A broken fence, a stray dog, and a building on fire - what do these things have to do with the opioid crisis?

While the epidemic that has claimed the lives of nearly half a million Americans is often visualized with clean graphics and stock images of needles and pills, photographer Jordan Baumgarten portrays the problem in a different light. In depicting sides of the issue that often go overlooked - from the banal to the uncomfortable to the downright shocking - his photo series Good Sick encourages viewers to see the crisis and the people affected by it with compassion.

Photograph from Good Sick. Image courtesy of Baumgarten’s website.

The United Nations has targeted the prevention and treatment of substance abuse as part of the Good Health and Well-Being Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) - and for good reason. Waves of overdose deaths have torn through entire communities made vulnerable by economic downturn and neglect, leaving behind physical and emotional scars. One such community is the one that Baumgarten calls home, and where he captures the realities of drug addiction as it unfolds all around him.

Photograph from Good Sick. Image courtesy of Baumgarten’s website. ‌‌

When he first moved to the Philadelphia neighbourhood of Kensington, he found himself in a world that seemed to exist outside the rules of “normal” society. Acts that are considered private - like shooting heroin or having sex - were taking place in broad daylight.

“I wanted to communicate the immense confusion and disorder that comes from living in that place,” he says in an interview with Feature Shoot, explaining the impetus behind Good Sick.
Photograph from Good Sick. Image courtesy of Baumgarten’s website. ‌‌

Seeking to understand the situation, he sought out the testimonies of locals, did research on the area’s history with drugs, and, with his camera, ended up capturing how the opioid epidemic was affecting the tight-knit community.

Indeed, when looking through the photographs in Good Sick one feels an acute sense of disorientation. The images oscillate from innocuous yet vaguely eerie vignettes of everyday life to bleak and even turbulent moments that speak to the poverty and substance abuse that haunts the area. From this chaos and instability, the images draw their power.

Photograph from Good Sick. Image courtesy of Baumgarten’s website. ‌‌

As viewers, there is not much to ground us; Baumgarten intentionally avoids contextualizing the photographs. We are instead left face-to-face with the images - forced to ask our own questions and to engage with the discomfort that we feel. A simple photo of matted grass provokes a search for answers: Who was once here? What were they doing? Where are they now, and are they okay?

Photograph from Good Sick. Image courtesy of Baumgarten’s website. ‌‌

From these inquiries, we are made to challenge our own perceptions of poverty and addiction. We are pushed to think about the real people affected by the crisis, not just in Kensington but in our own cities and towns.

“While all the photographs were made in Philadelphia, the project is not about that specific place. The city serves as a microcosm to discuss issues tearing apart the fabric of our social landscape,” says Baumgarten.

Photograph from Good Sick. Image courtesy of Baumgarten’s website. ‌‌

Baumgarten’s work does more than simply point out a problem - it is part of the solution. Photographs like his, though they are difficult, are powerful in how they challenge us to care about the people behind the numbers. The opioid crisis will not be solved until we stop seeing “bad” neighbourhoods full of dangerous people and start seeing human beings and their communities falling victim to a crisis beyond their control; Good Sick is one step in that direction.

Good Sick was published as a book in 2018, which you can buy here.

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