Righteous Dopefiend

A photo-ethnographic collaboration with Philippe Bourgois about homelessness, addiction, and poverty in urban America


Fields of Knowledge
  • Public culture
  • Social Justice

Organizing Institutions


Contributing Institutions

University of Pennsylvania Archaeology and Anthropology Museum


Jean-Michel Rabaté, Aaron Levy


Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, University of Pennsylvania

Opens to public



4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104


75% Formal - 25% Informal

Slought is pleased to announce "Righteous Dopefiend: Homelessness, Addiction, and Poverty in Urban America." The exhibit will be on display in the Slought galleries from December 3-December 31, 2009, and on display at the University of Pennsylvania Archaeology and Anthropology Museum from December 5 through May 2010. The exhibition takes the form of a photo-ethnographic collaboration between photographer Jeff Schonberg and anthropologist Philippe Bourgois, highlighting twelve years in the life of a community of homeless heroin addicts and crack smokers. Black-and-white photographs are interwoven with edited transcriptions of tape-recorded conversations, field notes, and critical analysis to explore the intimate experience of homelessness and addiction. Revealing the survival mechanisms and perspectives of this marginalized "community of addicted bodies," the new exhibition sheds light on the often unintended consequences of public policies that inadvertently exacerbate the suffering faced by street-based drug users in America.

In the photo-ethnography Righteous Dopefiend, Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg document the daily lives of homeless drug users in the U.S. inner city. Their research spans more than a decade of participant-observation fieldwork among homeless heroin injectors and crack smokers in a run-down warehouse district of San Francisco on the edge of the city's defunct shipyards. The authors interweave edited transcriptions of tape recorded conversations, fieldwork notes, and critical theoretical analysis with black and white photographs to explore, over a twelve year period, the intimate experience of homelessness and addiction. The exhibit seeks to reveal the internal social logics and perspectives of homelessness and addiction. It also exposes on a practical level the unintended consequences of public policies, cultural, political and economic structures that exacerbate the levels of suffering faced by the indigent in America.

Homelessness and drug use have been the focus of several notable photography exhibits over the past century. The visual presentation of violence and poverty has provoked intense debate about the aestheticization of suffering. Critics have argued that exhibits often fail to provide adequate context for images by not distinguishing between perpetrators and victims and by obscuring the broader social structural forces that constrain the lives of the poor. This exhibit brings anthropology's longstanding engagement with representations of difference and human suffering to bear on these challenges of representation, objectification and analytical framing. The exhibit expands beyond the aesthetic and the documentary to seek a social understanding of the experience and practice of physical and emotional addiction. The photographs are particularly compelling because they are long-term, intimate, and biographical, rather than generic and didactic. They are intended to move and involve the viewer, but also to reveal new understandings of contemporary social life and larger structurally- imposed forces.

The exhibition, organized in conjunction with the publication of their book Righteous Dopefiend by University of California Press, aims to promote a public dialogue around drugs, poverty and ethnicity. The exhibit's photographs and accompanying text (fieldnotes, dialogues and analysis) bring an anthropological voice to vital contemporary issues in politics and the arts.

A conversation between Philippe Bourgois, Jean-Michel Rabaté, and Jeff Schonberg will take place on Thursday, December 3, 2009 from 5:30-7:00pm, followed by the opening reception for the exhibition. The exhibition and public conversation is presented in conjunction with the Penn Center for Public Health Initiatives' 2009/2010 series, Creative Action: The Arts in Public Health.

For more information, download "A Theory of Abuse", Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg's introductory essay to Righteous Dopefiend.

read more

Philippe Bourgois is the Richard Perry University Professor of Medical Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania since 2007, and a Consulting Scholar at the Penn Museum. He has devoted the past 25 years of his life to researching inner city poverty in the United States. His work is situated at the intersection of the fields of cultural anthropology, medicine, and public health, and is dedicated to analyzing the negative health effects of social inequality. His previous multi-award winning book, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, is based on five years he spent living with his family next to a crack house in East Harlem, New York. He has just begun a new Philadelphia-based project, examining violence and HIV among young heroin and cocaine sellers and addicts in North Philadelphia's Puerto Rican community.

Jeff Schonberg is a photographer and doctoral candidate in medical anthropology at the University of California, San Francisco and Berkeley

"Photo-ethnography has the potential to effectively portray unacceptable social phenomena because it is more than the sum of its parts. It draws emotion, aesthetics, and documentation into social science analysis and theory and strives to link intellect with politics. Nonetheless, it is important to remain critically reflexive: What are we imposing? What are we missing? What are the stakes of exposure to a wider audience? Most important, however, there is urgency to documenting the lives of Edgewater homeless. They survive in perpetual crisis. Their everyday physical and psychic pain should not be allowed to remain invisible. [...] Anthropology in the twenty-first century cannot physically, ethnically, or emotionally escape the hardship of the lives of its traditional research subjects. Even larger proportions of the world's population survive precariously in refugee camps, rural wastelands, zones of ecological devastation, shantytown, housing projects, tenements, prisons, and homeless encampments (Davis 2006). The Edgewater homeless represent the human cost of the American neoliberal model. Tia, Carter, Sonny, Al, Frank, Max, Felix, Victor, Sal, Scotty, Nickie, Spider-Bite Lou, Hogan, Ben, Stretch, Vernon, Reggie, Hank, and Petey are as all-American as the California dream."

-- Philippe Bourgois, Righteous Dopfiend (2009)