This is an article about Jordan Baumgarten’s photographs, but it is also about the challenges of consuming scenes of hardship. This is an article about us, others and the photographer in modern America.
Baumgarten’s photos in his project Slow Blink, Open Mouth are difficult images. It is their difficulty that compels me to write about them. They are difficult in a number of ways. They’re difficult, first and foremost, because of their subject matter. These are hard scenes — mostly, struggling city lots populated by struggling folk. But, then again, when has our curiosity to view the lives of the downtrodden or addicted (from distance) ever stopped us gawking? We can always say we care about the issue and, by proxy, the people in the images … even if it’s only for as long as our browser tab is open.
Baumgarten’s work is difficult because it inhabits that ethically ambiguous space between fine art and social concern; between edgy, contemporary photography and the potential damage to its subjects such a raw view threatens. Perhaps, I’m overly sensitive but my initial reaction is to turn away from Baumgarten’s photos and, yet, here I am publishing them and discussing them.
Needles, skin, stone, trash and compromised bodies are, for me, visual cues that trigger a sense of peril. A sense that all is not right. Hard lives played out in public because necessity, or abuse, or addiction, or impulse demands. I cannot believe Baumgarten’s subjects would choose to have sex in public, inject drugs in public, toilet in public, sleep in public, or to live in public had they other reliable choices. Here are the hard lives of humans upon which I gaze, but on my life they do not gaze. Immediately therefore, I assume the role of viewer, voyeur, exploiter. Maybe I’m easily shocked? Maybe you are too? Maybe we used to be more shocked? Maybe little shocks us anymore? I like these questions and I value the introspection. Baumgarten’s images are difficult because while my reflex is to turn away, I don’t want to run away from the discussion points at hand. And so a cognitive dissonance sets in, which is difficult. Ethical debate about responsible viewing cannot be shorn from seeing Baumgarten’s images, and that is difficult too. Slow Blink, Open Mouth thrusts us right into the middle of it all.
Slow Blink, Open Mouth is about, Baumgarten says, the rampant lawlessness in a place with no oversight.
“With that apparent lawlessness, chaos is inevitable. The world comes alive with bits of magic, bits of darkness, and the inability to discern which is which. In this world, private moments are public, animals and humans roam free, fueled by id, and always, somewhere, there is a fire burning.”
These liminal pockets of Philadelphia are bleak, knitted together by decay and getting by. One of the main reasons I think Baumgarten’s work is difficult is because it is susceptible to a number of counter-readings that might not bring us together but instead just push us further into our ideological corners on what we think our responsibilities are, or not, toward people who operate outside the norms, who live outside of sobriety and who live, literally, outside.
When I view these images I think of failed manufacturing, job loss, modern alienation, big pharma pushing painkillers, crimes of need, and cycles of profit and predation that cannot, will not, be broken by the will power of addicts alone. I see the result of decades of inadequate public education, mental and medical health care and viable addiction treatment. I see the legacy of the failed War On Drugs, mass incarceration, and policy and policing that has criminalised poverty. I see the cracks in society through which individuals have fallen and I know the cracks used to be smaller, and fewer and farther between.
I do not discount, however, the fact that others may see a society that’s lost its way; a society that fell from grace decades ago and needs a short, sharp reset. I know viewers might reason they have nothing in common with Baumgarten’s subject(s) and are moved to do nothing but judge. Trump has fueled the aggressive judgement of others. Perversely, though he hasn’t done this by avoiding the topics of poverty and addiction. Instead, he’s pointed (from distance) to problems in inner-city America (Chicago being his preferred bogeyman) and yelled about carnage, wastelands and the opioid epidemic. Trump is correct in identifying the opioid epidemic as specific to our times, but he’s more invested in stoking dangerous rhetoric about *dangerous* cities than he is listening to, or implementing, nuanced policy and social care solutions.
For those who believe in social care (who we could loosely place on the Left of the political spectrum), these images are a call to work harder as communities and to double-down on the provision of jobs programs, addiction clinics, needle exchanges, affordable housing and other life-intervening services. For those who believe primarily in personal responsibility, demand small government and downplay the factors that drive people into semi-criminal lives on the fringes (who we might loosely place on the Right), these images may act as proof of everything they fear, loathe and avoid.
Baumgarten’s images describe a clearly troubled milieu but do not tie off in a neat bow the issues therein. Such is the difficult and slippery nature of the photographic medium. It would be wrong to think Baungarten, or any photographer for that matter, could assail these limitations of photography. It would be wrong to question Baumgarten’s motivations. (Full disclosure: I’ve met Baumgarten and consider him a friend). He is as troubled and challenged by his images as we might be. And making the work has not been without its challenges. Indeed the title Slow Blink, Open Mouth comes from a discovery Baumgarten made when he was admitted to hospital after someone stuck him with a used heroin needle during his work on the project. In hospital universal pain assessment tools, the ‘Slow blink, open mouth’ pictograph illustrates “Severe pain”.
“The title is also meant to convey being stoned or astonished, as well as the feelings of bliss and ecstasy,” explains Baumgarten. “At its core, the project is about the opioid epidemic and its supporting addiction-based economy.”
All the photographs for Slow Blink, Open Mouth were made in Philadelphia, but Baumgarten insists the project is not solely about The City Of Brotherly Love.
“Philadelphia serves as a microcosm to discuss issues tearing apart the fabric of our social landscape,” he says.
In that context, this work is for all of us. Its difficulty is for us all. The challenge, then, is to embrace the difficulty, suspend judgement for a little longer than we might otherwise and engage with others’ responses. The challenge is to use Baumgarten’s work to understand the lives of houseless people in your community; to understand that depression, addiction and abuse occurs in all strata of society; to follow what happens when Trump declares a state of national emergency in response to the opioid epidemic; and to know what county and city level initiatives are working to alleviate drug abuse and precarious lifestyles. For example, in my hometown of Portland, homeless advocacy group Right 2 Survive is a coalition of community organisers and unhoused people who work with city legislators and ordinary folk to dismantle stigma and stereotypes. Its Ambassador Program does something as straightforward as offering housed people the opportunity to meet, talk with, and learn from, unhoused people. Simple, small steps are the first toward attitude change and toward concern.
Perhaps Baumgarten’s images appear so difficult because we assume we’re powerless and in a fixed place? But we’re not in a fixed place — not in relation to the world, not in relation to others and not in relation to ourselves. I see Slow Blink, Open Mouth as an opportunity to question everything I think I know and, clearly as things aren’t working, to imagine my part in a more compassionate future.