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December 23, 2016

Kensington Blues: Photographer tells the stories of addicts on 'The Avenue'

Photography Drugs
Jeffrey Stockbridge Kensington Blues Daniel Craig/PhillyVoice

Photographer Jeffrey Stockbridge at his studio on 11th Street near Vine Street. Stockbridge has spent the last eight years documenting the people along Kensington Avenue in a blog called Kensington Blues. On the wall behind him are some of the photos he's taken over the years.

What more is there to say about Kensington Avenue?

The thoroughfare that runs diagonally through its namesake neighborhood for about three miles under the El has been the subject of national headlines for years. Known as an open marketplace for drug use and transactions, it's long been the poster child for the city's growing heroin epidemic.

In November, nearly 50 people died from overdoses in Kensington and surrounding sections of North Philadelphia. Tragically, that is not atypical for these neighborhoods.

Jeffrey Stockbridge originally is from outside Baltimore, but he likes to say he's from Philly, having lived here for the last 15 years. He's spent the past eight years giving a face and voice to those struggling to get by on "The Avenue."

His blog, Kensington Blues, has followed a simple formula since the first post in 2011: Unleash each individual's power of storytelling via photographs, journal entries and their own words. In a neighborhood often defined by sobering statistics, Kensington Blues is a reminder that each number has a name. 

What more is there to say about Kensington Avenue? Those who spend their days on the strip have plenty to add. 

Jeffrey Stockbridge/Kensington Blues

Shannon is pictured in Harrowgate Park along with an image of a blog post she wrote for Kensington Blues in 2011.

You just have to ask.

Stockbridge's journey to Kensington begins in West Philadelphia, where as a senior photography student at Drexel, he documented the interiors of abandoned buildings. In those buildings he met people, who soon became the focus of his pictures. Eventually he met a woman named Millie, who was working at a crack house near 40th and Aspen streets. She said she got her start on Kensington Avenue, so Stockbridge began photographing there in 2008.

"This was just another opportunity for me to use a photographic license to go explore," Stockbridge said. "And to go see a way of life that I didn’t know much about."

Stockbridge doesn't make "sweeping generalizations" about Kensington or the people he has talked to and photographed. He's not the person to tell you what Kensington is and isn't, he stressed. But there's no mistaking some of what he's seen.

"A lot of the people I met along 'The Avenue' are in pretty dire situations, you know, struggling to survive, trying to stay well, avoid dope sickness (withdrawal), have enough money to get a place to sleep at night," he said. "So you know they’re going through some pretty real, intense s***, that a lot of people don’t even think about."

Stockbridge shot photos in Kensington for three years before starting his blog. He felt "overwhelmed" by all the material he had gathered, he said, and needed a way to organize it, get it out to the world and maybe get some feedback.

Kensington Blues was born.

Jeffrey Stockbridge/Kensington Blues

Ishmael pictured in the Lehigh Viaduct in 2012.

Stockbridge uses a 4x5 film camera – an intentionally laborious tool. On an avenue often filled with frenzied activity, the camera slows everything down. A tripod is required, and subjects have to stand relatively still in order for a proper portrait to be taken. It's not digital, so subjects can't see their pictures right away, a "good thing," Stockbridge said.

The long process needed to set up a photo gives Stockbridge the opportunity to have a conversation with the subject of his portrait. Most importantly, "every person I photographed, here, was a willing subject. I wasn’t able to make a photograph of somebody without them knowing or without them wanting."

The result is a humanization of those who aren't often given the time of day, a stark contrast to the exploitative tragedy porn videos of addicts overdosing that are released by law enforcement agencies under the guise of anti-drug PSAs.

Stockbridge said he felt lucky to have the people featured in the blog open up to him, to give them an outlet. The stories that come from his interviews run the gamut. There's Sarah, who lost everything in the span of a few years, resorting to prostitution to support a drug habit. There's Tom, who struggled to keep a job because he couldn't stay clean. There's Rachel and Pat, who don't see a way out of their situation, even if they stay off of drugs.

"They’re going through so much," Stockbridge said. "When’s the last time anybody asked them how their day was?"

Jeffrey Stockbridge/Kensington Blues

In a photo taken outside the McPherson Square Library on Kensington Avenue in 2012, one man uses a needle to shoot heroin into another man.

What's stricken Stockbridge the most about the people he's talked to is how self-aware they are. He interviewed a woman named Krista on Kensington Avenue in 2009. After looking through some of Stockbridge's photos, she noted how many of his subjects looked depressed, which was something she didn't relate to.

"I, I’m not at that point anymore where I’m just like, Oh I’m depressed, I’m a drug addict, you know what I mean?" Krista said at the time. "I know right from wrong and I know I can’t let things that happened to me in the past let, decide the way I live my life today. Right now I’m just, right now I’m just f***ing up because I don’t care."

Five years later, Krista reached out to Stockbridge after seeing the post about her on his blog. She had gotten clean and wanted to talk, wanted to let others know that somebody "had gotten through."

"Like I told you, when I look at these pictures it’s like, I don’t even know that person; it’s so weird," she told Stockbridge in 2014. "I didn’t feel sorry for myself, I didn’t want other people to feel sorry for me. I knew what I was doing was wrong and that I was killing myself, I just didn’t care, you know?"

Jeffrey Stockbridge/Kensington Blues

Krista is pictured on the left in 2009 and again on the right in 2014 after stopping using drugs.

While Krista's turnaround is uplifting, there are plenty of people Stockbridge has seen go in the opposite direction, who one day look healthy, "and then a couple years go by, and you see they lost 50 pounds and they’ve got scars all over their arms."

But all of the stories — positive and negative — have a purpose, Stockbridge believes. He said he's gotten emails from people who formerly got high on "The Avenue" that tell him the blog reminded them not to go back.

"If you find a way to expose the truth of a situation that’s misunderstood, it can have a really positive effect," Stockbridge said.

"And it’s not my place to say whether it’s right or wrong, or whether you should or shouldn’t. I’m just in a way holding up a mirror, and trying to expose a truth that’s hidden."

Kensington Blues published its final post on Dec. 8 accompanied by a short video. A book is in the works, scheduled for a spring 2017 release. Ten percent of the sales will go to Prevention Point Philadelphia, a non-profit that provides drug treatment and social services.

The book, which you can pre-order online, will have a more cohesive narrative than the blog, as Stockbridge is trying to put together a linear organization to the portraits, landscapes, journal entries and audio transcripts he's compiled. But the main takeaway is the same: In a neighborhood that's been generalized quite a bit, everyone's story is unique.

"Everybody’s ... battling their own personal demons, and trying to survive," Stockbridge said. "It’s about the lengths to which they will continue to suffer, but also continue to be strong at the same time."