“The city serves as a microcosm to discuss issues tearing apart the fabric of our social landscape,” says photographer Jordan Baumgarten of his most recent series of work, Good Sick, a candid documentation of the current opioid crisis sweeping across the US, confronting the stark realities of addiction via its effects in his hometown, Philadelphia – where drug-related deaths are estimated to have reached 1,200 in 2017, surpassing the rate of AIDS-related mortalities in the early 1990s.
Having moved back to Philadelphia in 2013, photographer Jordan Baumgarten was horrified by what he saw around him. A nexus for heroin users and prostitution, the photographer saw a community broken by addiction and lacking any distinct policing or help, other than simply moving those effected to different parts or town – either through law enforcement or gentrification.
Taken on a series of walks between the winter of 2012 and the spring of 2017, the images give grounding and context to a marginalised area of Philadelphia – and thus communicate the wider concerns at stake. Crucially, the inquisitive energy of the images reflects an intimate human connection with the subjects, as Baumgarten steps away from a didactic – and often apathetic – rendering of the opioid crisis.
Aïsha Diomandé: Can you tell us more about your history with Philadelphia?
Jordan Baumgarten: I was born here in 1983, but I grew up fifteen minutes outside of the city in New Jersey. My dad’s office was in the middle of Philadelphia and I grew up as a skater kid, coming into the city to skateboard all the time. Then when I was eighteen, I moved into the city, lived here from eighteen until graduate school, left, and then came back. So, it’s a really important place, but it’s also a place where I met my wife and we got married here, so everything important in my life – creativity and through interpersonal relationships and experiences – has all been here. I was never able to make work here when I was younger, besides my asshole friends falling off their skateboards! I couldn’t make pictures here at all and it actually took leaving for a couple of years and coming back to be able to see it through a new lens – or just a lens at all! So, that’s my relationship to this place.
AD: And why did you feel compelled to document your surroundings?
JB: I never walk into a situation and think, “This is going to be a photography project!” or like, “Oh man, I should make work about this!” The impetus for work comes from being genuinely curious or confused about something. The nature about photography demands that you are standing in front of something in order to make a picture of it. So photography gave me the excuse to go out and talk to people and maybe take some photographs, it came out of concern and confusion for what I saw going on in the neighbourhood, when I heard things like, “That’s where all the sex workers are,” and “That’s a big drug corner.” Seeing it is much different to hearing about it, and I wanted to understand what was going on here. A lot of the pictures were taken on a series of walks – the same walks, over and over again during the last five years.
AD: In recent years, how has the opioid crisis affected the neighbourhood?
JB: I didn’t want to show what the opioid epidemic looked like, because I feel like there’s a lot of work that has touched upon that – James Nachtwey just came out with that special Time magazine piece, which is super powerful. But I think that I was really inspired by what living here feels like, and what that looks like from the perspective of someone that lives here. It’s really weird, when we moved here in 2013 the block was filled with children and they were all amazing kids, they’d run up to the window while my dog had his head hanging out and they’d pat him– it was just a really beautiful place to be. But at the end of the block there was a really active drug corner and it was a little frightening to see the children amongst that, but we had an understanding with the guys at the end of the block, basically just don’t come down the block, don’t have the people that are buying our drugs come down the block, keep it on the corner. It was very respectful because nobody wakes up, and is like, “I want to sell heroin to people,” you know, life and circumstances arise because of many reasons. And there was mutual respect between them and us, and about how all that happened. Over the past five years what was a tough neighbourhood has now become one of the neighbourhoods that people flock to live, so everything in this area has ‘cleaned up’, and – as with most forms of gentrification – it tends to push the more vulnerable communities out into the periphery of the city. So our area doesn’t look like what it used to look like in that book. Now, further north it’s really sad, it’s where a lot of the heroin and prostitution happens, and it’s actually got worse. It’s gotten better in this neighbourhood, but not in the city as a whole – so I almost feel terrible for saying it has gotten better here because it’s just gotten shifted around.
“There were a lot of things I didn’t take pictures of because you’ve got to be a human being, that’s the most important thing.”
AD: There’s an interesting tension between chaos and calm, how did you deal with the dynamic between being the photographer and your subjects? At times, did you find yourself in a difficult position from an ethical point of view?
JB: I’m not a photojournalist and I’m not a documentary photographer, I’m just a photographer and I live here, and I’m a human being. If at the end of the day the motivation was photography always, for me it would be a shitty life. There was a rape that I intervened in, and that replays in my head over and over again. I didn’t make a picture of that. There were a lot of things I didn’t take pictures of because you’ve got to be a human being, that’s the most important thing. So there were some pictures that I had made that look extremely difficult, but they were while the situation was also being managed, you know, while the police were on the way or while the ambulance was on the way or someone was overdosing and I didn’t have Narcan with me, but I made sure that they were on their side, and they weren’t going to aspirate. None of those pictures got used. So there were a lot of images that were really difficult, that just aren’t good, and there were some pictures that were re-staged, because I didn’t make a picture, and the visuals of them were so cemented in my brain and I wanted to see what it would look like as a photograph, so I staged them. Even the staging of those photographs were difficult to look at, so those didn’t get seen either. Every situation is different, and it’s not like one big dogmatic rule – it’s just reacting to different situations.
“I’m interested in accessing people’s hearts, but I also want them to be really confused, because that’s kind of what I feel, meandering through this space.“
AD: In this case, you get the sense that the personal is political, as private moments are made public. Which photograph is the most significant to you?
JB: The private moment being made public is something that I was super interested in because, while that may be the figure and while that may be what it is, I’m interested in the circumstances that allow for all of these private moments to exist in public. What is going on in this world and this space… it seems this kind of lawlessness. In terms of the most significant pictures in the book, it’s probably the one of the sex worker getting dressed. You know, just thinking about her, and thinking about the world she exists in, and the child that’s going to come into that. I don’t know what that kid’s life is going to be like. So when I look at that picture, there’s the past, the present and the future – all within one frame. There’s something quite Madonna-like going on in that photograph.
AD: In light of this, what do you hope people will take away from your work?
JB: When I think about that photograph specifically [of the sex worker], I think about the familiarity of a pregnant woman getting dressed, and then just sort of take that out of context and relocate that. For me, it’s a very normal thing to be pregnant and to be dressed. But to relocate that, I think it messes up your expectations of what a pregnant woman getting dressed would be. So I think that bit of confusion that comes with the reading of that photograph, to me, is what is represented throughout the whole work. I want people to have an understanding of what this place is, but feel it in their soul, because there’s not a lot in the work that clearly communicates much of anything, it’s all kind of little vignettes strewn together that together create an idea of this place. I’m interested in accessing people’s hearts, but I also want them to be really confused, because that’s kind of what I feel, meandering through this space.
Good Sick is available now via GOST.