I met Antoine by accident. I was trying to get a picture of the train cars as they slowly moved East on the tracks that begin the division between Kensington and Fairhill. He was standing just in front of the iron fence that runs the entire length of Guerney Street, watching me as I tried to get in position to catch a picture of the rowhomes and the black train cars on an intermittently cloudy Sunday afternoon.
The area is most definitely deserving of the name The Badlands. This spot looks pretty “safe”, at least compared with other, much rockier stretches along the tracks, but I’ve run into serious problems in this area and am extremely cautious. My camera was pointed straight at the tracks, and I was quite literally standing on top of my car to get it right when a menacing figure began to approach quickly, and very unexpectedly. I never got the picture I was hoping for because I had to get back into my car. The man told me I couldn’t take pictures. He was moving fast and I said that he should not threaten or harass me and that I had a right to be there. I was really angry and had my car to retreat into otherwise I would’ve kept my mouth shut. Having the car allowed me the courage to give in to my urge to correct his inappropriate behavior towards me. He decided I was too difficult to bother with and, after a few more verbal exchanges decided to leave. Antoine spoke once he left, telling me not to worry about the guy…. He was gone, and would not present any further problems. He wanted to tell his story, be part of whatever documentary I was doing. It seemed to come to him suddenly, this urge to tell me about his life.
Antoine told me that his lover, a beloved part of his life for twelve years, had cheated on him with a neighbor. As he began to talk to me about this pivotal event in his life, the tears came. I sat in my car, window down, wanting to be closer so that I could better connect, but afraid that the threatening man who didn’t like my camera would return. Antoine had been at work, but suddenly decided to come home in the middle of the day to eat lunch. He had been clean for years, successful in his job, living in a great condo on City Line Avenue just outside Philadelphia with his boyfriend. He had thought his life was a good one, and he had been clean and completely free of the urge to use heroin for years. He walked into his apartment unexpectedly in the middle of the day and his whole life changed. He found his lover (his terminology; he never used the man’s name as he related his history) in bed with another man who lived down the hall. Antoine lost it. As he spoke, it was very apparent that he had never gotten over the betrayal. He was reliving the pain he’d felt, and the shock of the sight as if it had just happened. His past experience was still deeply painful and had completely destroyed his life. I didn’t know how to respond….I just listened. Antoine grabbed a switchblade he had in the bedroom and attacked his lover, stabbing him seven times. The stabbing seriously injured but did not kill his boyfriend. Antoine spent a few years in jail for the assault. He said he didn’t want to kill him at the time but was out of control. Antoine has to take medication every day to combat HIV, which he contracted from the man who betrayed him. The former lover passed away several years ago from AIDS. His pain relating to the loss of his relationship and his explosive reaction to the situation, the resulting jail time that had significantly derailed his life, and the catastrophic, devastating emotional crash that followed led him straight back into addiction. His mother and two sisters refuse to speak to him and he has no other people that he can rely on in his life. He is in a situation on the street that is very difficult for someone his age, as he is in situations with much younger people who have more strength and stamina than he can muster. It’s not often that I meet someone who is as steeped in hopelessness as Antoine, someone whose surrender is so apparent, so complete. In Kensington it is commonplace to run across people who are suffering from hopelessness, despair, catastrophically low self esteem. But Antoine was completely adrift, lost in an expanse of bereavement, regret and misery.
Tranq wounds smell bad. That means people who have lesions advanced enough to have a noticeable odor suffer more than just the physical pain of having them, or the emotional reaction to seeing them on one’s body. In warmer weather, they are often on public display without the camouflage of winter clothing. The shock of the injury can be very hard to look at, especially when there’s deep tissue exposure. Kensington and the surrounding area is rough, and not known for being a sensitive, warm place to call home. Gun violence, gang activity, random assaults, and daily cruelties leveled at the population of people on the street is the context in which those with tranq wounds exist.
Entering a store with a wound can be more than just a casual act. It’s an ordeal, an event to be endured if someone in the store, customer or employee, decides to verbally attack the person with the wound. If the odor is noticeable, it gets very embarrassing and difficult to make simple purchases, to obtain necessities in the drugstore or food items before getting thrown out. Riding the subway can result in anger and cruelly abusive words, turning a quick ride into an experience of humiliation.
