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 I believe people living in misery should not be hidden. Even though I cannot walk in a homeless person's shoes, I am capable of empathy and understanding. 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 and 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 photographers include photos that may skew the truth a bit because we like them and they conform to the current thinking about “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. In an astonishingly bad instance of urban planing, a new “Plaza” was built that has not been used for almost two years. The old cement tables and chairs were bulldozed and $460,00 was spent to build a Plaza that looks like a cage. It’s a triangle about the size of a large living room, surrounded by a large iron fence with a gate and key. Inside is a cement pad with a tiny border of plants and no place for anyone to sit. The neighborhood "community" the city gathered to help plan the new Plaza, abandoned it after it was built. And no wonder: the addicts and dealers it was designed to kick out didn’t just disappear — they moved to the sidewalks.
A much needed community grocery story is finally being built on Filbert Street so maybe the addicts will be forced to leave. But when they do, there will be this expensive cement triangle, surrounded by a fence, designed to keep people out.
I APPROACHED THE ADDICTS AND EX-GANGSTERS who re-grouped on Filbert Street because they were older and I figured they were probably tired of fighting and aggression. I photographed a few who seemed friendly and came back to give them portraits, and I kept coming back because I fell in love with their faces. It was also fun to be welcomed as "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. I even had a dream one night that I said "yes" to an offer of crack.
After a year or so of taking portraits, my journalistic background kicked in 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 can be 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. But if they were clothed, fed, and taken to school like the other kids, that was enough. They had friends like them and 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 coo. The girls fell for the cool baby daddys who ended up leaving them. Several of the grandmothers smoking crack on Filbert Street said they were pregnant when they were 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.) I bought a new camera and started photographing again until - two months later - I was mugged a second time, not on Filbert Street but in a nearby homeless camp.
My takeaway from all this is that although some people are “bad” it’s because they are either mentally ill or have nothing to lose. Mostly we human beings are pretty much the same. We all have loved and want to be loved. We all have tried to understand the world around us and we all want to be understood. We all want to have some kind of independence and dignity. When I ask the folks 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.