Community, Addiction, and Life on The Street
Despite its almost utopian image as a hub for science, education and culture, Boston hosts a profound dichotomy that penetrates every sector of society. This dichotomy takes many forms. Public housing next to luxury condos. A sharp racial divide economically, politically, geographically. Progressively varnished, and yet a government swayed by private interests. Rich history and culture, and the slow encroachment of gentrification. Boston remains a city divided amongst itself in almost every aspect.
The focus of this work take part in a small section of the city. A microcosm of a larger problem, but distinct in that it takes place within this self proclaimed Northeastern utopia. Severe suffering in the brick city juxtaposed against the gilded one. The area in no more than a quarter square mile in size. Its borders aren’t fixed, social and environmental factors turn it into something nebulous. It roughly occupies the area where the rapidly gentrifying brownstone neighborhood of the South End becomes the poorer, more working class neighborhood inhabited historically by the city’s people of color in Roxbury.
South of the Boston Medical Center, where Massachusetts Ave intersects with Melina Cass Boulevard is the artery of this area, a major thoroughfare, jutting through an industrial area: A McDonalds, two gas stations, a car wash, a City of Boston fire station, a trucking depot, a u-haul storage and truck rental, a Best Western, several blocks of apartments, a Chinese bulk food store, enterprise car rental, lumber warehouse, mechanic shop, The Universal Church, a taxi dispatch, a food packing plant, and a Standard Electric.
Also finding a home in this small patch of land is the largest safety-net hospital and level 1 trauma center in New England, the Boston Medical Center, the office of the Chief Medical Examiner (morgue), several shelters, methadone clinics, and needle exchanges. Down a ways one can pass the Greater Boston Food Bank, on their way to the Suffolk County House of Corrections, and then up the street past individuals trying to survive and ward off withdrawals. One can get an abscess lanced at the BMC walk across the street to receive clean needles. Syringes are crushed underfoot as one walks to receive their Methadone.
Patagonia laden students walk briskly past groups using on the street on their way to the Boston University Medical School. BMW and Mercedes will whip suboxone wrappers into the air like fall leaves as they drive home to their Brownstones. Someone is thrusting stolen goods into the air to sell, while churchgoers thrust brown paper sacks of food into hands. Frostbite, blood infections, stab wounds, stitches, hypothermia, abscesses, narcan, heroin, crack, sirens, knuckles on sternum, fentanyl, saline, rigs, knives, human waste behind dumpsters, vomit on the Mass Ave connector. This is life for many on Mass Ave. For most looking in, it is despair, hopelessness and a public health crisis. It is statistics and abstract. “Junkies” “Fiends” “Crackheads” a regrettable affliction on the cityscape, but one that is nonetheless, passed off as a problem in another world. Dehumanized through jeers out of the car, treatment from shelter staff, warrant checks and police sweeps, the community of individuals experiencing homelessness and addiction has been reduced to something other than human by the community at large. A nebulous group, a problem, a headline, a stain, a statistic. Although Massachusetts is relatively progressive, the actions of the state and city have shown they feel that this
community of individuals experiencing homeless and addiction deserves a distinct treatment, one reserved for something that isn’t human.
Therein, lies the attempt at this project. In a two pronged approach, I try to document the very real, very graphic horrors and struggles of life on the street for this community. To throw open the shutters on this phenomena; one that has been arrested, demonized and finally pushed into the margins and periphery of the city. The other attempt is to try and bring humanity to the individuals who all too often express the
same lament: “they treat us like animals”. To peel away the label of “addict” and “homeless” to reveal the dignity, humility, honesty, warmth, love, integrity, and an astonishing capacity for reflection and resilience found in this community.
I am not a formally trained photographer, but in trying to assume the role, I attempt to walk a fine line between professionalism and fostering a relationship of trust and intimacy. At the outset, I thought the two were mutually exclusive, but as this project progressed, I quickly rid myself of the clinical attitude that many can put between the camera and their subject. A clinical and sterile approach to this project simply would not have sufficed (nor as it should for most photojournalism) as the community had to often been subjected to a downward or distanced gaze – whether leered at from a distance with morbid curiosity by passersby, or poked and probed up close as if undergoing a living autopsy. My desire to be both physically and emotionally close with the community was attempted to be reflected through the photographs themselves. I shot exclusively with 50mm or 28mm lens so as to force myself to become intimate in every sense of the word. Often times I found myself being asked to move out of the sunlight, bumping into people, hearing needles and debris crunch underfoot. Despite the intimacy, I grappled, and continue to grapple with, the ethics and power dynamics this project presented. My work was with a populace who had been neglected, mistreated and damaged by the system and population at large. A people who were truly living on the margins of society. Was my work exploitative? Was, and am I, a photographer? Or do I peddle in poverty pornography? I know I’m not beholden to the
same standards as an anthropologist, or social worker, but that begs the question: Am I really being a voice or am I simply a guy with a camera and a platform they do not possess?
I recall an anecdote (multiple anecdotes) from individuals that recount stories of people who would take pictures on their phones from moving cars, or a photographer from a local newspaper who was almost (rightfully so) physically reprimanded, for taking pictures without consent. I think of the Netflix show “Dope” that featured the same stretch of area this project takes place, and the work they produced. All of those instances capture the same phenomena, and yet when its reproduced, it’s done so with a different narrative. The “Zombie” narrative, the “scoop” narrative, the “entertainment” narrative. What is the narrative of this project, and did the community I’m working with have enough say in shaping their own narrative? What does it say that the individuals depicted in the photographs, would likely be barred entry from a gallery featuring them?
Whose gaze is this even for? It’s really for people on Massachusetts Avenue who are dope sick, doing sex work, lancing an abcess, still missing their jugular after the fourth time, or simply feel that their experience, one that is often peripheral, has been ignored and obscured.