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."