I KNOW SOME PEOPLE THINK A WHITE WOMAN should not be attempting to document a group of older, black crack addicts, but I'm doing it in this gallery because it needs to be done; people living in misery should not be hidden. Even though I cannot walk in a homeless person's shoes, I am capable of understanding and empathy. As an outsider I may not see all sides of a story but if I take enough time I will run head-first into a lot of them. A more difficult problem, I think, is the bias inherent in all documentary photography. How can we keep insisting we are telling the truth when we know most truths are socially constructed? When we know truths change over time? I was a magazine writer and editor in my former life so I know that "shaping" a story, whether it's literary or visual, is not that much different from "spinning" it. We cut things out because our stories can't be too complicated. We add things in because they need to make a point. In the case of photographers we include photos that may not tell a truth because we think they will be recognized as "Art."
I STARTED THIS PROJECT after the city closed down a tiny urban park where the addicts and dealers of West Oakland's "Ghostown" hung out for more than 30 years. The city ripped up the old cement tables and chairs and spent an almost obscene $460,00 to build a new park, one it named "St Andrews Plaza." It is a triangle about the size of a large living room and from the street it looks like a cage. It's surrounded by a large iron fence with a gate and key and inside is a new cement pad with a small border of plants and no place for anyone to sit. The neighborhood "community" that the city got to help plan the new park, abandoned it after it was built, probably because the addicts and dealer it was designed to kick out, didn't just disappear. They are still there, on the sidewalks.
I APPROACHED THE ADDICTS AND EX-GANGSTERS who re-grouped on Filbert Street because if figured that if they were older, they were probably tired of fighting and aggression. I photographed a few who seemed friendly and came back to give them some portraits of themselves, and I kept coming back because I fell in love with their faces. It was also fun to be welcomed into a new culture and nicknamed "The Picture Lady." It wasn't a great scene — I heard a lot of arguments and craziness — but it wasn't all misery. People can be happy when they are high; they can be full of good cheer and sidewalk philosophy. I even had a dream where I said "yes" to a crack pipe.
After a year or so of taking portraits, my journalistic background kicked in: I had never believed believe a picture is worth a thousand words so I got out my recorder, announced I would pay $20 for a story, and started hearing things I could not make beautiful. Not with the right light, not with the perfect moment, not with a smile or a nod. Addiction is ugly. Abuse in all of its forms is ugly. Guilt is ugly. Deep poverty is ugly. Addicts are ugly parents. But we are all innocent when we are born and many of the addicts insisted they were happy growing up simply because someone — a mother or grandmother — took care of them. Their mother could be an alcoholic and get crazy at night; their father could be in and out of prison; they could have seen family members shooting up and smoking crack, but if they were clothed, fed, and taken to school like the other kids, that was enough. They had a mother or grandmother who loved them. Things changed when they were teenagers. Most ran away from their homes, often for reasons they can't fully explain. The boys needed money and thought they could get some by selling drugs and being cool; the girls fell hard for the cool boys who ended up leaving them. Several of the grandmothers I talked to on Filbert Street said they were pregnant when they were still in middle school. All had been raped, some sadistically.
I'M SAYING MOST, BUT NOT ALL of the families of these addicts were dysfunctional. If you were a poor, black, working mother in West Oakland and your kid didn't do well in school it was hard to keep him or her off the street. Maybe you had three kids who turned out OK and just one who couldn't make it. Maybe you got your son into the military; maybe you helped your 13 year old daughter raise her baby; maybe you prayed as hard as you could. And still, in the end, you had to kick your own child out of your house.
I have no solution to the city's problem with the dealers and addicts who are still on Filbert Street and I sympathize with the neighbors who want them to leave. I felt completely safe there for a over a year, even with my expensive camera hanging on my neck, but in March of 2018 I was mugged by a young man I never saw. He yanked my camera strap off me so hard I fell down and broke my two front teeth. I heard he went to jail a few weeks later because in a fight with his baby mama he dropped their infant baby. Then, as if that wasn't enough, two months later I was mugged again, this time in a nearby homeless camp — one I knew instantly was dangerous. Still, the interviews I've had with all of people we see as miserable and despised, keep reminding me that we human beings are mostly alike. We all have loved and we all want to be loved. We all want to be understood. We all want to have some kind of independence. When I ask the people on Filbert Street what is the most important thing in their lives, they all say the same thing: their children and grandchildren. And they are not completely alone. There is always some family member who loves them and prays for them and will take them in… if they get clean.