There’s humanity at the ninth floor
Interview with photographer Jessica Dimmock
On December 2016, I joined a Christmas party organized by Fabrica, the communication research center of the Benetton Group. During the party, I had the opportunity to visit a photo exhibition of art works by many photographers who had worked together with Fabrica. Among all, some photographers were represented by some photo-books: one of these was The Ninth Floor by Jessica Dimmock.
Jessica is a photographer from New York. I didn’t know her before, but from the very first moment I browsed through her photo-book, I was very impressed by the rough essence of her project. In The Ninth Floor Jessica explores the sensitive topic of drugs, mixing the immediacy of the situation with the respect for the photographed people. I was fascinated by the perfection of this fusion, so I asked to the exhibition guide to tell me more about the project. She explained me that during 3 years Jessica had observed a group of young drug addicts who lived together in an apartment in Manhattan. The apartment was at the ninth floor of a building at 4 West 22nd Street and the previous owner was Joe Smith, a man who hosted a boy in return for heroin.
The Ninth Floor really interested me, so I got in touch with Jessica Dimmock and I made her some questions to go deeper into the project. She always answered with enthusiasm and she told me precious stories. Here they are.
Observing the photos of “The Ninth Floor”, I first noticed that you deeply integrate yourself into the lives of the photographed people. How did you succeed in doing that?
What you are talking about was a slow process. When I first met Mike and Joey and the other people that lived at 4 West 22nd Street, I was brought there by Jim Diamond -a man I was photographing.
He literally walked me into the place very late one night and said: “This is Jessica, my photographer”. And because I had entered the space with him, the people that lived there were open to me photographing them. But that was only for one night. The man I knew was arrested immediately after, and my entry point into that apartment had been lost.
So from there, I had to work very slowly. It took me about a month to even find them again. And when I did, the first thing I did was bring them pictures from my previous visit, and that went a long way towards building trust. But overall the process was a slow one.
I would sometimes go over just for an hour or two without ever taking out my camera. Other times I would spend many hours. Eventually I would spend several days in a row. But it was always very important not to enter the space with expectations of how long I could stay or what type of photographs I would be taking. So much of it was really in their court.
Did you want to create a project like The Ninth Floor before that person brought you into the apartment? If not, how did you understand that those photos could be part of a more complex project?
I did not want to make a project like The Ninth Floor before Jim Diamond brought me to the apartment. Projects about addicts are a bit of a cliché, and it hadn’t even occurred to me to set out on a project like this.
My father was an addict when I was young. Though he never used drugs in front of me, as far as I can remember, he did bring around places where drugs were clearly being used. I remember the vacant and hard to reach adults, I remember the dark and cavernous feel of these apartments. And as a child I didn’t know what was happening but it was clear that something was wrong.
When I entered the apartment with Jim, there was something strangely familiar, almost comfortable, about this group of people. It wasn’t a lightbulb going off in my head, it was something that slowly came to me in the early stages of shooting with them. But it was like a pull, it was something inside of me that wanted to go back, to look at their vacant expressions, to understand what it was to be them, and to maybe bring something of what I understood deep down to the project.
Did you suffer living again situations and emotions already lived with your father? If so, what did this pain mean to you during the creation of The Ninth Floor?
I don’t think reliving the situations hurt me. I think they helped me make sense of what I had seen as a child, and I think I was struggling to bring humanity and empathy to the people I photographed because I had a personal relationship that made me understand just how powerful addiction is, how it is like a monster.
So while I certainly never sought out to embark on this project to help me solve some kind of daddy issues, I do think I was drawn to it because deep down it made sense to me. What I saw somehow resonated, and yet now I was older and wasn’t looking at it through a child’s eyes any more.
I’m interested in how you struggled to bring humanity and empathy to the people you photographed. In what ways did you precisely do that?
In some ways, because of my past experience, I don’t think it was a struggle for me to bring humanity and empathy to the people I photographed at all. That came naturally. I know this because it was never an intention. It never occurred to me to do anything but because one of the closest people in my life had struggled, and because this had such a close and personal impact on me, I went into the ninth floor willing to see the people there as wounded, struggling, trying and afraid.
I do know that I wanted to make it not about the drugs. In fact, in the book version of the project I think you only see a needle once or twice. So I had this idea: what if you made an entire body of work about drugs and never showed the drugs? And if you weren’t going to show the drugs, what were you going to show? The fear. The isolation. The fact that they were living practically on top of one another but were very distant.
Considering that fear, that isolation, have you ever felt the desire to help those people to overcome their situation? If so, how did you approach this desire?
Your question brings us to the idea of “the dilemmas of intimacy” — as Max Kozloff put it in the foreword to my book. In this, we discussed that the access to this group, or a situation like this, was based on the idea that I would not judge.
Jesse, for example, had hurt her family and friends such a countless amount of times over the past decade of her drug use, that everyone in her life had an opinion about her drug use. As they should. They loved her and they were witnessing her injure herself. But then along comes me, and I say to her that I’d like to witness and observe her life without passing judgement, without trying to change her, without making her feel bad about who she is.
Of course, this is not sustainable. After spending 3 years with Jessie I had grown to care about her deeply, was concerned for her, wanted her to get better. Once I made her flush down the toilet the drugs that she was hiding from her parents, because she was scheduled to check into rehab and the program she was going to required that she already began to detox. She did flush the drugs, but I think she felt betrayed. But I couldn’t not intervene. When you start to care about someone, as definitely happens to me in the process or working with them intimately, you want what is best for them, and when you see them hurting themselves you want it to stop.
In the case of addiction, specifically, this brings up another issue. Addicts have often stolen from and betrayed the people that they love the most. They have lied to their parents, they have watched friends die, they have come close to death themselves. Addicts are not cured because those around them plead with them and beg them to get better. They overcome addiction with the help of therapists, doctors, medicine, and programs. It wasn’t until years later that I also reflected on the shortcomings of my approach, however well intentioned.
We are close to the end of the interview. And talking about endings, how did you understand that the creation of The Ninth Floor got to the end?
Jessie, who I was closest to, had gone missing for many months. I was desperately trying to find her though I was somewhat accustomed to her disappearances. When she did eventually surface, she was living in the basement of a wealthy woman’s home in Brooklyn, and in exchange for rent she was helping the woman “renovate”. In reality, the two of them were doing tons of drugs, staying up for days at a time as they tore down the walls and moved furniture.
At this time, Jessie became incredibly sick. She was weak and pale and in a ton of pain, and it was obvious that she needed medical attention. I brought her to the hospital — at this point I could no longer sit by and watch and she was too weak to get there herself. She was very unwell — she had an abscess on her kidney and a variety of other issues. They put a pic line in (an IV that goes directly to your heart, which is often used when people’s veins are so damaged from drug use that the needed treatment will not reach the circulatory system without assistance getting all the way to the heart).
Within one day of being at the hospital her boyfriend Mike was sneaking in and delivering her drugs. When he was caught and barred access to her room he used the name of the elderly woman he was sharing a room with instead. Jessie shot drugs directly into the pic line which delivered the drugs directly to her heart. To see her so close to death, and engaging in activities dangerous even for her, felt like a new level of darkness. It became difficult to continue to photograph her in this way — I felt like I had shown the audience enough at that point, that they got it, and that the darkness was going to become excessive, if it hadn’t already.
The last photograph I took of Jessie, and the last one in the book, is her looking at directly at the camera, almost as if she’s saying: “What? What are you looking at?”. It’s the only image that I have of the subjects looking directly at the camera.
Thanks Jessica Dimmock for being so kind during the interview.
Thanks Laura Casagrande for helping me with the translation.