Treating People as People

A few years ago I came across the book Righteous Dopefiend, by anthropologist Philippe Bourgois and photographer Jeff Schonberg. Written after over 10 years of field study, the book looks at the lives of several homeless addicts in the San Francisco area during the 1990’s. There is a lot to be learned from the experiences of both the authors, and the addicts they spent so much time with. For me, the book opened my eyes to the structural factors that contribute to major social issues like homelessness and drug addiction, and changed my feelings about the necessity for programs such as needle-exchanges and safe injection sites. Perhaps most importantly, though, the book affected the way that I looked at the panhandlers, homeless, and drug addicted people I came into contact with daily living in a large city. It’s easy to look at people as simply the sum of their actions, but Bourgois and Schonberg reminded me that it is necessary first and foremost to see people as people.

These feelings were echoed during last week’s screening of Everywhere but Safe. Like Righteous Dopefiend, the documentary reminds viewers that, regardless of their decisions, everyone deserves to feel safe and to be treated respectfully. Additionally, the film highlights the potential public health risks that can result when injection drug users (IDU) do not have access to clean injection materials, and a safe place to inject. In this respect, both the book and the film point out that the use of Safe Injection Facilities (SIF) can not only help stop the spread of disease, but also can be a first point of contact for those IDUs who want to get clean.

The discussion after the screen got me thinking about the role that museums can play in this situation. Should museums advocate for the needs of IDUs? Could they provide a needle exchange? A safe injection space? The photographs taken and used throughout Righteous Dopefiend were eventually turned into an exhibition at University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The exhibition has since traveled to Central Washington University’s Museum of Culture and the Environment, and was on display at the American Anthropological Association’s 2009 Annual Meeting .After the opening of the exhibit, Bourgois commented on how the images helped to create a safe space not for drug addicts, but for the members of their family who were often grieving over the loss of an addicted loved one [1]. Like IDUs, family members of drug addicts are also often stigmatized, and find it difficult to discuss the their experience. Even if museums choose not to be advocates or community centers, they must not shy away from talking about difficult issues like injection drug use. In doing so they can reach out to a previously untapped audience, and can help create a place for dialogue and reflection for those who might not otherwise have it.

[1] Siegel, Zachary. Inside the Life of a ‘Righteous Dopefiend’ accessed May 10, 2016.

Image Credit: Jeff Schonberg, Righteous Dopefiend

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