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Seeing the Invisible

Medical anthropologist Philippe Bourgois and photographer and graduate student Jeff Schonberg spent 12 years among homeless heroin users on the streets of San Francisco, embedded in a world that is usually invisible to outsiders. This world exists at the seams of the city, under freeways, in vacant lots and alleys, largely unseen by passersby.

In their book Righteous Dopefiend, Bourgois and Schonberg document the inner workings of this community, in which heroin functions as part of a moral economy, governing relationships, social structure, dignity, and survival. Using photo-ethnography, they bring the lives and suffering of the people they befriended into view, without judgment or spectacle, and reveal how this marginalized group fits into the larger structure of American society. In this interview with KPFA’s Against the Grain, they discuss how in this community and others in the backstreets of major cities, vast structural forces converge on vulnerable individuals.

Bourgois and Schonberg use photo-ethnography to represent this group, but no image is complete without asking the right questions: “What are we imposing? What are we missing? What are the stakes of exposure to a wider audience?”, they write in the book. Above all, they continue, “there is urgency to documenting the lives of the Edgewater homeless. They survive in perpetual crisis. Their everyday physical and psychic pain should not be allowed to remain invisible.”

View an audio slideshow of Schonberg’s photographs, narrated by Bourgois, at the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences. An exhibition of their work, “Righteous Dopefiend: Homelessness, Addiction and Poverty in Urban America”, is on display at the Penn Museum until May 2, 2011.

Listen to the KPFA Against the Grain interview with Schonberg and Bourgois.

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4 comments to Seeing the Invisible

  • What a fascinating and at the same time sad sub-culture. I don’t pretend to understand what motivates a person to get into that lifestyle in the first place, but it does seem that once a person gets beyond a certain point in the addiction process that it becomes increasingly difficult to turn back the tide.

    I don’t think these people and places are invisible to the normal person, but most people just don’t know what to do to attempt to help these people and I am sure many are just plain afraid as these people can be aggressive in getting what they want.

    What is the solution?

    JJ

  • There are so many things in this world that are “invisible” to us although they are visible to a few conscious people…

  • It is difficult to help these people even if one would do it gladly… The problem, I think, starts from the beginning, from the education we receive, in which we “must” get more and more… If we grew up with a different mentality very few people would fall into the drug hell. Greetings

  • I have to agree with the first person that replied to this post and say that I can’t and never will be able to understand what or why people get into situations like this. Having said that, I do think it is interesting how they examined the role that heroin plays. No matter what country you go to you will find the same sort of people who are stuck in limbo and have nowhere to go. Shedding light on the issue is good, but it doesn’t really get us any closer to a solution. Is there even a solution?

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