Inside the Life of a 'Righteous Dopefiend'

In San Francisco, during the dot-com boom of the '90s, homeless drug users were dispersed and dislocated throughout the city due to gentrification. The 2009 book, Righteous Dopefiend by Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg (who gets credit for all photos here), is an urban anthropological project that took place over the course of 12 years. The results force us to confront those people, the ones in the street that we walk past everyday. We see their bodies—dirty fingernails, teeth stained and crooked, skin scarred and ashen like the surface of the moon—but what we fail to realize is that most of the time we don’t see these people as people. It can be easier for us to keep walking so long as we neglect a basic fact, that these people are human beings who belong to and inhabit a world not all that different from ours. We are all of the same species.


Recently, in an act to shed some light on this invisible world, Mark Auslander, director of Central Washington University’s Museum of Culture and Environment, picked up Righteous Dopefiend as a museum exhibit. “The book is extraordinary,” said Mark. “But the exhibition reaches a lot of people who wouldn’t actually look at the book and they bring their own stories where, very passionately and beautifully, they recount to friends what their own experiences were.” 


Drug users typically aren’t your average museum-goer, who we imagine clad in argyle sweater-vests. Righteous Dopefiend has drawn a whole new audience to the museum. Philippe describes the people who show up as, “Family members who have lost a loved one to addiction, recovered addicts, and, still, others who have lost a friend.” 

Philippe then mentioned with respect to the exhibit that, “The most moving part, for me, is the space created for the kin of addicted people. There is no legitimate public space for mourning the loss of an addicted loved one. It’s almost like people think that it is the families’ fault for having an addicted love one and that’s just not the case. It’s like they’re carrying around all that pain of having had to throw someone out of their house who’s stealing everything from them. What else do you do but throw them out? The museum space provides a safe place for people to reflect on that.” 

“The opening part of the exhibition is where you meet Tina and Carter [the participants], where you learn about invisible suffering and about the possibilities or impossibilities of love on the street—that is what people talk about,” said Mark. 


I asked about the significance of the title and Jeff, the project's ethnographer-photographer, spoke to an irony where, “The person is trying to engage a sense of self-worth and respect but then there is also the self-deprecation of being a dope fiend.” 

Philippe elaborated, “What Jeff and I wanted to do was a double-entendre with America’s problem with drugs, that it has this zero-tolerance, righteous attitude toward drugs that then righteously throws people out of society and into deadly and dangerous spaces, which is where we worked with them.”  


“One young woman was coming through with her father, who had been a heroin injector for 16 years, and when they get to that picture of Carter’s military funeral, they stopped. The father said, ‘That could’ve been me and thank God I’m back with you.’” 

Throughout the study, the participants on the street were pleased to have Jeff and Philippe as company. “They were incredibly generous with their time,” said Jeff. “What eventually happened was genuine friendship and bonding. Tina would say, ‘Not only is Jeff in our lives but we’re in his.’ And they would almost feel betrayed when we weren’t around.” Philippe mentioned that Jeff and Tina grew especially close. 

The observations and patterns that developed over the course of the study are both surprising and heartbreaking. Jeff and Philippe expected to discover a tightknit community of drug users who transcend the racism and social disorientation of society at large. 


“I thought that the pharmacological power would, in a sense, do away with all of the racialized segregation that exists in America,” said Philippe. “What blew us away was in this tiny scene where you had African Americans, Latinos and one Asian, everyone was unified as an addicted body, but there was tremendous division. There was even a mini-white-flight between camps. When a set of African-American injectors came in, the white injectors would move further down the freeway, some 50 yards away.” 


Jeff added, “And so it wasn’t this coming together at all, to the contrary, it mimicked what was going on in other ways. They even experienced the high itself physically very differently.” On the one hand, African-American injectors would openly nod in public and make orgasmic groans as if stepping into a warm bath while on the other hand, white injectors claimed they did not nod at all and only used to ward off dope-sickness—they would secretly go on the nod in private." 

The white users declared crack as a drug for African Americans and claimed to never have smoked it “on purpose.” 

African-American injectors would also try their utmost to hit a vein every single time, no matter how bloody they got trying to register. The white injectors were more despondent and gave up on mainlining because their veins had all collapsed. They resorted to sticking needles through their clothes, into muscles and fatty tissue, resulting in more negative health consequences, like infections and abscesses. A rich source of fieldnotes and images reveal these racialized differences.


Some of the most striking racial differences involved the user and his or her family. “The African-American families were constantly visiting and trying to get them to come back,” said Philippe. Meanwhile, “The white families would throw the addict out and break relations with them sooner than the African American and the Latino families.” 


Our conversation kept revolving around the notion that these tableau's are playing out in the backdrop of our everyday lives. How does understanding this world affect the world we occupy—where we buy fancy clothes and objects, eat home-cooked meals, take warm showers, and doze off every night to television programs made for our entertainment? As an exhibit, "Righteous Dopefiend" is igniting community discussions. 


The hope, then, is that these powerful and tragic stories begin to penetrate our collective consciousness to the painful point of being unable ignore them any longer. 

"Righteous Dopefiend" was originally an exhibition at University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology. For more information about bringing the exhibit to your area click here.

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