July 25, 2013 7:00 AM EDT

To illustrate this week’s cover story on the city of Detroit’s fight to survive, TIME turned to the work of photographer Dave Jordano. A second-generation Detroit native living in Chicago, Jordano returned to his home city three years ago with a mission: not to photograph what’s been destroyed, but to record what’s been left behind and the lives of those coping with it. The photographer spoke with LightBox producer Vaughn Wallace on Tuesday; their conversation has been condensed and edited below.

I’m from Detroit originally. I was born there in 1948 and then grew up in Royal Oak, a suburb of the city. At one time my father was an auto-worker in the Packard Automotive Plant, and after they went out of business, he went to work for GM. I studied photography at the Center for Creative Studies, which is an art school in downtown Detroit.

In 2010, I started seeing all these books about the abandonment and ruination of the city. They were all so empty! I thought, God, this is such a lopsided point of view. The whole idea of what’s come to be known as ruin porn is fascinating and sensual, but it masks the real problem of what’s happening in Detroit. Because the pictures are so beautiful and captivating, it’s easy to overlook their real meaning.

I was disturbed by that. While living in Chicago for 30 years, I never went back to Detroit. I never experienced the slow progression, degradation and emptying of the city firsthand. It never occurred to me this was happening until I got the idea to go back and re-photograph the same scenes and architecture I shot as a student in the 1970s.

"Some maniac combined Flappy Bird and 2048!" writes an Imgur user. That about sums up Flappy 2048 (thank you @ShawnElliott, former editorial compadre, for bringing it to my attention): a game -- you can play it here in a browser -- that weds the inanity of Flappy Bird to the puzzling mathematical madness of 2048. Flappy Bird -- this link is to someone else's web-based copy -- you probably know. But in the event you don't, it's an endless side-scroller where you tap your screen (or click a mouse) to make a bird flap its wings and arc through narrow gaps between Super Mario Bros.-like pipes. The pipes are positioned close together, your flaps feel more like lurches, each gap is very small and they change height as you go, making sustained flight virtually impossible. There's no saving, the achievements are competition-medal minimum (and they max out low), and so the point of impetus to play much past "gold" harks back to old-school arcade-dom, King of Kong style. 2048, by contrast, is a math-based slide-tile game currently tearing up the freemium charts that's been relatively well-received. I first heard about it when someone claimed they'd landed a score of 8,192. Having fiddled with it myself, I now realize just how incredible a feat that is. Flappy 2048 marries the two by replacing Flappy Bird's gaps with 2048's matching numbers. Click here to see that Imgur poster's animated GIF of the game in action: Like Flappy Bird, you click the mouse to flap the bird-cube's wings and aim for a number match to trigger 2048's math-doubling, then repeat, ad nauseam. I've been playing the web version this afternoon and managed to clear 2,097,192, which sounds really impressive, but since I suck at Flappy Bird, is really just another way of saying it's a whole lot easier than Flappy Bird. All you have to do is get close to the intended number block and it all but pulls you through (that, and it's pretty forgiving about its thresholds). This is what those of you who can't stand Flappy Bird should consider playing. That, or check out 2048 itself. [caption id="attachment_75861" align="alignnone" width="560"] Flappy 2048[/caption] Though: "Things get really weird after you reach the 2048 block," writes the Imgur poster. I can vouch that yes, they do. Yes, they definitely do.

I had all these negatives with the addresses written down on the sleeves — I knew exactly where they were. So for a week and a half, I completed an entire re-photography project. I had reacquainted myself with the city and was shocked at what I saw. I was drawn in and immediately started shooting the same subject matter as my predecessors, but then I realized that I was contributing nothing to the story of the city.

I asked myself: what can I contribute to Detroit that’s different? What angle can I take that’s more humanistic, more compassionate, than what all these people are coming here to do? I began thinking about the neighborhoods: what about the people who still live here? How are they coping?

So I switched directions.

I started driving around random neighborhoods and just hanging out. I said, I’m going to make this about the people that still live here and my encounters with the folks I meet. And as the project progresses, I’ve gone back and visited the same people and become better friends with them. I’ve returned over and over, trying to get even closer into their lives and homes and backyards. I want to create a more personal way of looking at the people of Detroit — to put a face on the city that I felt was sort of overlooked.

I’ve made over 20 trips to Detroit in the last three years, staying 10-14 days on each trip. But every time I go back, I’m still not used to the way the city looks. I can’t get it out of my head. I wish everyone in the country could tour Detroit and see what’s happened there.

It’s tragic that everyone has turned their back on the city. But I see perseverance and pride. The people I’ve met make do with what they’ve got. For me, when I see people living the way they do, I’m blown away by their positive attitude. Detroit’s a city people shouldn’t write off.

Dave Jordano is a fine art and documentary photographer based in Chicago. See more of his work here.

Vaughn Wallace is the producer of LightBox. Follow him on Twitter @vaughnwallace.

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