Not everyone is eager to have their wounds dressed, bandaged or otherwise looked after. I’m told that sometimes things get much worse, and more fluid builds up when air cannot reach the skin and tissues. Some people have had ineffective wraps or felt that those trying to care for the wounds don’t really possess the skill to address the situation medically, despite having the best intentions. The lesions are tricky to care for, and require expertise to effectively treat. The real problem is the need to get well….a trip to the hospital means that a person cannot use during time spent in the emergency room. This is huge, and a massive roadblock, insurmountable for most. Additionally, hospital nurses and doctors can display insensitivity and create more stress, as well as not practice addiction management techniques. With all of this on his mind, Mike’s contemplation of a trip to get desperately needed care resulted in dismissal of the option. Even the fear of sepsis wasn’t enough to propel Mike into the hospital on this overcast Saturday afternoon.
Whose fault is the wound? Assigning blame is irrelevant. The cause, Xylazine, is in the drug supply. The cessation of use is not an option for most…no amount of straight, factual talk with the most heartfelt delivery will change the trajectory of someone else’s life. Just listening is sometimes proactive, even though it feels totally insufficient. I’m recording my observations and what other people relate to me about their experience. The complexities of addiction and choice and self determination aren’t part of my work. The obvious penalties of addiction unfortunately in these situations often include being the subject of ridicule or recklessly insensitive behavior. People in this intractable addiction trap on the street in Kensington often depend on the help they receive from strangers, strangers who sometimes become familiar and dependable, and strangers who appear only once to give a quick gift. Outreach personnel, private individuals who show up in the neighborhood with food, well intentioned church groups, or an empathetic troupe of friends who get together and head to Kensington to give out cups of coffee, or a few cookies with hot chocolate on a brutally cold day.
I returned to Philadelphia on September 20, 2022. I had been in New York City since 2017, and before that, Southern California, Austin, Texas and very briefly in Charleston, South Carolina. Living in different places during various phases of my life as a single parent, trying to find a place to call home where I actually felt at peace with my son. I had fled Philadelphia originally because of bad memories growing up, and rough, Philly-style experiences on the street that made me think twice about raising a small child in the City of Brotherly Love. During the time I was in New York City, I spent a month in the Summer of 2018 in Philadelphia. One day I visited an area located on the fringes of Kensington. I had read of the neighborhood, and I knew that I needed to see it for myself. I photographed a few people on the outskirts, near York Street and Aramingo Avenue. But I didn’t have the courage to head in to the heart of the chaos….so I did not. I didn’t go, and I regretted not having done so. I spent four years thinking about Philadelphia. My life in New York finally came to an end after I had Covid. I decided that whatever time I had left was going to be spent elsewhere, and the very first place I needed to be in was Kensington.
The necrotic lesions can show up anywhere on the body, far from the injection site. Xylazine causes vasoconstriction, which interrupts blood supply to the skin. The lesions are not always infected, but when infection does occur it can be catastrophic, sometimes resistant bacteria strains that colonize deep tissue and even bone, resulting in amputation and disfigurement.
Brooke is a beautiful person to photograph. I was in a state of shock on the day I made these images with her. She explained how she manages her massive forearm injury created by Xylazine/Tranq. She has already lost a leg to Tranq, and is very careful about her wound management. Unfortunately, the addiction and all of the related issues that she grapples with daily create an impossible situation for her. The injectable drug that causes the wound she has is in the supply of fentanyl that she depends on…and so the wound never heals. Sometimes there is healing, often requiring a hospital stay, surgery, intravenous antibiotics….not always an option for most people, who are often resistant to going to the hospital. Some hospitals are not compassionate, or well versed in medical addiction management techniques to make patients comfortably able to tolerate a hospital stay without a supply of fentanyl obtained from the street. So many don’t go to the hospital, and the situation deteriorates madly. There are many amputations that result from these massive lesions, young people without legs, hands, feet and arms. People sometimes inject directly into the wound, as Brooke is doing on Kensington Avenue.
