Stockbridge’s photography of Kensington eventually amounted to a photo book called Kensington Blues, which features 168 pages of scenes everyday life of the heroin and fentanyl capital of the country.
When South Philly-based photographer Jeffrey Stockbridge initially started exploring abandoned houses in West Philly during his time as a photography student at Drexel, he didn’t know it would lead him to Kensington, the epicenter of the East Coast’s opioid epidemic. While exploring abandoned houses, he’d come in contact with people suffering from addiction who were seeking shelter and privacy from the outside world to get high. One of those people was Milly, a woman who’d “sell herself for $20 a day because of her addiction,” Stockbridge said. Stockbridge met her in West Philly, but she was from Kensington. That’s when he first decided to head to Philly’s famously drug-riddled neighborhood to document what was happening there. He brought his camera.
Stockbridge’s photography of Kensington eventually amounted to a photo book called Kensington Blues, which features 168 pages of scenes everyday life of the heroin and fentanyl capital of the country. Recently, Stockbridge was selected to shoot photos for a New York Times Magazine piece entitled Trapped by the ‘Walmart of Heroin’ which was published online this past Wednesday. Like many members of the media who walk on eggshells every day trying to report on Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic in a fair and balanced way, Stockbridge’s photographs have garnered criticism. The Star asked him about that, how he interacted with people in the Kensington community and why he decided to call it Kensington Blues.
So, Kensington Blues. How did the idea come about to shoot this photo book?
I never set out to document fully the opioid crisis in Philadelphia. It just kind of happened by accident. I would start by saying that one project leads to another and when I was a photography student at Drexel University in West Philadelphia I made a series of photographs in the neighborhoods where I live where I was documenting the presence of abandoned houses. At the time there was about 60,000 abandoned properties in Philadelphia and this was a problem that I witnessed every day because I lived nearby them. I made this series of photographs documenting the interiors of these spaces and really focused on seeing the house as a container for life and photographing the artifacts left behind, photographing the insides of these empty rooms that were still occupied by these people’s memories. And during this time I came in close contact with a number of people who were seeking refuge inside these places. People who were squatting in abandoned houses and also drug users who sought a place to get high that wasn’t on the street out in the open. And this was really my first time having close face to face contact with people who were using drugs of this nature. People who were heavily addicted whose drug use had led to a full on addiction and whose lives were essentially taken from them.
I had started to photograph some of them and learn about their lives and their stories and that’s really what led me to Kensington was the stories that people had and I met this one woman named Milly inside a crackhouse in West Philly and she was, you know, selling herself for $20 a day because of her addiction. She was from Kensington, but when I met her she was in West Philly. So that was pretty interesting for me and that’s when I first started going down to the Avenue. And my first few visits to the Avenue, like I say in the book, I was too scared to get out of the car at first. Every woman on every street corner was making eyes at me. They were hoping I was going to hit them up and that was intimidating. I worked up the courage to get out of the car and start meeting people and talking to them and I showed them photographs of my previous projects and started to connect with people. Initially, it was just like what do I see? What’s right in front of me? And that was just the sheer number of women standing on the street corners engaging in sex work at the means of survival. And once I started to make these photographs and do these interviews, that’s when I realized ‘whoa, I should really be focusing on the neighborhood as a whole and on addiction and on the role that that plays. So that’s kind of how the project started. With any good photo project it should carry you to a place. You should not have any pre-conceived notions about where you’re going to go with it. That’s why it’s so fun. It’s a constant unknown. Well where would this take me, what will I do and what will I learn in the process?
Why name it Kensington Blues?
Well, a couple of reasons. That’s a good question. The blues are about pain and beauty at the same time. I think blues in general — it’s cathartic. A lot of the people I’m meeting on the street in Kensington are incredibly resilient. They’re very strong individuals, but they’re also certainly weak. And I find that dichotomy to be really fascinating and interesting. I think it talks about what it means to be a human being. I think it talks about what it means to how to deal with your pain. How to deal with your trauma. How do you process that? Where does your trauma lead you in your life? It’s tough. Naming a photo project is probably about the hardest thing you can do.
It takes place in Kensington, so that’s a helpful word to put in the title. And I didn’t know what else to put there. I think blues is appropriate. Also I’m a huge Jack Rose fan. Do you know who Jack Rose is?
Look up Jack Rose. He was an absolutely incredible guitar player who lived in Philadelphia — I think he might have lived in Kensington — he put out an album called Kensington Blues and I’ve been a fan of Jack Rose for years and I had the privilege of seeing him play live a couple times before he unexpectedly passed away at a young age. It’s kind of a little bit of a homage to him.
