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Righteous Dopefiend at the Penn Museum

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Righteous Dopefiend at the Penn MuseumNow that Louisiana has been purchased and the West has been won, Mars is the final frontier. The idea of unlocking the secrets of a mysterious planet and discovering alien life has captivated the thrill-seeking American imagination for several decades. Meanwhile, many ignore a distant world that exists not in deep space, but here on earth. 

University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Philippe Bourgois and photographer Jeff Schonberg found this world--one of poverty and addiction-- underneath a busy freeway. The pair did not need a billion dollar rocket ship to reach it, just a camera and a voice recorder. The result is the exhibit Righteous Dopefiend: Homelessness, Addiction, and Poverty in Urban America, on display at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthroplogy.

To do research for the ethno-photorgraphic exhibit, Bourgois and Schonberg spent 12 years in an encampment of homeless drug addicts as “participant observers.” As focused drivers zoomed noisily down the road and oblivious pedestrians strolled merrily along the walkway, homeless men and women, mere yards away, injected heroine into their veins and smoked crack out of a pipe, garbage and foliage camouflaging their hellish existence. 

Righteous Dopefiend at the Penn MuseumThe addicts are based in San Francisco, but the story could very well be set in Philadelphia, where a downturn in manufacturing has similarly resulted in a drug-ravaged homeless community that is suffering in silence. 

“I want people to see that universe most of us just walk by everyday,” said Bourgois. “I wanted to show these people’s physical suffering and their humanity; to make the invisible visible.” 

The public can now experience this underground world vicariously through Jeff Schonberg’s brutal black-and-white photographs that capture what Bourgois describes as the “aging and dying process.” Field notes and partial transcripts from taped conversations also bring the pain of this community to life. 

Provocative images of people suffering, however, can quickly roam into poverty pornography, where viewers--and the documentors, themselves--find fascination in the painful, “exotic” world of others. Even the Oscar-winning film "Precious" faced criticism for allegedly reveling in the tragedy of an obese young black girl on welfare. 

While Bourgois admits that many of the photographs are “ugly” --a couple images capture addicts shooting heroin into their buttcheeks, while another shows a man lying outside on a trash-strewn mattress-- he argues that the 40 difficult photographs are meant to open viewers’ eyes and incite them to action. “I want to humanize this community’s suffering without making them monsters on one hand, or sanitary angels on the other,” he said. 

Righteous Dopefiend at the Penn MuseumRealizing the humanity of the men and women, Bourgois and Shonberg found themselves forming friendships with the addicts over the years, trying to secure them medical and social services, with varying degrees of success. 

The most powerful images are those that reflect not only this fondness the researches had for their subjects, but also the surprisingly intense love that the addicts had for one another. Bonnie and Clyde-meets-Romeo and Juliet in a collection of photos documenting an addicted couple’s turbulent journey through love, death and recovery. Elsewhere, a man affectionately leans his head on the shoulder of his best friend, one he would one day lose. 

Despite the universality of the love depicted in the images, Bourgois and Schonberg’s “Righteous Dopefiend” is still light years away from the world most Americans inhabit. The exhibit succeeds in showing that, while the realm of the urban underclass may not be as sexy as Mars, it is equally deserving of our undivided attention and serious exploration. 

Righteous Dopefiend is on view now at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology | 3260 South Street | Philadelphia, PA 19104 | (215) 898-4001. Check here for hours and admission prices. 

All photographs from the exhibition Righteous Dopefiend: Homelessness, Addiction and Poverty in Urban America, December 5, 2009 through May 2010 at the Penn Museum. © Jeff Schonberg 2009.

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Gerry Christopher Johnson is a writer, editor, and non-profit professional based in Philadelphia. His writings on the arts, gender and sexuality, race, pop culture and the humanities have appeared in regional and national publications. A tennis enthusiast, he resides in Philadelphia.