When photographer Jeffrey Stockbridge began documenting life in the Philadelphia, the city contained over 60,000 abandoned properties. “I spent four years sneaking inside and making pictures,” he told Hyperallergic over email. “During this time, I came in close contact with many individuals who were suffering from drug addiction.”
Shortly thereafter, he shifted focus to the stories of trauma and resilience of those managing a sometimes-crippling mental disease. “I basically went from photographing abandoned houses to photographing abandoned people,” Stockbridge observed.
Kensington Blues is an exhibition at Drexel University’s Paul Peck Alumni Gallery that features the artist’s attempts to document the opioid crisis on the streets of Philadelphia since 2008. In 2016, Philadelphia had the second-highest rate of drug overdose deaths among the nation’s 44 counties with over 1 million residents. (Pennsylvania also hosts the worst county on the list, Allegheny, which contains the city of Pittsburgh.) In 2017, over 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses; half of those deaths were the result of heroin use and exposure to the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. That same year, Philadelphia lost 1,217 people to addiction. In 2018, city officials estimate that 1,100 people have died in the city from overdose-related causes.
“When I started Kensington Blues, my older sister was already many years into her own heroin addiction. It’s a horrific experience to have a loved one struggling in this way. You feel helpless and it’s really just a matter of how much abuse you are willing to take,” explained Stockbridge, whose exhibition also includes interviews, videos, and journal entries. “I think subconsciously, I was learning about what my sister was going through by photographing.”
Philadelphia’s Kensington Avenue runs underneath an elevated train track in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Reporting on the area in 2011, the Daily Beast described it as an “open-air market for pills and needles” featuring “hard-core drug use without police interference.” The publication reported that heroin was not really sold on Kensington at the time, but eight years later the avenue has become host to dozens of homeless opioid addicts.
One of Stockbridge’s photos features a man named Country sitting on a red carton with two posters behind him that read, “EVICTION = DEATH.” The signs are references to ACT UP’s iconic “SILENCE = DEATH” campaign and also here feature the pink triangle synonymous with the LGBTQ community. Shirtless and with a shaved head, Country looks away from the camera. He is shaking his arms so furiously that it blurs the image. The photograph’s label describes him as rocking back and forth “after injecting heroin the day before the city evicted drug users camped beneath the Kensington Avenue underpass.”
Another image included in the exhibition depicts a group of four men huddled together among a row of tents and blankets. “Heroin users often rely on one another to inject their drugs for them in their necks, when accessible veins collapse and are no longer usable,” reads the caption. At the photograph’s center is a man sitting in a wheelchair wearing a black jacket and red hoodie. Nearby is a man that crouches over his arm, which is tightly bound in preparation for injection. In the foreground, another man in a plastic chair slumps over himself, passed out.
The two photographs described above are emblematic of Stockbridge’s approach toward documentary photography. He likes to prompt viewers with visual cues of despondency. “Crystal” (2018) continues the trend. The subject reclines on the sidewalk pavement with dirty jackets stretched across her lap, and an onlooker beholds her disheartening situation. She wears a shirt that reads, “LOVE” with a football replacing the “O.” Behind her are four American flags waving in the wind above a sign that says, “LAST STOP.” Though a little heavy-handed, the message is clear: Crystal lives a precarious life because of her addiction.
There is a tension in Stockbridge’s photographs between empathizing with an addict’s situation and feeling as if you must morally appraise their condition. What comes across most through Kensington Blues is a sense of addiction’s transformation of the person. The artist’s subjects look uniformly zombified, rattled by the opioid’s power. One wonders if this type of photography humanizes the people behind addiction, or if it simply confirms the overwhelming prevalence of our nation’s drug overdose epidemic.
The artist hopes that Kensington Blues can bring about positive social change. “Art is about seeing things from a different perspective,” he said. “My work is about presenting the truth as I see it. It’s about de-stigmatizing the opioid user and seeing them as a human being. While much of my work may be hard to look at and the stories difficult to listen to, I know that it serves a purpose.”
Kensington Blues continues through March 30 at the Paul Peck Alumni Gallery at Drexel University (corner of 32nd and Market Streets, Philadelphia, PA).