When Jordan Baumgarten and his wife moved into the neighbourhood of Kensington in Philadelphia in 2013, they were shocked by what they saw – sex workers, dealers and drug use, all in plain view on the street, with almost no oversight from the police. Faced with these scenes daily on his doorstep, Baumgarten turned to his camera in an attempt to make sense of the area. “Photography forces an interaction and relationship with the world because it demands that you go to a certain place,” he says.
Kensington is “a nexus for those in and around the city seeking heroin and all that it entails. It co-exists alongside everyday life in the neighbourhood and its surrounding landscape,” Baumgarten explains. But he adds that while this work focuses on Philadelphia, it addresses a much larger issue: “The city serves as a microcosm to discuss issues tearing apart the fabric of our social landscape.”
Born in Philadelphia in 1983, Baumgarten stumbled across photography almost by accident after breaking his leg in 6th grade – keen to keep his son occupied, his father gave him a camera and the boy discovered a passion for photography. He went on to study at the University of Arts in Philadelphia from 2002 to 2006, and then in 2009, started his MFA in Photography at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.
Returning to his birthplace, Baumgarten spent five years working on Good Sick from 2012-2017, naming the project after the slang for the nausea felt after shooting heroin. “My personal work takes place in familiar surroundings,” Baumgarten tells BJP, “so I am constantly engaging with the same thing – I think this is key to really understanding a place.”
Baumgarten’s relationship with Philadelphia is deep and complex, and sometimes ambivalent. “It’s here I was born, went to college, and where I met and married my wife,” he says – but he’s also nearly been killed in Philadelphia, and witnessed terrible tragedy. “Experience, and this complicated relationship to place, is the cornerstone of my work and the driving force in my life,” he writes in the book.
Baumgarten took the same walk over and over again with his camera while making Good Sick, And it was during one of the walks that he shot one of the most difficult images in the book – a photograph of a naked, pregnant prostitute standing in a field, crouched over slightly as she bends down to get dressed.
He paid the woman for the image, but says he still finds the shot difficult. “I’m constantly torn between regretting taking it, but also deeply grateful that I did make it,” he says. “The main challenge is finding that balance between the story I want to tell and being respectful to the people I’m photographing.
“There is a fine line between telling the story I want to tell and acknowledging that I’m borrowing other’s truths to tell that story. It’s very hard to find that balance. When I’m photographing, I think, when is it time to be a human; when is it time to be a photographer?”
His images occupy the hazy space between documentary and art, but Baumgarten says he wants viewers to walk away from his work with an understanding about the feeling of the place. “The photographs in this book depict chaos; nature encroaching on urban decay; an ambiguity between magic and darkness; private moments which are public; animals and humans roam free – fuelled by id, and always, somewhere, there is a fire burning,” he writes in the book.
And although the book is now complete, Baumgarten says this is a project that will never truly be over for him. Making it has merely raised new questions for him, and new avenues for enquiry – for example, how the opioid crisis co-exists alongside the current housing boom and gentrification in Philadelphia.
Good Sick is Baumgarten’s second book; the first was Briar Patch (2013), which explores his relationship to Philadelphia and to his beloved wife, Anne. “My mind tends to work in book form,” he says. “It’s the ultimate expression for my work.”