Book Review: Kensington Blues
Walking up and down Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia, even in broad daylight one can expect to see heroin, crack, and Xanax being sold pimps and sex workers awaiting their next sale, and even the occasional human defecation in broad daylight. The scenery of Kensington makes for easy b-roll news footage of the Opioid crisis; shots of abandoned buildings, prostitution, people staring forward without hope or any sense of light in their eyes. While these news reports do recognize the existence of the Opioid crisis and its effects, they often make the mistake of treating the residents of Kensington Avenue as stock characters, as if they were animals in a safari to be stared at and commented on from behind the safety of an armored car’s windows.
For more than ten years, Jeffrey Stockbridge has avoided making that same mistake. With his 4x5 film camera, notebooks, audio, and video recorders, Stockbridge documents the lives of Kensington residents. Over this time, he has uploaded many of the pictures and testimonies he has gathered together to his website, and in 2017 he self-published the book Kensington Blues as a compilation of the moments he and his subjects have created together.
Instead of setting himself apart from the people he photographs, Stockbridge walks the streets with those who suffer or have suffered addiction. The photos he takes allow us to view the subjects in a profound and ethereal way, creating haunting and beautiful images of each person with whom he works. Using the power of portraiture, Stockbridge creates sensitive depictions of humanity with his subjects, preventing the viewer from dismissing these individuals as “just another addict,” as happens all too often in conversations about addiction.
Not only do the photos in Kensington Blues allow for the individuality and personalities of his subjects to shine through, but almost every image in the book is also accompanied with a lengthy, often heartbreaking story told by the subject. The absolute rawness and vulnerability of each story is preserved as Stockbridge leaves in the verbal tics of society’s most vulnerable in his transcriptions of unedited taped confessions. As one sex worker recounts, “The only reason why we pros.. we are out here is so that we can get money.”
Each photo and each story is a collaboration to bring forth both the subject’s humanity and demons by the artists, both the subjects and the photographer himself. The emotions, histories, and nuances within the pages of Kensington Blues make it impossible for the reader to forget that these are human beings, each with their own interiority and agency; that there is a moral imperative to help them, and that as a society we need to drastically restructure both the causes of addiction and the mechanisms with which we provide to treat those addictions.