Among the Righteous Dopefiends

From Righteous Dopefiend (Photography by Jeff Schonberg)

From Righteous Dopefiend, now on view at the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia. (Photography by Jeff Schonberg)

As the sun went down one evening over San Francisco’s shipyards, the anthropologist Philippe Bourgois came across a man in a drug-induced seizure under the intersection of two freeways. Bourgois was only a few months into a 12-year research project on homeless heroin addicts, a journey that would make him a habitué of vacant factories, dead-end alleyways, storage lots, and broken-down cars. At the time, in 1994, he already knew a few things about drug addiction; he’d spent three and a half years studying Puerto Rican crack dealers in East Harlem. Bourgois wanted to know more about the addicts in San Francisco, so he set out with photographer Jeff Schonberg to document their lives. “We really didn’t know what to expect at first,” Bourgois said. “I wasn’t an expert in homelessness.”

The powerful results of their collaboration are now on view in Righteous Dopefiend: Homelessness, Addiction, and Poverty in Urban America, an exhibition at the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia through December 31. Based on a book of the same title published in May, the exhibition contains photographs, photo projections, and audio recordings of their homeless subjects, arranged around a centerpiece inspired by the urban environment: a chain-link fence on which more than 200 photographs are taped.

As they chronicled shooting galleries and makeshift encampments, Bourgois and Schonberg found that housing costs, gentrification, and even weather were factors in the addicts’ homelessness. Most surprisingly, they found out that San Francisco heroin addicts had a stable social network. In spite of regular arrests, overdosing, and forced migrations, the addicts shared resources, money, and food in relative peace. However, their lives still lacked basic amenities. Bourgois and Schonberg felt the need to intervene. “We tried to get them access to services,” Bourgois said, “and in the process we learned how dysfunctional the services were in regards to what they needed.”

The exhibition thus draws attention to broken lives, but also to America’s broken social policies. Aaron Levy, executive director of the Slought Foundation, chose to exhibit Righteous Dopefiend because of Bourgois and Schonberg’s anthropological approach to addiction. “They’re not trying to fetishize it,” Levy said. “They provide us with an intimate portrait of homelessness and addiction, and I don’t think that’s something that we have the opportunity to see often.”

The portrait is enriched by the exhibit’s audio recordings, which Bourgois believes express his subjects’ humanity most clearly. Gallery visitors, he said, “hear what their anxieties are about, interpersonal relationships, daily concerns.” The addicts can be heard discussing what it’s like under constant surveillance, instances of getting arrested, and their attempts to go clean and seek treatment.

Righteous Dopefiend is also on exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Archaeology and Anthropology Museum through May 2010, but that show is much more stripped-down, with about 40 photographs but no audio or video elements. Bourgois described the University of Pennsylvania show as beautifully laid out, with a clearer message. In contrast, the Slought exhibition is, in his words, much more evocative and emotional.

“What we wanted to do in the Slought was much more experimental and pushing the limits of how to express their humanity,” he said. “The shows work very well together. In a nutshell, we’re showing individuals with dreams, frustrations, limitations, and potential.”

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