Photographer Jordan Baumgarten grew up skateboarding, but now his camera—along with a Kahr CM9—is what he carries with him when exploring sketchy areas.
Skateboards are silly, amazing toys. Those seven-plies of Canadian maple hold the magical power to blur the reality of an addict. Scientists have been unable to pinpoint the exact reason why, but habitual users are often affected with the notion that the board somehow makes them invisible, like Tolkein's ring, allowing them to go wherever they want so long as they wield the object.
Skaters say their board is a 'ghetto pass,' meaning it allows them to enter any hood, anywhere, and play with their toy on any ledge/bank/rail they choose, regardless of how high the area ranks on America's Deadliest Neighborhoods List. I chalk it up to the fact that most skaters are burnt or borderline retarded. I'm no exception, and the feeling of invincibility a skateboard provides has nearly gotten me killed on numerous occasions. Over the course of a year in a half beginning in 1993—before New York was power-washed—I would make the trek up to Harlem to buy bricks of rat-weed armed only with my skateboard. During that time I watched two drug dealers get gunned down, was brought into tenements full of automatic weapons and drugs while infants crawled about the living room, mugged in alleys, had guns put to my head on the subway platform, and a number of other shitty situations.
Twenty years, a wife, and two babies later, I've gotten just a little bit smarter and am thankful that I didn't end up face down in a Harlem gutter at the tender age of 17.
Philadelphia photographer and former skater Jordan Baumgarten, however, is still plagued with the fearlessness that puts skaters in places they don't belong. These days his camera serves as his 'ghetto pass,' but at age 30 he has enough sense to know the neighborhoods he photographs in are not very welcoming, so he's chosen to arm himself with a Kahr CM9 full of hollowpoints in addition to his camera.
VICE: What is your history with the city of Philadelphia?
Jordan: I was born in Philly in 1983 and raised across the river in New Jersey. In 2002, I started college at the University of the Arts in Center City Philadelphia and lived in a different apartment almost every year. I left for graduate school in 2009 at RISD in Providence. My fiancé and I loved West Philly, so when we moved back that's where we wanted to live, no question. Only, we couldn't afford to live in Spruce Hill. So, we settled in the West Powelton/Mantua section of West Philly. It was the dead of winter, so the neighborhood looked pretty great; it wasn't until it warmed up and people really started to come outside that we realized we had made a big mistake.
Why is that?
The street we lived on was the veritable DMZ between University City and Mantua, a neighborhood colloquially nicknamed, "The Bottom." When we first moved in some of the people in the neighborhood were less than welcoming. I once was told, "City limits is that way, cracker." Somebody called me a "pussy ass whiteboy" (which, at the time, my fiancé insisted was because he obviously knew me). Someone in a car even offered to eat my fiance's ass out, "All night long." Then summer came around, and when it gets hot in Philadelphia people get short-tempered and it feels like something is always on the verge of popping off. Add that to the abundant amount of guns here (legal or not) and the racial tension in this city, and you get a pretty volatile environment.
What made you want to take photos there? And if the neighborhood is that bad why would think people would be OK with you photographing them?
I can't say that I really WANTED to shoot photos of Philly, but I was pretty broke and unable to travel elsewhere. So, the work came out of necessity. About 98 percent of the images I've made since moving back here were never made with the intention of going out to make images. I had my point and shoot or iPhone in my pocket as I moved around the city and just photographed what happened.
Giving myself permission to take photos here is something I struggle with on a daily basis. On one hand, I live here like everyone else and feel as though I have a right to make images. On the other hand, I acknowledge the built in power dynamic that exists between me—a white, 30-year-old MFA kid with a camera—and many of my subjects. I feel horrible even saying that, but it's a reality. Sometimes I feel like I'm 'photo-raping' people or their situation. It's a hard thing to rectify in my mind, and I think that's a good thing; it means I'm human. I suppose I want to show that Philly is an amazing place with incredible people but some pretty severe problems.
