For photographer Joe Gall, the soul of his hometown of Detroit never went bankrupt and the city never turned ugly. Instead, the urban landscapes of the city have only created more cinematic backdrops for capturing his unique brand of culture and action sports photography.
“People here are fed up with the negative persona surrounding the city,” says Gall. “We’re fed up with everything that everyone else thinks about Detroit because if you live here, you want to make Detroit a better place.”
While Detroit never disappeared from the map, to outsiders looking in, they might think otherwise. For creatives like Gall shedding a different light on the city, there’s a revitalization happening on the ground floor that few can deny. If you’re looking through his lens — as thousands of followers on his @camera_jesus Instagram handle are — you’re watching the transformation of an American city unfold each day via small business, historic preservation, street art and DIY skate parks.
Before Detroit served as Gall’s de facto source of inspiration, he was growing up in the web of suburbs surrounding the city. Communities with plop-and-drop housing developments and more strip mall tanning salons than any Midwest metropolitan should ever need. There, a false narrative is born — Detroit is bad. Do not go. Do not collect cultural experiences.
“Growing up away from the city, there was always this dangerous and mysterious feel to it,” recalls Gall. “My parents had a negative opinion about it. I carried that with me throughout my young adult life until I discovered Detroit for myself.”
Gall found an outlet through riding with Team Young, a makeshift BMX crew, and eventually picked up a camera and documented their lifestyles. Documenting music and culture wasn’t far behind. Seven years into a full-time freelance photography career, Gall has gone from chasing down checks from local papers to accompanying Tony Hawk to the opening of Ride It Sculpture Park in Detroit’s municipal enclave of Hamtramck (a few of Gall’s pieces made it into Hawk’s personal collection).
Gall recently unveiled a collection of work built around Red Bull Hart Lines at the AIR Gallery in Detroit’s Eastern Market neighborhood. He considers it a personal duty to document the changes happening in Detroit — as old buildings fall, new ones rise and he doesn’t want to miss a frame.
His own projects have pushed him from out behind the camera, like the abandoned playground in Detroit’s historic Brush Park district he helped turn into a BMX dirt track. Gall and his friends knew they were onto something when the neighborhood sanctioned it and residents came out just to help clean up.
“It made us realize that we were doing something more than just a dirt jump for ourselves,” says Gall. “We were doing something for the city.”
Gall shares the same perspective street artists have adopted for years. Art not only beautifies a neighborhood, but helps protect it from vandalism. When there are opportunities for kids to pick up a skateboard and have a place to ride in the city, there’s another option available besides spending the summer finding ways to get into trouble.
“Just having people around cuts down on the smash-and-grabs, the littering,” says Gall. “It helps bring back a respect for your neighborhood.”
For anyone doubting Detroit, a photographer like Gall shows another side of the city that offers a fresh perspective, destroying preconceived notions and shattering the norm. Fits well with the mantra of the Motor City — “if it’s broke, get up and fix it yourself.”