Not everyone is able to properly care for their injured skin, and find themselves in horrible, nearly impossible situations with clothing that binds to the wound, requiring one of the incredibly devoted outreach wound specialists that set up in the area periodically to painstakingly correct these situations as best they can. I was with one such group of devoted nurses and social workers who patiently explained to me the history of the problem, and the practicalities involved with on the street wound management techniques.
It was one of the first days I spent on Kensington Avenue, openly photographing, and it was only the second time I had ever seen the inexplicable wounds generated by the use of Xylazine. Because the people who are suffering with the catastrophic, disabling lesions are often high on opioids, they do not feel as much of the agonizing pain and discomfort as they would if they were not using fentanyl and Xylazine. But when the effects of the opioids wear off, the pain becomes much more intense and even removing basic clothing is nearly impossible, especially if the wounds are not dressed. Many people do not go to get their lesions cared for for logistical reasons or because they just cannot get there. The longer a wound goes uncovered—sometimes adhering to clothing— the easier it is to put care into the distant future.
Some of these images are from warmer days last fall. Colder months mean more clothing, more restrictive fabric and less air able to circulate, more fabric that complicates the potential to heal.
A safe drug supply would effectively eliminate the contamination by Xylazine. Not one user on the street I’ve spoken to wants Tranq mixed in, although that doesn’t mean that nobody objects….I just haven’t found anyone. They dislike Tranq immensely but have absolutely no control over the situation. Since there’s no availability of test kits to determine the amount of Tranq adulterating purchases of fentanyl, it’s impossible to gauge its effect. Ratios change hourly, and dealers often give out free samples to eager users willing to test the supply as it becomes available on the street. I’ve witnessed large groups of people almost running en masse to pop up sample spots buried on side streets. Overdoses involving Tranq and fentanyl have opposing effects. Fentanyl requires Narcan. Narcan is readily available but has absolutely no effect on an overdose caused by Tranq. Tranq excess requires breathing support and resuscitation and, because the drugs are mixed, Narcan and rescue breathing are often necessary.
Overdose happens every day, in inaccessible areas. The ratio of drugs in the supply of dope is not predictable. One person described the situation as one in which he felt as though the population of users was being experimented on by those in control of the drug supply. Trying to find that magic combination of substances that will create a desirable high that’s reliable, fast and cheap enough to be profitable. Not everyone buying is unhoused….teenagers are dying in their bedrooms, suburban dads can be seen in parked cars, blacked out in the parking lot of the Walgreens drug store on Kensington and Allegheny Avenues. It happens everywhere, just much more visibly on the streets of Kensington.
There are a lot of issues surrounding these images. Privacy, documentary image making practices, various people and their sometimes dogmatic views aren’t always a terrific combination. Documentary work in other countries, Ukraine for example, is well tolerated generally. But images made in America of this catastrophe do not always bring people together harmoniously. It is critically important to take pictures that convey absolutely what is happening. It means that faces, places, and circumstance are on display. Corporate media outlets need to consistently address the issue as graphically as is necessary to effectively illustrate the problem, as done here: https://time.com/james-nachtwey-opioid-addiction-america/
The graphic and intolerably despairing images in this post should be considered in the context of a problem that is killing, maiming or otherwise causing grave dysfunction to hundreds of people each day in the United States, adding up to many, many thousands each year. Images like these are necessary and should not be omitted or eliminated by social media and news outlets. Mainstream media and social media platforms inability to risk offense to describe distressing situations that are clearly visible in the community do nothing to forcefully and properly illuminate social issues. Dilemmas that require reflection, sensitivity and societal admissions of guilt need to be examined without reservation. Issues such as the one described in this post will continue to fester and ravage masses of people every day unless enough of us are sufficiently angry to start vehemently demanding immediate solutions. That’s how I justify my work on this particular subject. I wish I didn’t feel the need to justify and explain and persuade….but I do.
I am grateful to every person that allowed me to photograph. I am also thankful to those in my candid images done on the street, taken without permission. In Kensington permission is often necessary, but in some cases I use street photography techniques which are equally important for me as an artist and photojournalist.
