I KNOW SOME PEOPLE THINK A WHITE WOMAN should not be attempting to document a group of mostly sad, older, black crack addicts; who am I to tell their stories? But I'm attempting to do it because I like to explore worlds other than my own, and because even though I cannot walk in another person's shoes, even if I've never seen the shoes, I am capable of understanding and empathy. I may not be able to see all sides of a person or a story, but if I take enough time I will run headfirst 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? Do we ignore realities that aren't compelling visually? And how can we keep insisting we are telling the truth when we know most truths are socially constructed?Truths inevitably change. 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 than "spinning" it. We need narrative arcs, with beginning, middles and ends.
And here's another problem for this work in particular: The typical prize-winning image of an addict is the one all of us have seen: a person surrounded by needles looking not completely human. No one wins a prize for photographing an addict eating breakfast unless it's accompanied by more sensational shots of misery.
Outrage is another reason I came to the sidewalks of Filbert Street. People living in misery should not be hidden. Get to know any of the folks I've photographed and something about being human will kick in: You will want to help.
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 named "St Andrews Plaza" which is about the size of a large living room and looks, now, like a kind of jail. It's surrounded by a tall iron fence with a gate and key and inside is a cement pad, a few small rocks, a border of plants, and no place for anyone to sit. The neighborhood "community" that asked the city to clean up the park was supposed to keep it open and come up with cool things to do in it. But no one came up with anything because the drugs users and dealers didn't leave. The dealers moved to the San Pablo Boulevard side of the Plaza and the older addicts, the ones who had grown up in the neighborhood during the crack epidemic of the '80s and '90s, moved to the sidewalks on Filbert Street.
Almost unbelievably, this jail-like Plaza cost $460,000 to design and build. (See a picture of it in this gallery.) A landscaping company got $75,000 to design it and a construction company got $250,000 to build it and who knows where the rest of the money went. I've asked a lot of private developers how much they would charge to design and build the Plaza and they all say for sure under $50,000
I APPROACHED THE OLDER ADDICTS FIRST because we have our age in common and the wisdom to know nothing good comes from fighting and aggression. I photographed a few people who seemed friendly and came back to find them and give them some beautifully printed black-and-white portraits of themselves. I kept on coming back because I fell in love with their faces and liked being welcomed as "The Picture Lady." It wasn't a great scene on Filbert Street: I heard a lot of arguments and some vivid street dialogue 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, I began to record some of the life-histories of the regulars because I wanted to find out more about them. A photograph can be worth a thousand words...or a thousand deceptions. And that was when I heard things I could not make beautiful. Addiction is ugly. Abuse in all of its forms is ugly. Guilt is ugly. Deep poverty is ugly. Addicts are not pretty 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 power and so it is that most of the people in this gallery are penniless and miserable unless they are high.
Click on the Photo to enter the Gallery
Eddie Franklin after I asked him to dance. He says he has a degree in engineering and once worked at Xerox Park.
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. And maybe that one kid did hold a job for awhile, but something made them give up and fall for hard drugs. Maybe you got your son into the military and helped raise your daughter's baby. Maybe you prayed for your children as hard as you could — and still ended up having to kick them out of the house.
I HAVE NO SOLUTION TO THE CITY'S PROBLEM with these folks, and I sympathize with the neighbors who want them to leave. A lot of the addicts are mentally ill and most think nothing of petty theft. I felt completely safe for the first three years I was on Filbert Street but in the last two months I have been mugged twice, my camera ripped off my neck. I worry now that because everyone knows how much my cameras are worth I may not be able to return unless I hire some kind of bodyguard. Still, my interviews remind me that there is not that much difference between them and me. When I ask anyone on Filbert Street what is the most important thing in their life, they say, like I do, their families: their children and grandchildren. And all have someone who still loves and prays for them and will take them in if they get off drugs. We know that childhood trauma makes a brain more susceptible to drugs so, there may not be much hope. Most have gotten off drugs in jail or prison and gone right back to the street. A few have stayed off drugs for years until a terrible loss brought them back.
DOROTHEA LANGE WROTE THIS IN 1954, to describe why she chose to photograph people she called "The Walking Wounded," and I think it also explains why I have chosen to photograph the folks on Filbert Street.
I am trying here to say something
About the despised, the defeated,
About the wounded, the crippled,
The helpless, the rootless,
About duress and trouble
About the last ditch."