This project was singled out for distinction among the submissions to the LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2016 by juror Jean-Jacques Viau. Each juror selected one photographer to be awarded a special $1,000 grant—discover why this one stood out.
Below, we’ve included a short Q&A interview, conducted by LensCulture contributing writer Francesca Cronan, that reveals more about Stockbridge’s motivations and working methods in this powerfully street/documentary work:
LC: What led you to photograph Kensington Avenue?
JS: It started when I was a senior at Drexel—I was shooting inside abandoned houses in Philadelphia. I met a few interesting characters along the way who had some kind of connection to these neglected spaces. Eventually I decided to turn my lens away from interiors and towards people.
My first interaction with a prostitute was with a woman named Milly. She was turning tricks in a crackhouse I was photographing in West Philadelphia. Before meeting her I hadn’t fully understood the reality of prostitution. But confronted with it in this environment, where women were selling themselves for 20 dollars a day—making just enough money to get high—that was pretty raw. I hung out with Milly and took some photos. She explained that she got her start in Kensington, a neighbourhood I hadn’t been to before, so I went to scope it out.
The first time I drove up and down the avenue I was too scared to get out of the car. Women on every corner were making eyes at me because they thought I was going to pick them up. It was intimidating. Eventually I worked up the courage to get out of the car and start talking to some of them. At that time I was mostly interested in documenting prostitution, so my first introduction to Kensington was through these women. They were living in unimaginable circumstances. They were vulnerable, yet incredibly strong.
I soon became interested in exploring a larger theme of survival within Kensington. I began to document the neighbourhood as a whole: men, women, kids, people struggling to live, people battling addiction. Politically, Philadelphia pretends that Kensington doesn’t exist, and it needs more support. These are good people that have little access to education or opportunities for work, and they are suffering as a result. The project talks a great deal about strength, but many of the people I photographed are worried about survival every day.
LC: Drug addicts, prostitutes and the homeless are often seen as “the other” in our society. Your photos show a different side of this—a side that people can relate to and empathize with. Can you say more?
JS: There are a million different reasons why people become homeless to begin with. You dehumanize people by lumping them into the lowest common denominator. By looking down on them and saying, “You’re all homeless because you couldn’t get your lives together”—that doesn’t help anybody. Everyone’s wading through problems that are unique to them, and I think it’s important to tell these stories. Alongside the photographs I feature a short bio or quotes; sometimes I’ll also incorporate diary entries written by my subjects, and I’ve recorded audio interviews that I post on my Kensington Blues blog.
Hearing people discuss their past in their own words is something that you can’t ignore. It’s very powerful. I want the general public to forget what they thought they knew about prostitution, drug addiction, homelessness and poverty, and just listen to an actual person explain what they’ve been through. It’s important to remember that life is unpredictable! I could end up on Kensington Avenue if certain circumstances occurred—anybody could.
LC: Getting people to participate and open up to a stranger can’t be easy. How do you approach your subjects?
JS: Often they’ll approach me! People will holler at me from across the street: ‘Hey man! Are you shooting a documentary?’ Everyone’s in everyone else’s business on Kensington Avenue—they’ll always have something to say to you.
One woman I photographed said, ‘No matter how messed up I am, if I’m out on the street I know there’s somebody else out here that’s more messed up than me’. There’s a strange acceptance - the people are so open they’re almost naked. They bare their emotions to everyone they come into contact with on the Avenue.
I get to know my subjects. I let them know that I respect them and that I want to learn from them. I want to know what it’s like to live on Kensington, and I aim to share that knowledge with people that don’t have a clue.
LC: The images are “still” and considered. They communicate a feeling of respect and consent. You don’t seem to shoot from the hip or take the “fearless flashgun” approach like many street photographers. Can you talk about your process?
JS: I shoot with a 4 x 5 view camera. For these photographs to work, there has to be consent! My subjects have to hold still—if they move an inch forward or an inch back, they’ll be out of focus. It’s a slow-moving, old-looking camera, so it’s automatically a topic of conversation. People look at it and think, “Woah, what is that?” But it has certain limitations—you can’t photograph quickly. It takes time. I have to set it up, I have to focus, use the dark cloth, take a meter reading…It’s at least five minutes until I’m ready to go. Meanwhile, my subject has to stand around waiting. So consent is fairly important!
I’m not looking at the back of an LCP screen when I shoot; I’m in the moment. I’m connecting entirely with my subject, not just communicating with a computer. The camera is a trusted friend that’s standing there by my side. In the Kensington project it really grounded me in the neighbourhood. I think it put people at ease, because they knew I wasn’t going to take a photo and run off—I was stuck with a tripod and a big heavy camera!
If you shoot these scenes with a handheld camera, you have an object that’s almost like a weapon. You could hold it up in front of your face, point it at your subject, take somebody’s photo and run if you wanted to. That wouldn’t work on Kensington. That would piss a lot of people off, and they’d probably end up chasing you!
—Jeffrey Stockbridge, interviewed by Francesca Cronan
Editors’ note: Stockbridge is currently working on a Kensington Blues book. It will be out in 2017. If you’re interested in learning more, have a look at this extended, behind the scenes video: