“Just have one more try — it’s dead easy to die,
It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.”
― Robert W. Service
Kensington Blues is a portrait photography project of the down and out residents who live along Kensington Avenue in North Philadelphia. During the nineteenth century, Kensington was a strong working-class neighborhood, a national leader of the textile industry and home to a diverse population of immigrants. Like many rust belt cities, industrial restructuring of the mid twentieth century lead to a sharp economic decline including high unemployment and a significant population loss.
Today, Kensington Avenue is infamous for drug abuse and prostitution. The Ave runs 3 miles through what is now a dangerous and crime-ridden neighborhood. Women, some as young as twenty years old, and others who’ve been on the Ave for decades, populate the neighborhood in great numbers. Prostitution has become a social norm. Drugs such as Heroin, Meth, Crack and Xanax are sold out in the open. Addicts sell clean needles for a dollar a piece. Five needles equals a bag of dope.
With the roaring El train overhead, Kensington Avenue is in a state of perpetual hustle. Working with a 4×5 camera, I chose a slow photographic process in order to literally slow down the rapid speed of life as it happens along the Ave. The focus of my work is portraiture. I want to tap into the state of mind of those who are struggling to survive their addiction. I ask those I photograph to share their stories so that others may learn from them. I record the audio conversations or ask participants to write their thoughts in my journal. The goal of my work is to enable people to relate to one-another in a fundamentally human way, in spite of stereotypes and commonly perceived differences. The truth is, addiction can happen to anyone.
In 2017, over 70,000 people died of drug overdose in the United States, approximately half of which were due to Fentanyl. That’s 191 deaths a day. In my home town of Philadelphia, over 1200 people died from overdose. As a citizen, I am deeply concerned that not enough is being done to treat the problem.
The work I’ve been doing in Kensington over the past 10 years is in a way a collaboration between myself and those I photograph. Together, through photography, audio recordings, journal entries and videos, we are working to highlight the voices and stories of those who suffer from Substance Use Disorders. By sharing the intimate details of their plight, those I photograph are effectively humanizing addiction and challenging the stigma that all drug addicts are morally corrupt and deserve their fate.
Jeffrey Stockbridge (b. 1982) is a photographer and fine-art printer based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Stockbridge graduated from Drexel University with a BS in Photography in 2005. His documentary photography series and book, Kensington Blues, released in 2017, has received international acclaim with exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The National Portrait Gallery in London. In 2019, Stockbridge was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Photography. Stockbridge is also a recipient of a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Grant, an Independence Foundation Fellowship Grant and a CFEVA Fellowship. His work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Time Magazine, Lens Culture, Philadelphia Magazine and The Telegraph UK.
Press for Kensington Blues
Broad Street Review
Philly Art Blog
Time Magazine Lightbox
Excellent. Don’t know what else to say…
I was down there for 3 years, thankfully i was saved before i resorted to “trickin”. Kirkbride rehab and The NET methadone clinic has saved me and kept me clean for almost a year now. The streets are rough. Ive never been more grateful to be clean and have my family. God bless all those out there. All I can do is spread the message of recovery. I am living proof that we CAN recover, WITHOUT relapse, you just HAVE to actually WANT it and give it your ALL.
I have to say, after writing my own blog about kensington the other day, i shared it with my brother. He actually sent me here… My heart breaks.. we live in kensington.. Seeing that photo of carroll.. My son goes to school right there.. I can link you my blog.. What I wrote would likely interest you… Its crazy the stuff going on in this neighborhood. Thank you for sharing the photos
Feeling nostalgic about where I grew up, I ended up surfing the web for pictures of my old neighborhood…Port Richmond. I came across your blog and was fascinated. I am very familiar with “the ave.” As a kid, my friends and I would walk down there if we wanted to get our hands on something we couldn’t find in our neighborhood. Most often that was fireworks. Even at that age though, we knew not to hang around there too long. After 8 years of catholic grade school at Our Lady Help of Christians down on Allegheny ave, I attended Roman Catholic High for Boys in center city. I would catch the 60 (Septa) right there at the corner of Kensington and Allegheny. I never gave one thought to the people on the ave. As ignorant kids, we just called them Kenso’s, shared a few laughs about them and moved on.
