“What are the effects of blight and destruction on memory? On family history? On a city? How do you remember something no longer there?”
—Amy Sacka

Rootless. Anonymous. That’s how photographer Amy Sacka felt when she left Seattle following a difficult divorce. Even after eight years there, it didn’t feel like home. “At that point, I kind of took stock of things and looked around and thought, ‘Why am I here in this city?’ and ‘What am I doing with my life?’”

Sacka left the Detroit area in her early 20s and didn’t imagine she’d ever return. But five years ago, something called her back, and instead of returning to the suburbs where she was raised, she felt pulled into the heart of the city.

“I started going home to the Detroit area for visits and they would end up extending for weeks at a time,” she said. “I would go into the city, and at that time—because there was so much visible abandon everywhere—it felt like a metaphor for the grief I was going through. I felt a strange kinship with the land, especially that sense of abandonment and fragility as well as the hope it carried with it, too.”

Since then, Sacka has been a tireless documentarian of a city so often characterized by abandonment, showing the world a different side with her intimate, vibrant urban images and street portraits of a living, breathing community.

At first, she admits, she bought into the narrative that told a story of loss and decay, “as though nothing positive was happening.” But that didn’t last. “I quickly learned that there were always longstanding neighborhoods in Detroit that stood together and looked out for each other…people who stayed in the city for many years because it was their home, their neighborhood. They had roots here.”

The warmth of people in the city also energized her. “People were incredibly warm and friendly and generous. There was a sense of music. People looked each other in the eye and said hello. I did not feel the anonymity I felt in other cities.”

Sacka said she came to understand and respect the value and beauty of putting down roots, carrying on traditions and loving one’s neighborhood in a place that had experienced rapid demographic and economic changes for many years. The city is now on the brink of another “massive change,” she said, as new investment money and new residents arrive from all over. “I am interested in how the changes that took place before I was born, back when I was growing up, and now are affecting the psychology and dynamics of the city.”

Sacka’s photographs have a personal feeling that is no accident. But they are also very spontaneous. Speaking about her process, she says, “I really try to get close to the people who I photograph, even if it is only for a matter of minutes. I’m normally attracted to an intangible sense of beauty that I might see in a person or scene, and it’s on intuition that I pursue the feeling that there’s something there.” When she has that feeling, Sacka said she’ll approach and tell the subject what she sees. “When the person is receptive, there seems to be this really beautiful softening between us. I think when the photo is successful, people can sense that connection or intimacy.”

In many cases, Sacka said there is a lot of interaction between her and a subject. At other times she remains in the background. Either way, she always lets intuition take the lead. “It’s not something I’m plotting in my head…I don’t have a shot list. It’s all based on what the moment is bringing to me and what sort of special quality I can find in that moment.”

As someone particularly interested in memory, Sacka said she thinks about what has been lost in Detroit and how she can help document it before more changes occur. “Even something like my mother’s childhood home…has been burned down. What are the effects of blight and destruction on memory? On family history? On a city? How do you remember something that is no longer there?”

As the physical landscape changes and revitalization takes hold, Sacka hopes her work can preserve the memory of what the city is right now, “a sort of ode to the beauty that Detroit is and always has been.”

—Gina Williams

Editors’ note: You can see more of Amy Sacka’s “Detroit Stories” series and learn more about her and her work on her personal website.