‘Kensington Blues’: Portraits and Stories of Prostitutes in North Philadelphia


Jeffrey Stockbridge is a Philadelphia-based photographer that has completed mulit-year location specific projects documenting urban blight. This work, from his series Kensington Blues, tells the stories of prostitutes and addicts selling themselves on Kensington Ave., a hotspot for drugs and prostitution located in North Philadelphia.

Tell us about your project, Kensington Blues.
‘Kensington Blues began in 2008. I was photographing interiors of abandoned houses in Philadelphia and I met a woman who was selling sex for drugs. She told me about the Ave and I began visiting and making pictures of women who were working there to support their drug habits. The project took many turns over the years and I collected material in many forms i.e. (audio recordings, journal entries and video). I started Kensington Blues the blog in order to make sense and organize the data I was collecting. The blog format is ideal for communicating multiple mediums. The project is on going, I’m shooting on the Ave and posting to the blog simultaneously. Once the past catches up to the present the project will be finished.’

Why did you decide to photograph people affected by addiction and poverty?
‘I’m deeply interested in how people live there lives and how people survive the lives they have. Life to me seems more real in the ghetto. I want to make pictures that hone in on the raw, brutal and beautiful.’

How do you get people to tell you their stories?
‘People open up to me because I open up to them. I share photographs and stories and explain the motivations behind my work to everyone I photograph. I get close and personal. I get in their business.’

What do you hope to accomplish by taking these photos? What is their purpose?
‘My primary goal is to communicate the harsh realities of inner city life in a way that will do the subject justice. I want to humanize those who have been de-humanized, the addicts and prostitutes on Kensington Ave and elsewhere in the world who are suffering and surviving at the same time. I want to pay tribute to their struggle and offer a view that all is not lost, that hope does exist.’

Is there a person you have photographed whose story has affected you the most?
‘Everyone’s stories affect me deeply and in different ways but the story of Darlene hit me pretty hard.’

*The following photos and text are taken from Jeffrey’s interviews and conversations with the women he has photographed for over the past 4 years. For more stories, please visit his blog, Kensington Blues.


I met Darlene the same afternoon I met Sarah on the corner of Kensington and Harold Street. Sarah and I were in the middle of making a photograph when we saw a young woman running down the Ave hysterically sobbing. Sarah yelled out to her by name but she ran right past us. Sarah ran after her and yelled again, “Darlene, Darlene,” and then the woman turned and stopped. Sarah reminded her that in fact they knew each other and had even been friendly in the past. Sarah had lent her some clothing recently on a cold night. Darlene approached shyly and Sarah put her arms around her and asked what was wrong.

Between sobs, Darlene told us a horrific account of how she had just been raped. Alone and getting high up on the tracks, Darlene had been overtaken by a group of men, was hit over the back of the head and lost consciousness. It was only when she came too that she realized what had happened. In a state of disbelief she got up, ran along the tracks through the weeds and out to the street where Sarah and I spotted her.

At Sarah’s request, Darlene sat down, twisting and turning as she fought off the urge to keep running. She calmed enough to tell us what had happened, and reflected on the violent acts which had occurred just moments ago. With brutal awareness, Darlene admitted that her situation was helpless. Going to the police was not an option she said. She’d been picked up on drug and prostitution charges before and knew that like other prostitutes on the Ave who had been raped, she had zero credibility with the cops and no chance of seeking asylum. “They’ll just laugh at me and tell me I got what I deserved,” she said.


Jeffrey: What go your started on Heroin?