I am now 37 and haven’t been back there since I was 17. I graduated from Penn State, joined the military and now fly planes for the Navy. My life could not be more different than what it was back then. I live on a small island in Washington State in a small town (Oak Harbor) where everyone knows your name and is happy to see you. Seeing your pictures of the ave through my alienated eyes now brought about several emotions. At first I could not believe I grew up around there. However, the more I saw the more I realize just how lucky I am. There is something so very real that comes through in your photographs. I was fortunate enough to experience it growing up there.
My brother is stationed out in Washington State, and is in the Navy also. Small world.
This is a quite beautiful piece, Jefferey, I am a survivor of that life. I’ve slept in many abandominium in that very neighborhood.
I love your blog! I am a drug counselor technician in Los Angeles. I am wondering if those you are documenting are in need of help finding resources for rehabilitation? I would love to help give some of them some direction toward help and rehabilitation!!!
This was touching, eye opening, shocking, and heart breaking. You have captured the hopeless torment and despair of the people in your blog. I feel sad and at the same time I feel like finding a way to help. Very moving……
A trip down Kensington is a trip to despair. Born and raised in Philly, I don’t know of any neighborhood that is more riddled with drugs, prostitution, hopelessness, and defeat. It is truly unnerving to realize that people can endure such nightmares and continue to put themselves in harm’s way. I was an art student at Tyler School of Art and I discovered your work as a junior in 2010 after losing an uncle to a PCP related accident. It was a very difficult time for me because I had just lost my other uncle, his brother who was like a father to me, a few years before and so I became closer to this uncle. I also had a cousin and best friend both badly addicted to drugs and I feared for their lives. I was inspired by your work. Your photographs did not idealize individuals. They could have been a friend of mine or a family member. They embodied the visceral realities of life in a state of abandonment. Working through my own issues artistically and intellectually allowed me to heal. They were powerful and touching. I want to thank you. Because of your work, I was able to come to peace with my uncle’s passing and be more supportive to the individuals in my life suffering from addiction. Publicizing these issues can help prevent others from becoming involved with this life style. I wish you all of the success in the world on your project. I hope that it touches others as much as it touched me.
This is the best photography collection of a declining neighborhood I have ever come across. The fact that it is non-judgmental, allowing people to tell their stories, right or wrong, is all the more revealing and somehow poetic. I am originally from Philadelphia, and grew up in various sections of Philly that once thrived with average working class, and poor people, at a time when life wasn’t quite as harsh. My first rental home as a newly married, was a “father, son, holy ghost house” on Waterloo St, a few blocks from K & A. It is so sad to see what has become of these old neighborhoods.
Just wanted to let you know your work speaks very clearly to me. Truly great.
I was born in Kensington Hospital and lived there for many years. I now live in Alabama with my mom. I want to help the people of Kensington, I think about it everyday. Could you give me some suggestions on how to do that?
This is extraordinary work you have done. I grew up in Kensington at 2nd and Allegheny avenue. When I was young, our family did our Christmas shopping along Kensington avenue. They had everything you could imagine and could spend an entire day shopping and eating at at one time in the 70’s could watch a movie at the Midway movie theater. Also, This is a very personal piece of work for me as I have lived this life. I abused drugs from the age of 15 to 18. And fortunately, I was able to get and stay clean for coming up on 27 years. It breaks my heart to see that this is still destroying lives. I do hope that one day these people find the light in the darkness,
[…] this point, I’d spent about forty-five minutes in a room devoted to Jeffrey Stockbridge’s Kensington Blues, a series of photographs taken in the area around Kensington Avenue, in North Philadelphia, which […]
[…] doesn’t seem “normal” or “safe.” It is for this reason that photographer and activist Jeffrey Stockbridge, 36, created the Kensington Blues series. The fine-art photography book documents the trials and […]