get annoyed by casual robbers.

I wonder if Detroit is really that bad or he is only taking pictures from the most degraded neighborhoods.

1 upvote

I bet the chance of RX100 getting stolen is less than an iPhone, and image quality is not from the same planet (although it might not matter if you are going to destroy it with effects anyway).

1 upvote

Detroit wasn't great shakes 28 years ago when I married and left. Remember, there's Detroit proper, then the suburbs. As a former Detroiter I can tell you that Detroiters resent the "burbs" being called Detroit.

The neighborhood I used to live in is so degraded it's not funny. There used to be 34 houses on the street and now there's less than twenty and half are either burned out or boarded up.

It's very easy to use Google Maps to get a look at the street level of Detroit, just make sure you're looking at Detroit and not one of the suburbs, eg., Warren, St. Clair Shores, Roseville, Dearborn, Dearborn Hgts, Southfield, Redford, Royal Oak and Ferndale ARE NOT part of Detroit. These circle the city proper.


I am all for IG and mobile photography but these pictures are just bad. No other way to say it. Composition, colors, choice of filters--very poorly done.

1 upvote

This is the worst interview ever. Does this guy actually think that anyone believes that he goes to gang members and asked permission to take pictures of houses? Lol I can just see this white guy doing that than getting slapped in the face. I'm from Detroit I see thousands of people taking pictures with big cameras. This is nothing new or exciting.

Osvaldo Cristo

The pictures would look better without that kind of fancy effects. I cannot understand why images made with mobiles need to be distorted and over processed.

Edited 24 seconds after posting

This is not because of "decline of auto industry" - more cars are now made in the US than in the 50s when Detroit was the richest (per capita) city in the United States, and by extension, in the world. It is about demographics, quality of city management and balance of power, and applicability of democracy to stupid people.


Wow, did you ever hit the nail on the head! Detroit began declining in every way even before the US auto industry went through hard times. The auto industry is not the reason something like half the adults in Detroit are said to be functionally illiterate. Whether someone likes or dislikes the way the photos were taken, they ought to be enough to wake us up to what is happening to our country.

Edited 1 minute after posting

Want to know who is the most deposable for this state of affairs personally - read up about the former mayor of Detrait Jerome Cavanagh.


Sheesh, auto correction rules - how come "responsible" become "deposable"? Or is it a Freudian slip on my part? ;)

1 upvote

I would say read up on the sad excuse for a human being mayor Coleman Young;

1 upvote

So much for "a town that been to hell and *back*"


Too late to stop now.

Edited 4 minutes after posting

Tony Detroit's work, aside from the social and emotional content, is a prime example of why the tech of mobile photography has helped the world see images we otherwise wouldn't see. Those of us in the mobile community have known for years that the smartphone has forever changed street photography - Tony's work shows that citizen journalism can often rise to the level of profound social and historical importance. Nice work Tony.


It will be fascinating to see what happens to the city over the coming years. If you don't believe in American decline go to Detroit, or Youngstown, Ohio.

Edited 8 minutes after posting
1 upvote

The city should have been put under direct management - the local are unable to elect a decent mayor or council since 1957 (if not earlier). No wonder it is bankrupt.


Finally, a concrete case where mobile photography is a tool without which the actual images wouldn't exist, offsetting the general trend where engaging photographs are so IN SPITE of having been taken with a mobile phone.

This is beautiful, heart-touching and bit unnerving, if seen as the crossroad point for possible universal things to come.

(...The attentive average "Connect" writer might have noticed that are NO images of coffee shops open in those areas...)

Total comments: 23
About us