How did the New York Times Magazine photo assignment come about?
They reached out to me with a photo request to see if I had any pictures of the gulch and I had shot for the Times before in the past and when they reached out I responded with some pictures that I had recently taken in the neighborhood of the gulch when it was active and of the gulch when the city demolished it. When I sent them those photographs, they were very interested by them and they asked me if I’d be interested in shooting the assignment and I said I would. Kensington is a place I’ve spent a lot of time. I’ve made a lot of photographs there. I’ve developed a lot of trust in this neighborhood over the years. They definitely didn’t reach out and say ‘hey, we want you to shoot this assignment.’ I had to convince them to let me be the one to shoot this assignment. I think the Times — they’re one of the leading organizations for hard hitting photography and reporting and journalism. And they have their reasons as to why they assign certain photographers to certain shoots. And they don’t always want somebody super local who has been doing it in the way I have for so long. Sometimes it’s best for somebody very different to come in and take those pictures. Then that person has fresh eyes, essentially. You can think about it like when Robert Frank came to America in the ’40s and ’50s — a Swedish immigrant — and made one of the most powerful bodies of work about what America actually looked like in the ’40s and ’50s. Not the version of America that everybody had been fed by the media. Sometimes it takes an outsider to show the truth. But in this situation, I hustled, man. I wanted to shoot this assignment, and I made photographs that they were happy with. I don’t get much direction. They really turned me loose and they said ‘photograph everything that’s happening in Kensington.’ That’s what I did. You have the writer who’s writing the story or who had already started the story before I had even gotten there and not before I got there but you had the writer who had already begun working on the story independently and I had been making photographs independently and they kind of matched us up and we went around the neighborhood many many many days ahead of time to kind of capture what was happening.
Some of the pictures in the article it looks like people were posing for you. How does that work? Do you generally ask people consent to take their picture first?
Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Jax for instance, is a photograph where she is standing for me, yes. She knows I’m attempting to make a photograph. I knew Jax. The crazy thing with Jax is that the reporter had interviewed her separately and then it was my mission to find her. And that’s difficult. I mean, a lot of people in Kensington who are on the streets, they don’t have a cell phone. They don’t have a permanent address. They’re moving around a lot. And here’s some random woman who I have a really bad photograph of what she looks like and I’m trying to find her. What I did is I talked to everybody under the tunnels. I talked to everybody in Kensington. People know me down there. I have my book with me. I bring photos back to the community. And I said ‘hey. Have you guys ever heard of a girl named Jax?’ And I asked around and I asked around. I got nothing. And it wasn’t until maybe a month into shooting this assignment that I found her. That’s when I looked at her in the eyes and I said ‘hey, do you know anybody named Jax?’ And she looked at me and smiled and goes ‘uhh, who’s asking?’ And I was like ‘oh. I’m a photographer for the New York Times. I think you spoke with the writer Jen Percy. And she goes ‘yeah, I remember that.’ And I go ‘Great. I’m working on this story about what’s happening in Kensington. I would love to be able to make your photograph. Can I hang out with you for the day? And she was like ‘alright.’ So, you know, I walk around with her. I try not to be too much of an imposing presence, but I spend time with her and when we’re under the tunnel in that situation she’s doing her thing, I’m doing my thing. I’m not just photographing her, I’m photographing everything that’s happening around me. And if there’s a moment like that, I can just be like ‘hey, can you just stand still for me real quick?’
I don’t overtly pose anything ever. That’s not my thing for reportage documentary work.
I’ve been covering the neighborhood for a while so I’m reasonably well-connected with people who are there. And I saw reactions on social media from some people I know in the neighborhood about the article and there was some criticism of the photography that I wanted to see if you wanted to address. Basically I saw people using the phrase “addiction porn” and say that you were exploiting people at their worst and I wanted to get your reaction to that. Why do you think it’s important that people see this sort of thing?
Well, I mean. I don’t think it’s addiction porn, first of all. I know what that looks like, and that’s not what I’m doing.
What’s the difference?