I tried to grab a few pictures one afternoon when I saw a half nude woman, her figure partially lit by the dappled sunlight as she stood, partially hidden between two old storefronts on the Lower East Side. New York City has changed…and it isn’t often that I run across anything highly unusual on the streets of a Lower East Side that has undergone a radical, transformative rebirth. In modern New York City, many old neighborhoods have lost the old guard that gave the run down city blocks so much life and character. As a street photographer, I felt the loss acutely.
For me, there’s always the question of asking permission vs. candid photography. Sometimes asking creates self awareness, ruining the initial visual experience, and turning what was once a natural moment into a stilted reenactment. I needed to take the risk involved with photographing the woman candidly….not to exploit, but to record the beauty and eccentricity , a kind of ghostly remnant of a Lower East Side that was long dead. I stepped into the street but just as I did, a crazy white delivery truck, oversized and too large for the spot, pulled in front of me, almost hitting me. This was infuriating because my ability to take a beautiful candid image was completely blocked. So I tried as best I could, weaving around traffic, trying not to get run over or verbally assaulted by passerby for photographing a nearly nude woman on the street. Because people are so unstable and every substance imaginable is readily available causing further instability, I was very concerned about the woman becoming agitated if she saw me. Safety issues are a fact of life while out shooting and cannot be overstated.
As it turned out, she observed me. And it was ok….I got the photographs that were necessary, albeit images that I didn’t immediately visualize. Initially I thought that candid was the way to go, a partial nude, lit with shadowy sunlight, quiet and beautiful. But that would have failed to record her confidence and disregard for what other people on the street thought of her, and her rejection of social folkways and all the other assorted trivialities of daily life.
She was beautiful in the light, and wanted to be photographed, noticed. I have found this many times in situations where most would assume there’d be a fair amount of danger photographing someone on in an urban setting. I find that people want very much to be seen sometimes, and these super fast, pop-up portrait sessions with enchanting strangers that I meet are the most satisfying work that I do. And no longer strangers, they can become people whose lives I’m privileged to follow for years.
I avoided Bethany for nearly six months, from Christmas 2021 to late May 2022. I had a lot of legitimate personal reasons to do so. My life was becoming unmanageable because of the need to monitor a deteriorating health situation within my family, as well as a newfound obligation to help care for someone who I had been photographing and who became temporarily completely incapacitated. Balancing all of this while remaining active photographically was a challenging situation and one that I met with great energy most days, at least enough to drag myself through the long and bleak New York City post Covid winter, struggling through, remaining reasonably productive artistically. There was no energy left for Bethany. Being around her can be very difficult and challenging, and I just didn’t have it to spare. Occasionally I would stop nearby, and observe her from a distance, to be sure she was still alive. But I did not allow her to see me.
I felt increasingly uncomfortable every time I thought of how long it had been. I knew that it was time to face the disastrously changing person that I had gotten to know very well, and who I had allowed to know things about me. Bethany was my friend in many ways, and I had let her down by disappearing. Her health was severely impacted by scabies and multiple drug resistant bacterial abscesses. This extreme situation, and her inability to address it and get treated, was stressful for me. The need for a constant flow of drugs was and is the primary reason why Bethany and many, many others on the street often refuse desperately necessary hospitalizations for life threatening health problems.
I had gotten her medication at one point, expensive for me but worth it to try to save her life. She had gone to the hospital but with no insurance had to pay out of pocket for her antibiotic prescription. She was was unwilling to put her limited funds toward medication, because every cent she procures goes towards purchasing heroin, fentanyl, crack or meth.
When I felt it was no longer an option to go any longer without contacting her, I headed over to her part of the West Village and started searching. Her old spot at the corner of 8th street and 6th Avenue was reimagined and now occupied by an expensive take out restaurant. No sign of Bethany. A long time later, and still no sign. She could be anywhere, from Tompkins Square in the East Village to Bowery…..impossible to know. Just as I was ready to give it up for the day, she magically popped into view outside the subway station at West 4th. I was shocked by her condition. Covered in scabs, swollen feet and hands, limping and dressed in raggedy, blood stained clothing. Not the cocky transgendered style she had so carefully cultivated when she was more fully in control. Except for her augmented breasts, there was no outward sign that she identifies as a woman. It was hard to fully take in the extent of her physical collapse and I was struck hard, and almost unable to speak naturally with her at the beginning. Many people stopped, gaped, grimaced, sneered….the expressions of passerby ran a full spectrum of revulsion and displeasure.
