Perhaps the best example of a typical reaction to the photographs on Jeffrey Stockbridge’s blog “Kensington Blues” can be found on the blog itself.
In one entry titled “Maria’s Block,” Stockbridge transcribed the reactions of a woman named Maria, her family and her neighbors at Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street as they look through a book of his photographs in 2009.
“Oh my God, look at her arm,” Maria said.
“I pray and pray and pray for the people like this,” said a man named Robert.
ldquo;You know that I don’t need no cable in my house. I see everything live, live,” Maria said.
On “Kensington Blues,” the men and woman Stockbridge photographs on Kensington Avenue are pictured in stark reality — you can plainly see the injection sores on one woman’s arms and the despair in the eyes of a woman who had been raped minutes before Stockbridge took her picture.
Stockbridge has been photographing men and women on Kensington Avenue since 2008. The people he captures with his camera have some heavy stories to tell: stories of lives crippled by addiction, of days and nights selling sex for money or drugs, or of life spent simply watching the world go by from the front steps of a house.
On the blog, you can hear these stories straight from the source. Stockbridge embeds a clickable audio file under most photographs, so a visitor to the blog can listen to the voice of the storyteller while reading the transcribed interview.
“It’s a lot harder to write somebody off when you can hear them talk to you,” Stockbridge said.
Stockbridge, who runs the printing business Stockbridge Fine Art Print, had been photographing abandoned houses in the city as part of project that grew out of his senior thesis at Drexel University, where he was studying photography.
In one house in West Philly, he met a woman who was selling sex for drugs. She told him about Kensington Avenue.
“I didn’t really know women were out there in such high numbers,” he said. “I found one story to be really passionate and harrowing, so I went out in search of more.”
The first time he visited the avenue, he said he was a bit apprehensive about the unfamiliar place. He said he knew, though, that all he had to do was start talking to people.
“That’s how you become familiar with it [a neighborhood], you talk to its residents.”
He said people often ask him how he “gets” the men and women on the avenue to talk to him. He insists, though, that it’s not about “getting” anything; a conversation either happens or it doesn’t.
“It [a conversation] happens if there is something to talk about, if there’s some sort of common ground,” he said. “It could be something you witness together at the same time, something small. You can relate to anybody in this city if you’re willing to be open-minded.”
“One of the things I love about Philly is people talk to people in this city,” he continued. “People in this city are very outspoken.”
He said his work for Kensington Blues is primarily about the human connection, and about communicating the stories of the people on the avenue.
“They become human, you realize what you have in common with them,” he said of the people in the photographs.
“Anybody can end up on Kensington Avenue.”
Stockbridge said he doesn’t know how long he’ll continue to photograph the avenue. He said sometimes he thinks he could do it for years, while other times he feels like he doesn’t want his work to be one-note.
In the years he’s been running the blog, he said he’s becoming very connected to the avenue, even in what would be considered horrifying moments.
While working there one day, he heard three gunshots, turned around and saw someone fall, then watched as one person ran past him and the gunman ran the other way.
“I didn’t feel fear,” he said, “I felt shock, I felt this odd sort of connection to the location, to be subjected to witnessing such a scenario.”
He said it’s an example of a reality.
“I wanted to be there, because it’s about reality, and it’s about witnessing something that is so horrible, but so raw and so real.”
In addition to photographing, interviewing and recording people on the avenue, Stockbridge also carries a journal in which he allows people to write messages.
One message reads: “Kensington is not just drugs and prostitution, there are people here who live and love life, there are those stories of us who are trying to do right and live life…I will continue to be happy.”
Stockbridge said such messages make clear that there are people to thank for Kensington not being worse than it is.
“There’s something so alive in Kensington,” he said. “What’s happening now is fantastic. There’s a mentality shift,” he said, referencing the development in the neighborhood, gallery openings and the movement of young people into neighborhood spaces. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
He said that the problems of drug use, prostitution and crime on the avenue are incredibly complicated ones.
“It’s so complex,” he said. “That’s why nobody knows how to fix it.”
Stockbridge has recognized, though, that while the avenue is known as a one-stop shop for sex and drugs, the people there share a connection.
“They’re all in this war together,” he said. “They’re kind of like soldiers…they’re all battling the same demons. There’s this odd sense of community and this bond that exists there.”
He’s found, he said, that the people he meets display an incredible sense of strength.
“What initially I perceived as a lot of people who were suffering, and a lot of people who had these horrible weaknesses, it’s really turned into me seeing a lot of incredibly strong people who are putting themselves through incredibly tough situations,” he said.
He said that while he doesn’t think the drug use on the avenue is ever going to go away, he is optimistic about the mentality shift and the people in Kensington.
“Kensington’s got character,” he said. “You feel the weight of that neighborhood.”
Star Managing Editor Mikala Jamison can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit the blog at www.kensingtonblues.com.