These womens' stories may challenge some prejudices, as they did mine, and can inspire society to work towards real solutions to the drug problem which to some degree is just one symptom of myriad deeper issues. Militarized law enforcement and criminalization has been an abject failure in this regard, yet we continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in expectation of improved results while the problem grows year over year.
Assigning a population count to Philadelphia’s addicted prostitutes is an impossibility, though they appear to number in the hundreds in any given season, and I estimate at least 3,000 of them may have come and gone since I began this project around 2008. My daily observation suggests that there must be at least twenty women I have not photographed for every woman that I have - and I have photographed around one hundred. My estimate does not take into account areas beyond north Philadelphia, nor does it account for male prostitutes or those who advertise themselves primarily through websites or classified ads; the total number of Philadelphia sex workers could be a multiple of my estimate.
Perhaps some backstory is in order to explain how I came to produce a project such as this - the nature of which is far removed from my own life and background.
In 2006 my friend lured me from one of America’s wealthiest and safest enclaves in rural New Jersey, to one of America's poorest and most dangerous - Kensington, Philadelphia - with the promise of a large loft space in what had been a long-abandoned 10,000 square foot factory building.
Before America’s industry was handed to Mexico and China, Kensington was a bustling manufacturing center dotted with large factories and mills surrounded by neighborhoods of industrious workers. It is a melting pot of blacks, hispanics, Asians, and whites — particularly Irish, which is why an inordinate number of my subjects have red hair and hazel or blue eyes.
Many “Kenzos,” as the locals call themselves, are now unemployed and welfare-dependent or among the working poor, and many live at society's margins, often as second- or even third-generation drug addicts, alcoholics, or prostitutes. The area has devolved into Philadelphia's skid row, and attracts addicts from the far reaches of America who have heard tales of its 75%+ pure heroin, which is said to be more potent than just about anywhere. It is this pursuit of drugs which in large part drives the local economy: The prostitutes attract middle class men who infuse the neighborhood with cash. The women immediately hand off their earnings to local resident drug dealers, and whatever scraps remain are spent on bare essentials at local businesses, such as convenience stores. This tax-free steady cash flow is a boon to the neighborhood which on one hand is damned to have the sex and drug trade, but would be damned without it, because it is essentially a system that subsidizes the locals more efficiently than any government welfare program.
My new home occupied the middle of a desolate street lined with factories that were boarded up long ago, and my very doorstep had for decades served as a ‘round-the-clock mecca of sorts for the area's addicts and drug dealers to congregate, get high (sometimes in front of their kids), and engage in occasional vandalism, fisticuffs, gun play, and assaults. My doorsteps and sidewalk were littered with spent syringes, empty crack vials, used condoms, and a host of other innocuous detritus - scouring pads, for example - that would not merit a second glance from an outsider, but which any addict or narcotics cop would recognize as telltale signs of drug use.
It was impossible to not feel under siege and outnumbered by the eclectic mix of miscreants and felons, and every bump in the night required investigation with flashlight in one hand, weapon in the other. Commonsense security measures proved counterintuitive; for example, newly installed motion detecting floodlights attracted addicts like moths to flame, for it was only under bright light that they could find a vein receptive to injection.
As I acclimated to this new world, my nodding acquaintances and brief exchange of pleasantries with the women loitering outside evolved into chats, then conversations. Their polite demeanors and apparent intelligence did not square with their bedraggled appearances. Some spoke of former lives as store managers, secretaries, police cadets, soccer moms, aircraft mechanics, or graduate students who had no truck with drugs until some injury led to a course of doctor-prescribed painkillers. The prescriptions ran their course, necessitating black market refills, which invariably led them to self-medicate with cheaper heroin. Once addicted, they must hustle $100-$300 every day to stave off becoming wretchedly “dope sick.”
I recall one young woman, Kelly Ann, who was a former corrections officer and police academy graduate who aimed to be a cop, like her father. A back injury led her to painkillers, then heroin, then ironically to incarceration at the very jail where she once oversaw women in her selfsame predicament.
Kelly Ann's story, and all the others were so compelling that I thought they deserved a proper voice channeled through a compilation such as this, and I began photographing the women in 2008.
I photograph my subjects primarily with a large format "view camera" that uses 8x10" sheets of film in a process that is laborious, easily prone to error, and very expensive, but which delivers superb detail even when printed at large scale. I sometimes photograph my subjects at night on the streets, using only a DSLR camera and night time ambient street light for illumination.
A photograph only tells part of the story, though, and bringing the women to life requires that they speak about themselves on the record, which about half of them do.
Some of them have never spoken openly about their situations and their talk becomes cathartic. As they answer invasive questions about their life histories, the sitting sometimes smacks of an interrogation during which many confess to feeling more naked and vulnerable than during sex with random men. Yet in the few minutes we share together many strip themselves down to their emotional bones to tell heartrending stories, recall early memories, and wonder aloud about their future. They speak of life on the streets, their daily grind, rape and robbery, and the best and worst of clients and cops, who too often are one in the same.
A few of the women have collaborated with me since 2008, and images made over the course of years capture a downward spiral. Others I photograph once and never see again. Some have since turned their lives around and are barely recognizable in a positive way when our paths cross at a supermarket. Many remain streetbound or jailed, or in the case with several of my subjects - lost to overdose, drug-related illness, or murder. Many women shown here are surely walking the streets as you read this, no matter the time of day, in a never ending search for their next “date” and subsequent fix, next date, next fix, next….
I attempt to present the women without judgment, and force you to confront them and life's harsh realities eye to eye – and in turn be confronted by haunting faces recorded down to the smallest forensic details. Within the images are subtle clues to their lives; scars and scabs, bruises and black eyes, track marks, tattoos, crack pipes and syringes, bandages, hospital wristbands, dirty fingernails, torn or soiled clothing, missing teeth or a cut lip. You will also notice that behind the signs of street life and stern faces are often the waning vestiges of innocence and striking beauty.
It’s hard not to project personal qualities onto different women - precociousness and bravado, fear and distrust, wisdom, kindness, sadness or madness. But come to understand, as I have, that their true selves often lie much deeper than their haunting eyes and track-marked skin.
© 2016 Fallen-angels.org. All rights reserved. Please ask permission before using images or any text beyond brief passages if your use is not related to a review or critique.
Special thanks to Melissa for her encouragement during this project, and to Bruce Berkowitz for his encouragement and direct and indirect support which were integral to this project. Thanks to Repercussions Studio for audio engineering, and to Project Basho for its film processing facilities.