Sarah: My daughter’s father left, I went into a major depression stage, and I was almost 300 lbs, I started sniffing cocaine, and then uh somebody said, here try this. And so I started sniffing Heroin. I sniffed for a couple years and then a man shot me up while I was sleeping. So I started shooting up after that. I’ve been shooting ever since. I live day to day, cause I don’t leave money to pay somebody to stay in their house. I stay in an abandoned house or I just stay up for a couple days. Um, I’ll go a couple days without eating. My family, they love me but they can’t do anything for me. I have a 10 year old daughter, matter of fact, that’s my daughter and that’s my niece and um these are two of my four sisters. She’s pregnant and uh she’s the one who my parents- my dad just got laid off, so my parents live with her and my daughter lives her. She’s getting ready to have a baby and there’s no room for me. And I don’t really have any other family so I don’t have anywhere to go. Plus on top of that the fact that I have an addiction makes everything worse cause who wants to help anybody who has an addiction. I’m not a thief. I don’t rob anybody. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to but I just can’t bring myself to do that, you know what I mean. I’m not out here cause I want to be and I certainly don’t enjoy it. Matter of fact this is the worst, loneliest existence that there is in the world. I want to go to detox but I’ve tried with my insurance and they only give you a certain amount of time. And the time it takes, you know, the hour or two it takes to come up with at least like 10 or 20 bucks, you know, to get what you need to get and you have to do it all over again. I do about twelve bags of Heroin a day.

Jeffrey: What do you charge your clients?

Sarah: Anywheres from 25 to, I’ve gotten as much as a hundred bucks but um, I’ve been ripped off, I’ve been robbed, I’ve been raped, I’ve been stuck up, I’ve been gang raped, I’ve had a gun to my head, I’ve had a knife to my neck. I’ve been put out of the car you know, east bumble fuck. Um, I’ve had a lot of stuff happen to me, a lot of bad stuff. It’s by the grace of god I’m still, I don’t have HIV, I get tested every two months. I shoot out bottles, I use brand new needles every time I do. I won’t share needles with anybody. I take precautions, I always use protection. I don’t, certain kind of guys that I date, certain kinda guys I don’t date. I have cirrhosis of the liver and so for me Heroin is more like not a drug but kinda makes me move. Makes me able to go and my body has become so dependant on it that when I tried to detox cold turkey without having anything my body went like flip flop so bad that it almost killed me. So I can’t detox unless I’m in a hospital somewhere. Um, I would love to be able to be clean. I’ve overdosed 9 times. I was actually dead once. They brought me back. I was dead for seven minutes. They, they brought me back. Sometimes I just wish I could just go jump off the bridge. If I had enough nerve I probably would.

There is nothing more real than this situation. Um, standing on the corner selling your ass and everybody knowing what you’re doing is as real as it gets. Um, girls if you are woman enough to get in a car with a strange man, not knowing if its gonna be the last man that you see or the last person you see in life and then somebody comes up to you and say’s, Do you shoot up? And you look at them and you lie and you say, no I don’t do that, I mean, you’re a coward. Because you’re ballsy enough to do what you’re doing, your ballsy enough to give a 10-dollar blow job, you know because your sick, but you’re not ballsy enough to be honest about it, you know.

I look at it like this, I’m taking my life into my own hands every time I do whatever it is I do. I’m humiliated by doing what I do. You know but, unfortunately this is the lifestyle that I chose to lead you know and until I decide to fix it or actually fight to fix it I’m gonna be stuck in this, this hole. You know and it doesn’t matter how your family loves you or who loves you, or how many people want you to get clean. If you don’t love yourself you don’t give a fuck and that’s where I’m at. I just don’t. I don’t care. I have a beautiful daughter. You know, I have a nice family. You know, I wasn’t raised like this. I went to Catholic school my whole life. I was raised with morals and values and like this wasn’t one of them.


I met Tic Tac and Tootsie also known as the twins, Carroll (left) and Shelly (right) standing on the corner opposite the Huntingdon Park El Station along Kensington Avenue. At the time I made this photograph, the sisters were 20 years old and had been living on the street for one year.

Shelly: We barely prostitute, we do it once in a while so we can get somewhere to sleep. We do one a day.

