Matthew Christopher started photographing abandoned places after hearing about an old mental asylum near where he worked. There were 160 acres of decay, including 40-odd buildings and a bunch of underground tunnels. He became hooked. "I started looking for other places that I could go to, and that branched out to power plants, hospitals, schools, churches," he says.
The ruins in his Abandoned America project are reflective of something larger, he says. "Buildings are not just physical objects. They are representative of systems. A factory is representative of industrialization and capitalism. Churches are representative of religion. Schools are part of the social contract to educate people. So, when you're looking at an abandoned building, you're not just looking at its death, but the death of a larger way of life."
Christopher, who lives in Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania, blames manufacturers for leaving to lower-cost places to do business—though he admits "it's complicated." "The companies realized they could export things to places where they could employ a nine-year-old in a factory and pay them a nickel a day. I see that as the key roots of this phenomenon, because then you don't have the prosperity to pay for things like schools," he says.
People have criticized photography like Christopher's as "ruin porn"—a term that probably originated in Detroit. But he defends the work as opening up a necessary debate. "They're irritated and say 'you're only showing one side'. But the discussion wouldn't have been opened up at all without compelling images. We're inundated with information. If you don't grab someone with something, they're not going to pay any attention to it."