I KNOW SOME PEOPLE THINK A WHITE WOMAN should not be attempting to document a group of mostly sad, older, black crack addicts, but I'm doing it because it needs to be done; people living in misery should not be hidden. Get to know any of the folks I've photographed here (most of whom grew up in West Oakland) and some basic human response will kick in: you will want to help. Even though we cannot walk in another person's shoes, even if we have never seen the shoes, we are all capable of understanding and empathy. I may not be able to 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 documentary photography. Do we exploit people or give them voice? Do we stigmatize people or reveal them? And how can we keep insisting we are telling the truth when we know most truths are socially constructed? 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 we need compelling narratives. We leave out a lot of truths.
I STARTED THIS PROJECT after the city closed down a tiny urban park where the addicts and dealers of West Oakland's "Ghostown" had hung out for more than 30 years. The city ripped up the old cement tables and chairs and built a new park it named "St Andrews Plaza." It's a triangle about the the size of a large living room that now looks like a kind of jail. It's surrounded by an iron fence with a gate and key and inside is a cement pad, a few plants, and no place for anyone to sit. The neighborhood "community" that asked the city to clean up the park was supposed to come up with cool things to do in it. But that didn't happen. The Plaza is just sitting there, never open, because the the dealers and addicts are still there, just outside, on the sidewalks.
I APPROACHED THE OLDER ADDICTS on Filbert Street because we have our age in common and the wisdom to know nothing good comes from fighting and aggression. I photographed a few folk who seemed friendly, and came back to give them prints, and then I kept on coming back because I fell in love with their faces. After a few months I was welcomed as "The Picture Lady." It wasn't a great scene on Filbert Street: I heard a lot of arguments and craziness. But it wasn't all misery; people are often happy when they are high; I began to have dreams of saying yes to crack.
After a year or so of taking portraits, my journalistic background kicked in and I wanted to get a closer look. So I got out my recorder, announced I would pay $20 for a story, and that was when I started hearing things I could not make beautiful. Not with good light or Photoshop. 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; but if they were clothed, fed, and taken to school like the other kids, that was enough. Things changed when they were teenagers. Most ran away from their homes, often for reasons they still can't explain. The boys needed money and thought they could get some by being cool and selling drugs, and the girls fell hard for their cool baby daddies. But coolness doesn't translate into money or power and so it is that most of the people on Filbert Street are penniless.
I'M NOT SAYING 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 well and just one who couldn't make it. Maybe you got your son into the military; maybe you helped your 14 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 these folks, and I sympathize with the neighbors who want them to leave. I felt completely safe for the first year I was on Filbert Street but in March of 2018 I was mugged. My camera was ripped off my neck. Then, six weeks later I was mugged again, this time in a nearby homeless camp. Still, the interviews remind me that emotionally there is not that much difference between all of us human beings. When I ask anyone on Filbert Street what is the most important thing in their life, they say their children and grandchildren. All of them have someone who loves them and prays for them and will take them in if they get clean. All of them want to get off drugs. No one wants to be an addict.