Carroll: We mess around with Zanies, once in a while we do Wet, sometimes we do Percocet’s and that’s about it. We don’t do no hardcore drugs, dope, crack, none of that. We don’t drink… We’ve been out here a year. My dad lives in a halfway house and my mom lives with her boyfriend. She gives us money here and there but we can’t live with her. We’ve been raped, tied up, guys try to say they’re undercover cops… That’s why we stick together cause we try to be there for each other as much as we can… cause without each other I guarantee we would have been dead by now. We wouldn’t have made it this far. We were out all this winter. We had nowhere to live this whole winter and we made it, sleeping out on the street… together. And like… we’re twins but like… I’m the older sister. We’re seven minutes apart but still I feel obligated to take care of her and it hurts me that I can’t provide a house for her and stuff like that. So I try to do the best I can to make sure I get money so she has somewhere to rest her head, food, and stuff like that. No matter what I gotta do, any means necessary.


A few months after first meeting Carroll and Shelly I spot Carroll alone and asleep on the church steps adjacent to the Huntingdon El Station. It’s the middle of the day and Carroll is sleeping like a rock. Carroll often sleeps out in the open during the day as a safety precaution – a bag of her personal belongings tightly grasped in her lap. By making herself vulnerable she finds an odd sort of protection that activist and writer Jane Jacobs referred to as “Eye’s on the Streets” also known as Natural Surveillance. I approach and attempt to talk with her but she is inert, anchored to the steps. A storm is coming so I set up my camera quickly and get off one shot before a downpour hits. When the rain starts Carroll is brought back to life. She slowly gets up and walks under the tracks for shelter.


Mary: I’ve been out here for uh twenty, approximately twenty-two years with an eight-year period of sobriety.

When I was like first coming out here I was like thirteen, fourteen years old.

When I was younger I didn’t get a whole lot of attention. And uh, walking to school every day this, this man used to talk to me, used to make me feel good, he used to pay attention to me like he noticed me and he was older, he was like twenty years older than I was and um you know like I said I wasn’t with my Mom, I was really shy uh I was very insecure about my teeth. He just made me feel good and I remember like today it was like his birthday or something like why don’t you not go to school today and you know we’ll go get something to eat, you know and I was like oh cool you know and uh and here he let me in and uh like shot me up with heroin and uh and it turned into the meth scene and the cocaine scene and, and I just, I just had it, that gene in my body I guess sometimes they say it’s generic and you know I call it that gene, I have that gene that I have. It’s like an allergy. Once I put any kind of drug into my body I have an extremely hard time stopping.

I went to jail and I went to a rehab and like I had been to jail before, I was just so tired, I was so tired of this lifestyle. Well from the age of twelve, I really didn’t know anything else, you know. I just know I missed my family, you know and, and I remember telling the judge I said no matter how much time you give me please don’t send me back to the streets, send me to a program, whatever. And he did and from there I just rebuilt my life. I, I stayed clean for 8 years. I bought a home. I was a receptionist for a franchise corporation at Liberty Place. I had a son and he was four when I relapsed. And I didn’t step foot in the Kensington area for eight years and once I did I been here now for eight years. In which now I have a goal and you know I try to stay focused on it and I mean I go about it the right way, I’ve been saving some money and I plan on like, hopefully getting out of the neighborhood without a habit. I’m kinda weaning myself off. I’ll be forty-two years next, forty-two year old, next month, so it’s just like yeah.

I haven’t seen my son in about a year and prior to that I didn’t see him, I was a single parent for about four and a half years, and when I, I had three surgeries, that’s why I had a relapse. I wasn’t honest with the doctor and he prescribed me narcotics. So, but he didn’t know, I didn’t tell him you know and uh and once the prescription stopped then uh, there was that phenomenal craving.

And you know its, my family don’t understand because, because I do drugs doesn’t change my love for them. Or it doesn’t, we don’t have any protection around here. This is a horrible existence it really, really is a horrible existence you know and, and then the guilt, the guilt like, once I do get clean then the guilt, I have to face my family the guilt kinda takes me back like I don’t want to face this I’m such a bad person I cheated myself, how could I have done this you know. So I plan on just, just moving on by myself and moving out of state and having some money in my pocket and just rebuild, rebuild my life.

