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PHILADELPHIA — “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it … or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.” Susan Sontag’s words in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) refer to photographs of war, but they resonate with a present-day tragedy on US soil: opioid addiction.
Suffering is on full display in Kensington Blues, Jeffery Stockbridge’s photography series documenting people addicted to opioids along Kensington Avenue in north Philadelphia. Stockbridge, a longtime Philadelphia resident originally from Maryland, has been a portrait and documentary photographer in the area for a decade. He began presenting his images on his blog in 2011, and in 2017 he published a book of his photographs. Now 22 of the photographs — accompanied, in some cases, by audio interviews — are on display at Drexel University, where he earned a BS in photography in 2005. They are accompanied by his most recent work, seven short documentary videos created in 2018 with journalist Courtenay Harris Bond.
About half of the exhibition is dedicated to photographs from the October 2018 New York Times feature “Trapped by the ‘Walmart of Heroin.’” Throughout his career, and especially since the feature, Stockbridge’s work has attracted both praise and pushback. Do his photographs mitigate the stigma of opioid addiction and offer dignity to a group of people who society ignores or deplores? Do they exploit vulnerable subjects and make a spectacle out of pain? Or both?
Stockbridge launched the project by making portraits of people with a 4 by 5-inch film camera. It can be hard not to see a kind of aestheticized misery in these images. Many of his subjects in these earlier images were women on the street supporting their addictions through sex work; Carol, whose audio interview describes being raped at age 12 and serving five years in prison for selling drugs, is 41 years old in her 2010 portrait. Her face is gaunt, her skin is weathered by the sun, her breasts are sagging. In Stockbridge’s color portrait, standing on the half-shell of a damp concrete curb, she becomes a street corner Venus. A 2009 portrait captures Tic Tac and Tootsie (a.k.a., Carroll and Shelly), 20-year-old twins whose uncanny resemblance, in combination with Shelly’s limp posture and blank stare, is unsettling. There’s more than a hint of detached curiosity in these photographs, which traffic in the cliché of the fallen woman.
The alternate view is that people living with opioid addiction — and the traumas that often precipitate it, such as violence and sexual assault — have as much right to be validated with their portraits as anyone else. The pairing of “Krista” (2011) and “Krista” (2014) offers two views, separated by time, of the same woman. In the former, Krista looks pained and disoriented on the street, her ghostly face turned away from the photographer. In the latter, a close-up, frontal view, Krista — now six months into recovery — is vividly present and more securely anchored in the world, sexy as a result of her improved health, but not sexualized.
A more astonishing transformation is apparent in the two portraits of Matt Neal. In a 2012 photograph, Matt is visibly emaciated in his white t-shirt; he receives a hug from a street musician on a park bench. (A separate video shows Matt, whose abdomen is severely swollen from liver disease, helping another man use heroin during the same photo shoot.) Matt’s 2017 portrait bears no resemblance to the earlier photo. His face and body have been transformed by significant weight gain and the amputation of his left leg — his prosthetic sits beside him in a sunlit alcove. Without the blog, these two images might seem unrelated. After reading Matt’s story, the transformation is profound.
These images offer a glimpse into the relationships underpinning Stockbridge’s photography. Both Krista and Matt sought the photographer out again years later, and Krista describes in the blog post how looking at her older portraits inspires her to stay off drugs. That so many people in Kensington have been willing to interact with Stockbridge over time shows him as a potential friend, ally, and advocate. Through his blog and book, and this exhibition, his images reinsert those people with opioid addictions into public discourses on the subject, picking up where mass media has failed.
One of the most interesting aspects of the work is the photographer’s own moral arc. Stockbridge’s recent video series, made with journalist Courtenay Harris Bond and titled Embedded in the Badlands, explores some key advocacy issues around opioid addiction, including medication-assisted treatment and the intersection of homelessness and addiction. It also shares the stories of specific people and their struggles. By virtue of the medium, the videos feel more motivated by activism than Stockbridge’s early photographs. They reveal a photographer journeying from an outsider’s fascination with the subject matter and people to a desire to become, in Sontag’s words, one of “those who could do something to alleviate.”
Jeffrey Stockbridge: Kensington Blues continues at Drexel University (Paul Peck Alumni Center, 32nd and Market Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through March 30.