We agreed that a hospital stay was necessary. Bethany may or may not have scabies, as well as some deeply imbedded abscesses that were surely infected. Infection is very dangerous, as MRSA and other resistant bacterial overgrowths can present a public health problem. Bethany was no longer able to panhandle due to people being unwilling to get close enough to drop a dollar into her hand, or even get within a few feet voluntarily.
Bethany had become convinced that the scabies she was sure she was infected with was a menacing, omnipotent presence within her. The bugs had a mind, and were deceitfully strategic, planning their moves within her. The scabs were the result of her digging and tearing into her skin, in an attempt to extract them. She used a lit cigarette to razor her flesh, ostensibly to pull them out.
She showed me numerous bits and pieces, telling me that it was the bugs, their bodies….but every time it was a piece of herself, her skin, changed in her mind to a insect, to be pulled out or burned to death on her skin.
When I met Bethany I had no idea that what seemed like a one-off photograph of her holding a crucifix and a cigarette would become a long term endeavor, full of so many contradictions. That I would alternately need to abandon her to her demons when it became unsafe for me, returning when she was more stable and I was no longer tapped out.
I watched Bethany peel her scabs, pull her skin apart, using specific tools to puncture holes in order to extract the “bugs”.
The holes and flat, scarred over areas cover the surfaces of her arms, legs and face. I watched and couldn’t imagine the discomfort she must be causing herself. She showed me what she thought were bugs, but I could see that the chosen specimens were pieces of skin or scab or random flecks of dirt. I remembered a Bethany I photographed during the Black Lives Matter transformation of New York City when she had a place to live in upstate New York, and even had pet ducks. That Bethany had a phone and the use of a car and the help of a friend. But now, I know that there is no way forward down a path towards health and restitution. I know, and she knows, that her hatred of herself was causing her to literally skin herself alive. I have known for a long time that it was her way of slow suicide. I can be there, I can listen, but I will never be able to give Bethany a much needed hug again. I cannot allow her to hold my puppy, and I cannot handle her possessions. Multiple infections and eruptions of pus and blood and self loathing stand between Bethany and the rest of us.
Kapporos,Williamsburg and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York City
I’ve photographed Kapporos in Williamsburg three times, from 2018 until this year, 2021. Williamsburg has a very antiquated ambiance that I love to witness and photograph generally, and Kapporos is a time period that’s extremely provoking, despairing and captivating to photograph. Briefly, Kapporos is a ritual performed by a subset of ultra orthodox Jewish communities just before Yom Kippur. A special prayer is said, and a live chicken is waved over the head, in order to absorb the sins of the past year for the person reciting the prayer. Girls and women use female birds, and boys and men use male birds. The bird is then supposed to be slaughtered immediately, according to strict kosher law, and then processed for consumption and donated to charity.
In practice, many birds wind up in the garbage. The largest sites in Williamsburg do butcher and donate, but unfortunately in Crown Heights some sources claim that the birds are put straight into the garbage afterwards. Sunrise in Crown Heights the morning before Yom Kippur finds rescue crews opening giant green garbage bags behind the staging area where most slaughter took place the night before. They painstakingly search for living birds who are stuffed haphazardly into the plastic bags, birds not used during the ritual but who must be removed before sanitation comes and hauls the garbage away forever.
I had never seen the ritual in Crown Heights, but knew that it was a much bigger event there, and that it attracted visitors from all over the world, especially Israel. I went to Crown Heights late in the afternoon, in anticipation of a wildly active and vibrant neighborhood that was almost completely new to me. I didn’t know if my presence would be well tolerated because the event is extremely controversial and the presence of activists and their specific style of photographing and videoing would make it difficult for me to work independently, working to create natural images of the people and the event without my presence causing ripples of tension or anger. I wandered the neighborhood,eating pizza, talking with people, and feeling like I could understand why the neighborhood is so attractive to so many from around the world.