When did you start carrying a gun with you while taking photos?
I started carrying a gun to take photos shortly after moving to West Philly. I am a white guy with some nice cameras, so I stand out like a sore thumb. I'm not really in the best shape so if something happens running isn't really an option. Also, I hate to say it but I don't really have much faith in the Philadelphia Police Department. Their response time sucks and every time I've had to call them about something they don't do shit. I have more faith in my own ability to protect myself than I do in their ability to do their job.
What kind of gun do you carry?
I bought my first handgun when I was living in Providence. I was working on a project about gun culture at the time and had to have one in order to get the access I needed. I wanted a reliable gun with some name recognition in the communities I was operating in, so I bought a Glock 17. It was mostly a range gun and a home defense gun, so, for the majority of the time, it lived in my gun safe. When I got my carry permit I decided to switch it up to something smaller—a full size Glock isn't really conducive for concealed carry. Also, it held 17 rounds (plus one in the chamber), and who really needs that much firepower walking through the streets if you aren't police or military? So, I traded it in for a subcompact Ruger LC9 and then eventually I moved on to a Kahr CM9, which is what I currently have. Hollowpoints are legal in the state of Pennsylvania, so I use those.
Have you had to use the gun?
I've never shot anyone or shot at anyone and I hope I never do. I did have to brandish it once though. A guy approached me and tried to take me to an ATM. I showed him I had a gun so he would back off, but he tested me and got a little closer. I lifted it from its holster, and he took off. After that experience I spent a lot of time visiting scenes of recent shootings. As weird as it sounds, I wanted to place myself at these murder sites to try and understand the place of the victim, and the aggressor. I became consumed with what it would have been like to shoot and kill that man who tested me. I even visited a county morgue near Gettysburg and had them walk me through what happens when a body gets brought in. It was a pretty intense experience and I didn't really handle it all that well.
What's the neighborhood you're living in now like?
The breakdown of our block is like this: families, young couples, drug dealers, junkies, and prostitutes. I love my neighbors, though. They are super caring, family-oriented, and extremely vigilant when it comes to watching the drug dealers, junkies, and prostitutes. As troubled as it must look from the outside, once you're in, you're IN, and we take care of our own.
We've got one crack house on the block that has been a good source for crazy shit. There have been fights, arguments, people showing up looking for money. A couple weeks ago a drug dealer came by looking for a crack head who was known to be squatting there and said to the block, "if anyone finds him and puts him in the hospital, I'll give you two g's." The neighbors want that house gone so bad that a couple of them even broke in to disconnect the electricity, just to make their life unpleasant and motivate them to leave. Actually, as I'm writing this, smoke is pouring from their windows because one of the junkies set her bed on fire.
Does your fiancé ever worry you won't come home alive from a shoot?
Yes, she worries. She recognizes the necessity of the gun in our life as it is right now, and she made some rules when we first talked about buying it. 1.) If it's in the house, she has to know how to use it, and 2.) No more than one gun in the house while we're renting. She hates that I carry and prefers that I don't carry when we're together. She knows that I'm risking more than I have to when I carry, and that terrifies her. She's always had nightmares about me leaving her, or me dying.
You just released your first book, Briar Patch. What are you working on next?
Briar Patch came about as I was trying to figure out my relationship to the city after being gone for a couple years. I didn't set out to make any of the images in the book; they just happened as I navigated life in the neighborhood. Right now, I find myself in a slightly similar situation: living in a new place and trying to photograph my way through it, making sense of it. This new place reminds me a lot of a chip-toothed smile: it's friendly and familiar and welcoming, but it's just a little bit "off." After a while all you can see are those little things that make it a little unsettling. I'd like to take that idea and use it as inspiration for my next project.
You can pick up his first book, Briar Patch, today through Sunday at the Parts and Labor stand at the New York Book Fair, or order it online here.
Rest In Peace to the great Uncle Lonnie.