While cruising Kensington Avenue in his black sedan, photojournalist and creator of blog Kensington Blues Jeffrey Stockbridge spots a prostitute he shot this winter and pulls over to the curb. The slender blond woman recognizes him immediately and jumps up, excited to see the prints.
Things have not been going so well for her since they last talked, she says. It's Mother's Day and business is slow. Her t-shirt is studded with small holes from cleaning her glass crack pipe. She's been drinking a lot and shooting three bags of cocaine at a time, up from one. Area dealers have been spiking the drug with the local anesthetic Lidocaine, which crystallizes in injectors' veins and must be pulled from the skin like shards of glass, she said.
Over the past few months, the woman has spent time in jail, discovered the body of her roommate – dead of endocarditis – and moved in with her pimp, who she speaks of with both fear and admiration. "He's the only family I have," she says. But she doesn't want to know what would happen if she were to anger him.
She recently moved back from New Jersey, where she made better money – on the Avenue, the going rate is just $20 to $30 per trick – because drugs are more plentiful here. She estimates that, once she makes the funds, she can have a needle in her arm in a minute or less.
"Are we taking more pictures today?" she asks, striking a pose in front of a graffitied wall. Stockbridge loads film slides into his four by five camera and snaps away, then tells her to get something to drink to soothe her dry, hacking cough. "You're dehydrated," he says. "The beer only makes your throat drier."
Soon curious onlookers gather, some simply wanting to know what is going on, many wanting to be included. They are taken with the photographer's candid, affable manner and the quiet respect with which he treats those who have often been villainized, misunderstood or overlooked altogether.
Stockbridge records a down-on-his-luck man who washes car windows, an elderly lifer who has dreams of buying a house in Port Richmond and a young man blaring music from his convertible. "You see how important it is, every little interaction," Stockbridge says. "Through direct interactions, I learn, person by person, about the larger ills in society."
"My goal is to create a very realistic portrayal of life along the Avenue. It's about realism through art. When you have something so graphic to the wider community, you use beauty to communicate things that are not so beautiful."
Perhaps that explains the widespread appeal of his work documenting the daily struggle behind the curtain of the El, which has been making waves from London galleries to Time Magazine. Photo vignettes of stick-thin women and grizzled men, arms pocked by scabs and needle marks, are accompanied by audio transcriptions or journal entries chronicling their life stories in their own words.
"The human condition, in my opinion, is being able to feel compassion for another person. It's about feeling united to people from all different walks of life, from all different backgrounds," Stockbridge said. "It's about that fundamental bind."
Abandoned buildings, abandoned souls
Stockbridge, who studied photography at Drexel University, began the work for Kensington Blues in 2008 following a long term project shooting abandoned properties. "I started photographing vacant houses – I moved every year during college and I was fascinated with the number of vacant properties in Philadelphia," he said. But soon, it was the people who lived and frequented the properties that caught his attention, and he decided to get to know them.
"I remember feeling nervous at first," he said, recalling his first interview. "I remember feeling like an outsider. But then I remember just by talking to them, any barriers between us disappeared and I remember getting to know about different people by sharing about myself."
Stockbridge said that sometimes it takes an entire day just to get one story. He drives up and down the Avenue and stops when he sees something of interest. "It's as much a look as it is a feeling," he said. "It's what I'm drawn to – it could be anything at all, the reason for me wanting to stop long enough to get out and communicate with somebody. You've got to just trust your gut."
"You may have a preconceived notion about what you're going to get into, but you're almost always wrong," he said. "It absolutely gets turned on its head."
That was illustrated this past winter, when Stockbridge was present at a different kind of shooting while setting up his camera to photograph the El. "I heard three gunshots," he said. "I turned around and saw somebody get shot in the back of the head," demurring to spend too much time on the topic. "You hear about how many drug-related shootings there are in the city each year. I saw one. Imagine if you saw every single one of them."
More than shock value
After initial reactions to the site's stark, often shocking images of addiction and poverty subside, the question that remains is "why?" Why do these lost men and women, who are more often than not deeply embedded in the illegal economy, bare their souls to a stranger for public consumption? And why is said public so eager consume, with excerpts featuring photos and stories of the worn, battle-scarred subjects reaching as far as British tabloid The Daily Mail.
While the answers to both questions are complex, the former is probably a little easier than the latter: the stories go untold simply because, generally, no one asks. "Everybody wants a friend. A lot of people I meet, when was the last time somebody asked them how they were doing? I think it offers a release to be able to talk to someone. You feel like you're important, like you're not going to be forgotten. People want to be heard."
"They want that picture for documentation and self-reflection. They want to be able to compare where they were with where they are now," he said. "I find it interesting to see how everybody makes it, how everybody gets by. I photograph things I'm interested in, things I want to learn about. If people were only interested in models or beautiful women, the world would be a dull place."
Snapshots of history
"I hope to be more than a blog 10 to 20 years from now," Stockbridge said. "I really see this as a book. Photography is something you can communicate in different ways to many people. In 10 to 20 years, people, I hope it's something people can learn from, something that reaches people."
"You can't say with a project like this," he said when asked about its expected duration. "I think it's something I can photograph forever, but I probably won't. ... You get a feeling when a project is finished. You have to step back and look at the photos and see if you're saying something. I'm never going to stop going out, photographing and meeting people, but it might not be on Kensington Avenue."
Though Stockbridge may eventually leave the Avenue, it's likely that many of his subjects will not, though they will be forever immortalized in his pictures, frozen in a neighborhood where time moves at its own pace, with a speed that is glacial and breakneck at the same time. "It's the kind of place that pulls you back," the young prostitute says to me in an aside. "This place is like a whole other drug itself."
All photos courtesy www.jeffreystockbridge.com.