It reminded me a bit of parts of Jerusalem. It was like a giant block party, including the area near President Street getting ready to accommodate the slaughter of thousands of birds, with all of the accompanying odors and sights and sounds. I want very much to be able to photograph as naturally and honestly as possible. This ritual is highly charged and controversial because of the birds and the immense suffering they endure. The innocence of the children involved as well as fair practices regarding photographing a community with care and justice can become nearly impossible because of the immense distrust that is a direct result of the Hasidic Jewish community being vilified in the media at times, and by the public in the relative privacy of person-to-person negative encounters over the years. Anti Semitism is commonplace and in evidence daily, resulting in physical attacks, verbal harassment and a general sense of exclusion.
For me as a photographer it is still very important—despite accusations that the images may promote Anti Semitic commentary— that I include the images of the birds and the slaughter because it’s part of daily life. Although the slaughter is part of the ritual of Kapporos, the acts that cause death are performed millions of times each day all over the world in the worst, most unimaginable conditions. The birds themselves are engineered for consumption, a breed called the Cornish Cross that reaches slaughter weight at 6 weeks, an astonishingly short period. These birds are what feeds and powers the population of the United States and are universally consumed. Because this event takes place in the street and is public, accessible and highly visible, it is the first time most people have witnessed an animal dying during this process. My personal feelings have become separate from my drive to capture this complex and deeply rooted tradition. Most Jewish people have never heard of Kapporos, and most New Yorkers are unaware of the practice. It is an arcane and particular ritual, confined to a community of ultra orthodox people who must be carefully photographed in order to present the beautiful complexities that are visible on the street.
It would be unfair and totally inaccurate to present anything other than a wider perspective. I found the most beautiful and engaging people engaged in a horrific practice with little regard for the suffering of the birds who withstood intense heat, no food or water for days, and sometimes very haphazard and cruel treatment after slaughter. The families who participated did not have a window into the suffering for many reasons including the one we all have regarding animals we consume or otherwise use: the inability/refusal to perceive the sentience of animals, and the willingness to concede that even the smallest beings have the same rights as humanity expects for itself.
I found an incredibly engaging community and a sense of belonging and vitality that is just as important to photograph as the chaos of Kapporos and everything it entails for for every person who consumes animals or their products, including myself. During the night I spent photographing, I was asked if I wanted to do Kapporos. Young boys, around ten or eleven years old, startlingly mature and well-spoken, offered to help me with the prayer, hold the bird, make circles over my head, absolve me of sin for the coming year. I could feel a pull….and I almost wanted to say yes….if only there was no death involved. Although I have no regard for religious practices of any kind in my own life, I understood in those moments the intense feeling of belonging and warmth that people feel when they are doing something like Kapporos together. I felt tremendously conflicted on a personal level. My self-imposed role as a photographer trying to be as fair as possible in my representations means that I must photograph people in a way that not only represents objective reality, but also tries to capture how people feel about themselves, offering a faceted view as opposed to a monolithic judgement. I don’t feel judgements are my place. I found myself feeling disappointed that the people participating are not recognizing that the suffering and ill treatment of the birds can and should be acknowledged and rectified, and that the process of this particular observation of Kapporos methods represents a human failing. A deep flaw in an otherwise perfect gem that can be overlooked only at times when the light is just right.
I love the graphic nature of this image. I dislike categories, and so I’m not sure if this is street photography or documentary or reportage. I don’t think it matters. I just take pictures according to how I feel in the instant. I saw this guy and I was immediately fascinated, as were many other people walking towards Boulevard Barbés early one afternoon. The biggest risk involved with making this portrait was from observers on the street around me—the man in the picture was fortunately oblivious to my presence. I needed to be close, even with a 90mm lens, and so I waited until I felt that the people in the immediate area didn’t pose a significant threat. It took me three attempts before I was able to achieve the exact image I had in mind. I was so pleased to have succeeded…. It was a rush of adrenaline that was dizzying.
