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Jordan Baumgarten’s Good Sick
From the series ‘Good Sick’ © Jordan Baumgarten

Poignant photos of an American town in the throes of an opioid crisis

For five years, Jordan Baumgarten documented a town in Philadelphia as it struggled with drug addiction, devastation, and death

On the streets of Kensington, Philadelphia, chaos and community spirit coexist. Since the late 90s, the neighbourhood has been the touchstone of an unprecedentedly rampant opioid crisis spreading across the United States, causing deaths at a rate comparable to the HIV epidemic at its peak. “I didn’t have much knowledge about what the situation was really like with respect to opioids before moving to Kensington,” explains photographer Jordan Baumgarten, whose latest project, The Good Sickpublished by GOST books, is the result of a five-year photographic immersion into the devastating consequences of addiction. “I’m very happy to live in the area, it’s full of incredible people, but there is also a big drug problem, and with it comes this deep sense of lawlessness and confusion.” A Philadelphia native, Baumgarten didn’t set out to document the city closest to his heart in an attempt to single it out or isolate it from the rest – rather, his work aims to give an intimate, close-up view of an issue that is large-scale and ever-growing. “I felt a partial responsibility towards my community, the people here mean so much to me,” says the photographer.” But what’s happening in Kensington is just a part of a much larger societal problem that’s taking place all over the United States – from the biggest metropolitan cities to the smallest towns. Unpacking this close, personal area was definitely my way of speaking up about what’s currently going on everywhere.”

With its title a reference to nausea felt after shooting heroin, the photographs are arresting, raw, human and to a certain extent, aggressive, admits Baumgarten. “People’s hearts just need to be broken sometimes for them to confront some tough realities, and I definitely hope that my images cause a bit of heartbreak.”

“People’s hearts just need to be broken sometimes for them to confront some tough realities, and I definitely hope that my images cause a bit of heartbreak” – Jordan Baumgarten

The opioid crisis is the result of a dramatic spike in addiction levels related to both prescription and non-prescription drugs, including fentanyl, OxyContin, and heroin. “The situation is pretty bad,” continues the photographer.” But with this project, I wasn’t necessarily looking to give an accurate description of what the opioid epidemic is like – I wanted to convey an image of what it feels like. It’s about understanding who the victims of this crisis are and how they ended up there.”

More often than not, addiction starts slow and strikes when least expected. “We have this preconceived idea of who a heroin addict is,” asserts Baumgarten. “The reality is, they’re normal people – brothers, sisters, college graduates…sometimes their life has been amazing, other times, their life has been terrible. It can affect everybody, there is no single type of person that can fall prey to addiction. “Listening to the background stories of his subjects, and capturing the languid anarchy of his northern Philadelphia neighbourhood instilled in Baumgarten the desire to combat the simplistic media narratives and stigmatisation surrounding addicts. “No one wants to be a heroin addict, no one ever wants to end up there – it’s a sickness, though rarely treated as such,” he argues.” It’s not just about the addiction itself, it’s also everything that comes with it, everything you lose, and interacting with people made that very visible.” When asked about what makes him hopeful, Baumgarten’s stance is clear. “I have no faith in the current US government,” he concludes. “There is so little faith to be had at the moment, it blows my fucking mind. But things can happen at a local level. I have hope in people and communities getting together and starting an open dialogue about addiction, one that’s honest and free of stigma – that can help bring about massive change.”

Good Sick – published by GOST – is available now