The Penn Museum’s newest exhibition, Righteous Dopefiend: Homelessness, Addiction, and Poverty in Urban America, is quite different from the last one I saw there. And really, that speaks to the tremendous breadth of material the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is able to showcase — from ancient Mayan artifacts right up through contemporary urban photographs.
But I digress. Righteous Dopefiend presents the work of Penn anthropology professor Philippe Bourgois and photographer-ethnographer Jeff Schonberg, who spent more than a decade with a group of homeless addicts in San Francisco. The duo conducted interviews and observed the vagrants’ everyday lives, including their desperate attempts to generate income through burglary, panhandling, recycling and day labor.
Bourgois and Schonberg have described their resulting project as “a photo-ethnography of indigent poverty, social exclusion, and drug use…to explain why the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, has emerged as a pressure cooker for producing destitute addicts embroiled in everyday violence.”
The exhibition includes more than 40 black-and-white photographs, along with edited transcriptions, field notes and critical analysis from Schonberg and Bourgois, who is the Richard Perry University Professor of Medical Anthropology and a consulting scholar at the Museum.
In the coming months, the Museum will partner with other nonprofits and community groups on complementary projects and events, starting with a related multimedia installation at the Slought Foundation on view through Dec. 31. (The exhibition at the Museum will be up at least through May 2010.)
If you can’t make it to the show or want to dive deeper into the material, check out Righteous Dopefiend (University of California Press, 2009: $65 hardcover, $24.95 paperback) — the pair’s 392-page book of compelling black-and-white photographs and illuminating prose.