This image is one I made for myself, it’s not one for social media….I know that if I post it on Instagram, I will not do myself any favors with the platform. Censorship on social media is a serious problem, one that affects me directly as an artist and photographer. It creates psychological obstacles to overcome in the pursuit of true artistic expression, it encourages copycat behavior from other artists, and rewards sameness. The benefits of sharing images with great people are sometimes not enough to offset the negative impacts of censorship and the tremendous difficulty involved with getting work exposed in a fair manner. Artistic content is being categorized and the platform sanitized and that’s a shame.
The image above was not satisfactory in the immediate moments after making the photograph. I had been chasing this woman down the street for twenty minutes, on a hot late afternoon in the Marais. It was a stunning day, a happy to be alive Saturday in Paris….this picture is a beauty and most would understand why I worked so hard to get it right. But is it more worthwhile and satisfying than the rough, bloody image above? I don’t know….maybe one could argue that I should not have photographed someone cutting on the street. But….that’s Boulevard Magenta near the Gare du Nord….hard, raw and dangerous sometimes. So I think it’s important to shoot pictures of everything, and stop caring about repercussions. Both images represent different parts of me as a person and photographer, and both have equal weight in my mind as an artist.
One picture that I did not make stays in my mind. I was walking along a quiet street in the 10th arrondissement in the early evening. I came to an out of the way bus stop, where three women were seated on a bench. The two women on the left were almost elderly, and characteristically French, conservatively dressed working class white women. Seated on the right was a black African woman, dressed in beautifully bright patterned, waxed traditional fabric from far away, with a matching turban, carefully wrapped around her head. She held a baby, aged approximately six months, an equally beautifully dressed baby girl. She was breast feeding, and the contrast between subjects was so extreme that I could hardly contain my desire to take a picture. The simple pale yellow background of an old French building behind the women was a perfect counterpoint, and the silence of the situation was serene and unforgettable. I knew, however, that this picture had to remain in my mind. Had I photographed the scene, I would have possibly traumatized the breast feeding woman, and she would have forever remembered the moment as a horrible exploitation. And I never want my endeavors as a photographer to be reduced to that kind of memory for someone else.
I’m learning to move past these moments, trying to forgive myself for not working out a way to take these photographs that may have unexpected consequences for the people in them. I’m still struggling at times with the moral questions involved with some of the images I make. Most days I don’t give it any thought at all, and shoot exactly what I please no matter the consequences to myself or those in the pictures. When I do need to devote some thought to the issue, it becomes very difficult to find my best path forward.
Something about Covid and lost days due to excessive rules relating to lockdowns have created a kind of wild abandon. I’ve noticed this in young women especially, in New York City and in Paris. Paris is far more conservative in expression generally but much freer emotionally. More free, more natural, less constructed and far less grandiose and self centered in dress and self expression than what I see in New York City lately. There was a strange lack of diversity in the crowd this year….it was mainly young girls and women, but virtually no women over the age of 25 or 30, and few men of any age save for some young couples. I was surprised….I’m told that the celebration was very curtailed, no music or floats because of Covid fears. Which….is crazy considering that there were only a few masks, and everything and everyone was packed on the metro and outside. Many very young girls, reticent in front of the camera, not there to show off or to alert their parents to their presence at Pride…..
Pride week is also observed quietly and for personal reasons….out of the spotlight. Intense and appreciative of freedom of expression, never to be taken for granted.
I have never really given much thought as to how my images may be perceived by others, as I generally work completely from instinct and hope that I’m somehow reflecting the time accurately. I feel immense pleasure when I manage to get a few that do justice, but I have a lot of failures. What do I photograph and what do I leave out? All of it is important to depict scenes and complex, intricate lives with total transparency and urgency. But when telling stories sometimes you have to leave a lot out that matters. Why? And what to leave out? Is it ok to eliminate information or images that are just too hard to look at, too personal? Is the subject matter too polarizing? Will someone get upset, will the work be categorized as too difficult, thereby increasing the likelihood that fewer people will be exposed to the images and story? I find that there’s tremendous urgency in these images, because more people are finding themselves lost on the street, and many of them seem to be there because of an inability to be diagnosed or treated for mental illness and developmental disabilities.