Like a lot of, like I just don’t do this for drugs I do this because I wanna eat because I like to buy clothes because I like small things you know. I did have a normal life at once you know but. The part that gets me is, the most is, how my family just don’t understand like this isn’t what I want to do this isn’t, I don’t choose this, I really don’t, but I think the whole thing you know I think it’s a shame my family doesn’t, like, like I really believe, like if my, if my family say like Mary come, come home stay with us like, if I can I would. You know like, like if it was my son, I think I would be there and I think a lot of it is because I can’t be with him. And it’s weird because I can’t be with him because I’m on drugs, but I’m on drugs because I can’t be with him.


Jenna: You know, I get out a little bit. I like to just work during the day. I don’t sit in one spot. I walk. Last year I was escorting. My dad was like stealing money from me and going and shooting powder— shooting coke. But I have a lot of regular customers who had insurmountable amounts of coke and I never messed with it. But the more it kept up, my kid’s dad doing it, the more I was like thinking you know… maybe… But I always knew where it took me you know, I couldn’t stop. I was on methadone but I had a three-bedroom house, a brand new car, kids in summer camp you know, everything appeared to be normal. I relapsed, I stopped paying the clinic, they kicked me off. I lost my house, I lost my car, went off the clinic and ended up out here.

I do much better during the day. When I escorted I had an ad in the city paper and I made at least 500 a day you know on an average day. I had bad days when I would make a hundred and fifty, that would be a bad day. But then this is a lot different. Right now I’ve been out here an hour and I haven’t got anything.


Krysta: I got out, I got, I been out since July, um…but I was in a recovery house for like 7 months, um, started getting high again just two months ago.

As soon as you start again, your habit’s just as bad as it was before you stopped. You know what I mean? Like, it doesn’t, like, build up again. It, it goes right back to where it was.

I, I know, you know what I’m saying, I know what the right thing to do is. I, I’m not at that point anymore where I’m just like, Oh I’m depressed, I’m a drug addict, you know what I mean? I know right from wrong and I know I can’t let things that happened to me in the past let, decide the way I live my life today. Right now I’m just, right now I’m just fucking up because I don’t care. You know what I mean? Because I, I’ve been clean, you know what I mean, and I, I know I can do it, and I, I just, I’m not like, I’m not where they’re at right now. They’re, they’re all, like, you know, depressed and shit, and I’m just, you know, I’m just fuckin up right now. You know, I mean, and I, I know I’ll get back to where I need to be, but this is what it, what it is right now.

I’ve been out on the Ave since 2001. Before, when I was 17, I started workin for escort services, and then I came out here in 2001, and I’ve been out here most of the time. I mean, I’ve been in jail a couple times, but most of the time I’ve been out here. But I’ve been doing dope for 16 years. I started doing dope when I was 14.

I was in Delaware County when I, I moved down here when I was like, 17. Cause like, back when I was 14 it was 1992 when Kurt Cobain killed himself, so like back then, it was like, cool to do heroin. You know what I mean? Me and my friend started doing dope, and, you know, it just turned into something different.

Jeffrey: What’d it turn into?

Krysta: Well back then, I just, you know, I liked the way it made me feel. It made everything go away. It made me feel like everything was okay. You know what I mean? I didn’t care what anybody thought of me, you know what I mean, I didn’t care about anything, and I liked it that way. But it’s not even like that anymore. I don’t even get high anymore. I just get well. And eve…even though I just started, I just came back again, I probably only got high for like the first couple days. And then after 4 days I had a, I had a habit. You know what I mean? And it’s, it’s just this now. You know what I mean? It’s just regular.

I’m trying to get Suboxone right now because my insurance isn’t going to pay for me to go to detox or anything again. So I’m trying to get Suboxone so I can detox myself then go to another recovery house. You know, but it’s hard cause I gotta buy em off the street, you know what I mean, so it’s hard when I got the money to go down there and see if there’s anybody out there that has em, and if, you know, if they don’t then I’m spending the money on, on drugs, you know, and then I gotta start all over again. So. Alright, I gotta go, I don’t want these cops talking to me.


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