Well, addiction porn is, I don’t know, a good example of a addiction porn a lot of times is when people just focus on the one thing. You gotta look at it like — have you seen James Nachtway’s series about the War on Drugs he shot for Time magazine? It’s all grainy black and white photography, photographing the opioid epidemic as if it’s a war. He’s literally a war photographer photographing it like a war. Those images, they pack a really powerful punch. But that sometimes can also seem exploitative when every photograph has a needle in it or when every picture is that. And what you’re looking at in the New York Times right now is eight photographs, OK? I shot over 100 rolls of film. I made portraits of people. I photographed hundreds of scenarios. My favorite picture didn’t make it in the story, which is a photograph of a mother and her young son who’s getting ready to go to school in the morning. You’re just looking at an edit that I had no control over. I submit all these scans of my film and then it’s up to them. They craft the story. They tell it the way they think is best to tell it and ultimately I think they did an accurate job. It’s important to show all sides of what this looks like. You can’t understand what this looks like unless you get in there real close and you actually show it. And trust me, you think some of these photographs might be addiction porn, I have photographs that are much more severe than anything you’ve ever seen in these pictures. Extremely severe stuff that I questioned whether or not it should be put into the public view. I question what role is it going to play in the discourse. I think it’s really important to show the truth, and that’s the way I see it. To show what it actually looks like. To show the horror, but to also show some of the gentler moments like the woman sleeping in the tent. That’s definitely a gentler moment. The abandoned tracks early in the morning. That’s a softer gentler moment, you know? The role of photography is to tell a story. It’s always going to be limited, and people are always going to try to reduce a picture to one thing, but for those who are in this process who have been doing it a long time, maybe we see photographs a little bit differently than everybody else. I don’t know. There is a greater story to be told by these pictures and I would hope that the work and the sequence and the edit that ties it together really does encourage people to think about that. To think about how it is represented and what works and what doesn’t and what’s important.
When you asked to take people’s pictures, were they ever reluctant? Or were they typically enthusiastic about it?
All and everything in between, man. Everything in between. There’s people who don’t want their photograph taken and I respect that. I don’t photograph. Then there’s people who really do want their photograph taken. And sometimes they want to pose too hard and then I’m like ‘eh, I don’t really want to take that picture either.’ You know what I mean? So you always find a balance. It’s always about just trying to connect with people who understand what it is you’re trying to do who aren’t going to be performing for the camera. It’s not about that. I don’t want people to perform for the camera. I want people to understand that I’m a witness and I want to be able to just share the space with them and just document what’s happening and I’m very lucky to have been in that position.
The other piece of criticism I wanted to ask you about is balance. And this is more of a general thing — not necessarily your work specifically. But that there’s just not enough coverage of people helping out the epidemic. It’s all focused on the negative. It’s more of a broader point, but do you think the people helping the situation are under covered?
Well a lot of times — I’ve photographed them. I have lots of photographs of those people and you’ll see those photographs. I’m having a big exhibition at Drexel coming up in January and those photographs will be there. I think it’s important to show that. I’ve spent a lot of time with Prevention Point in the neighborhood. I’ve been working on a series of documentary short films about medication assisted treatment [MAT] and about how Prevention Point is helping people get through that process. What MAT actually looks like for those in the real world for those who are experiencing it. I follow people where it’s working for them and people where it isn’t. And showing what that looks like. I don’t set out with a major agenda here. You know what I mean? I’m just trying to — I just come into the neighborhood and just try to soak up what I can and it’s important to give everybody a voice because at the end of the day, you gotta ask yourself ‘OK, what can a picture really do? How can a picture really communicate a story?’ And so many photographs lie on an extensive amount of text to explain what’s happening in the picture. And the job and the role of the photographer is to communicate visually what is happening. I don’t always like to have to rely on all this other stuff and all these external things to convey a point. However, when I was doing Kensington Blues, I did extensive audio recordings with people because I felt as though the stories I was hearing were extremely powerful and that they needed to be heard. So that’s where I recognize the limitation of a photograph in representing the full story and representing the story I wanted to share. That’s an example where I had to just admit that photography couldn’t accomplish what I was hoping to do..
I donate a percentage of the proceeds from the book to go to Prevention Point. Kensington Blues is an entirely self-funded project that I did from 2008 to 2014 and I paid to have the book printed in the United States. I would’ve been a hypocrite if I would’ve went to China to have this book printed considering the history of Kensington and how all the de-industrialization in the 1900s led to the economic decline that has resulted in Kensington’s poverty and the way that the neighborhood is today. So I think that’s important to note. So I’m dedicated to this subject matter and to telling all sides of this story. So I think it’s really easy for people to look at eight pictures and try to judge them and try to say ‘oh, this is drug porn.’ I mean, it’s a cop out if you ask me. There’s a lot more that goes into it than that.
This interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity. Keep an eye out for a photo exhibition featuring Stockbridge’s work at Drexel University in early 2019. The exact times and dates have yet to be announced.