How do I say that Little Bit gave up smoking K2 for nearly two joyous months only to completely relapse, that she now has a room in a managed living situation and doesn’t have to sleep on the street, but that her intense addiction is jeopardizing her placement? That her mental illness is intensifying and preventing family from even the most basic knowledge of her status and location? That the abscess on her leg may end her life and result in another amputation because she is terrified of the hospital? That when she does go to the hospital she is often left feeling degraded by condescending attitudes and dismissive, callous commentary by hospital staff about her lifestyle, staff that should understand the mental health complexities and resulting disabilities that incapacitate so many people living on the street? Do people really want to know about the episodes of copious, uncontrollable vomiting in public places that K2 ingestion causes? The horrible weight loss? The head lice, chronic and entrenched, whose activity on her scalp elicit horrifying hallucinations brought on by the combination of heroin, meth and K2? I’m debating even now as I write this….should I clean this up?
Should I say that we are all responsible for the mental health crisis in the United States and the travesty on our streets is because we don’t really want to know? We have completely discarded a segment of the population that is unable to exhibit basic self care, grappling blindly with disability that cripples insight and the execution of the most simple life plan.
Little Bit has a family that cares about her deeply, loves her and misses her. She does not have to be outdoors, or in a shelter. She is the victim of a society that does not truly understand the depth of despair that she suffers each day as a result of mental illness, or the desperation of families unable to secure basic services to help children and adolescents at risk. Early interventions that should be easily accessible to all people regardless of income are in fact nonexistent, or very nearly so.
I believe more people want to feel and understand these multi-layered stories and that the number of people who want more are vastly underestimated. That’s a problem, a really huge one, because we desperately need our media to reflect the reality of our times. It’s hard for photographers to be simultaneously politically correct, honest, unbiased and fearless if we have to worry about keeping things palatable and suited to a general audience, a vast miscalculation that undermines the viewer’s ability to gain a more complex, layered appreciation of life in the United States and elsewhere. A general audience that has a genuine desire for knowledge and wants very much to be allowed to make up their own minds about what they see and how to feel about what is presented.
I’m often completely immersed in the visual juxtapositions, elements of physicality in the images that bring meaningful clarity and irony or humor or dissonance together in some way. Whatever I’m thinking or seeing at the time. What’s right in front of me, immediate and compelling. I never think about how to sell or market my images, and that’s a problem. I don’t consider anything other than the mechanics involved with creating the images. Lately I find that I’m saving pictures, waiting longer periods before showing them, hanging on and retaining privacy in order to better understand what it is that I’m trying to say.
Images from Little Bit’s world.
I think that I’m able to photograph people because, for whatever reason, they are a version of themselves in the moment that is accepted gratefully, carefully and completely noted and preserved in a picture. Whether it’s a beautiful image or a rough one….it works for us both similarly I think. Particular people seem to bring about my best work because of the way they make me feel about myself as I’m working. Some of my worst pictures happened because I felt bad about myself in the circumstances I was in while attempting to make photographs. Huge fails that stay with me for absurdly long periods.
Who I am when I’m with the people I photograph stays with me and is hugely beneficial on days when I don’t like myself or I’m burdened with something I can’t change….or I don’t make a picture that’s everything it could have been.
What version of someone do I find when immersed in a long term essay or series? I don’t like describing my work in this somewhat detached manner, it’s so much more than a photo “project” and I never think in these terms, but I do find the unfortunate necessity to speak at times using these terms. It’s not really possible for me to identify my work or images in this manner, and describing my pictures as a project is not really satisfying or accurate.
Versions of Little Bit…..who she is and how she is being summarized when she is photographed is never the same twice.
The nature of the person I encounter has changed over the few years I’ve been photographing Little Bit. She is her best version sometimes and on the days when she is far from her best she is increasingly unknown, unseen and impossible to reach.
I think more and more about the people I’ve seen around 34th Street who were once solidly fixed to a spot, but who have since disappeared. Something will remind me of a face and I’ll have the memory briefly and then I move on, forgetting completely as I move down 34th Street looking for a picture.