Philadelphia-based photographer Jeffrey Stockbridge started taking portraits of sex workers and drug users in Kensington in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn. Five years later, he found himself still investigating this neighborhood and posting images of the people he met along Kensington Avenue on his blog, kensingtonblues.com.
Stockbridge also asked the people he photographed to write in his journals or record their stories as audio. Now he has combined all of these elements in a solo exhibition and book, both titled Kensington Blues – projects that resonate powerfully at a time when the country as a whole, and Philadelphia in particular, are in the grip of an opioid epidemic.
Sound and vision in Kensington
The show at the Savery Gallery and coffee-table book feature large-format color portraits, as well as transcripts of interviews Stockbridge conducted with his subjects. The exhibition also airs some of the audio recordings Stockbridge made with sex workers and drug users, making the experience even more visceral.
“You gotta watch what car you get into,” ran one of the recordings at Savery Gallery’s opening as people examined the 125 8-by-10-inch portraits.
In one portrait, a woman named Jenna, whom Stockbridge photographed in 2009, lounges on a lawn, casually gazing at the camera. “She looks like she’s relaxing,” one viewer said. “She seems a little peaceful, and then you read her statement, and you get another layer.” You learn that Jenna lost her house, her car, and her drug treatment, and ended up on the streets.
Another of the exhibition’s large-format framed color photographs shows a man named Matt injecting his friend, Brian, in the neck with heroin on a bench in McPherson Park one summer Sunday morning. Brian furrows his brow, tensing for the shot. Matt holds one hand on his mouth, using his other to wield the needle. The portrait, like many of those in Kensington Blues, displays an ambivalent mixture of destructiveness and tenderness, evoking both shock and sympathy.
“It takes a lot of trust to let somebody else stick a needle in your neck,” Stockbridge said in an interview. “If that photograph doesn’t illustrate that these people are literally sick, that they need this drug to not be sick, then I don’t know what does.”
Love and violence
A portrait from 2009 shows a woman named Jennette leaning against the blue pillars of the El along Kensington Avenue. She stares at the camera, almost hostile, her lower lip covered in bandages. The accompanying photograph of her journal entry reveals the violence in her life: “He asked me to smoke crack with him and then wigged out,” Jennette writes. “Pistol whipped me and knocked out my front teeth and cracked my head open. Twenty-six stitches. Then raped me with a Club (the thing that locks up).”
It is hard to walk away from Jennette’s portrait and commentary unscathed, somewhat repulsed by her circumstances but also in awe of this woman who has suffered the worst kinds of abuse and continues to endure nonetheless.
In a 2011 portrait of another man named Matt and his girlfriend, Carissa, she sits with both legs draped in his lap. Matt clutches her back. They grasp hands.
“Kensington is not just drugs and violence and prostitution,” Matt writes in Stockbridge’s journal, pictured in the show and in the book. “There are people here who live and love life.”
Ultimately, it is this coexisting duality – the violence, despair, humanity, beauty of Kensington – that Stockbridge’s work reveals.