Pain and Power: Images of Human Suffering in Righteous Dopefiend

Anna Cox

Anna Cox is from Great Falls, Virginia. While officially undeclared, she plans to major in Economics and minor in French and Francophone Studies. At Davidson, she has enjoyed being a member of Rusk Eating House, a competitor on the Mock Trial Team, and Secretary of the Pre-Law Society. She loves to run, read, and listen to music. Anna’s essay was written for Professor Van Hillard’s first-year writing class, Representing the Other.

Images of human suffering occupy a difficult space in journalism and documentary. They often add a level of depth and accuracy to a portrayal of tragedy that cannot be reached by words alone, but they are also liable to violate the privacy and agency of those they represent.1 Their prevalence in today’s media amplifies these problems, suggesting a need to examine the ethics of their use. In their article “The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times,” Arthur and Joan Kleinman outline multiple ways in which depictions of human suffering can abuse their subjects. In their estimation, images of human suffering can only be publicized in a morally acceptable manner if they avoid “essentializing, naturalizing, or sentimentalizing” suffering.2 In other words, depictions must not reduce their subject’s life to one element, make normal an occurrence that is exceptional, or draw excessively on the emotions of the viewer. The Kleinmans also discuss the possibility that representations of suffering do not adequately convey the social aspect of human misery; rarely does an individual’s pain effect only himself.3 A third set of concerns deals with the elevation of either the photographer or the audience at the expense of those depicted, as the Kleinmans fear that representations of suffering remove the power of their subjects by making each one “an image of innocence and passivity.”4 This elimination of the subject’s agency transfers all the power in the photographer-subject relationship to the photographer.

While not directly addressed in the Kleinman’s essay, Philippe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg’s photo-ethnography, Righetous Dopefiend, falls under the genre of work that is susceptible to the problems the Kleinmans identify. The Kleinmans base their examination of images of suffering primarily on two photographs: Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a starving Sudanese girl being stalked by a vulture, and a highly sexualized New York Times photograph of a child prostitute in Bangladesh.5 While the Kleinman’s exact concerns differ between the two photographs, the images share two important characteristics: both depict people in precarious situations, and both were created with the intent to publicize their subjects’ suffering. Righteous Dopefiend, an anthropological study of San Francisco’s homeless heroin addicts, contains many images that share these traits. The addicts live precarious lives; while arguably not in the same immediate danger as the girl in Carter’s photograph, they exist in a state of perpetual flight from both law enforcement and torturous withdrawal symptoms. The moments Bourgois and Schonberg capture in photographs reflect this danger, making their subject matter similar to that of the photographs the Kleinmans discuss.

The images in Righetous Dopefiend are also similar to those in the Kleinman’s essay in that they were created with the intent to publicize the suffering of their subjects. The authors hope to make known “the relationships between large-scale power forces and intimate ways of being” so that policy changes can be made to ameliorate the righteous-dopefiend-1 Pain and Power: Images of Human Suffering in Righteous Dopefiendaddicts’ situation.6 Though Righetous Dopefiend does not have as wide an audience as a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, or an image in a popular newspaper, the photography it contains is nonetheless meant to make public suffering that, before being photographed, was very private. This combination of suffering as subject matter and publicity makes the photographs in Righteous Dopefiend analogous to those in the Kleinman’s essay, meaning that the Kleinmans’ argument can be used to evaluate Bourgois’ and Schonberg’s work. While the authors are fairly successful in avoiding essentializing, naturalizing, or sentimentalizing pain as they portray the social aspects of suffering, the book does occasionally increase the representational power of the photographer and ethnographer at the expense of the subjects in ways that the Kleinmans’ fear.

Bourgois and Schonberg take great care to avoid essentializing their subjects, mostly by using accompanying prose to provide ethical context. For example, one photograph shows Carter, one of the addicts depicted, injecting heroine into Tina, his companion’s, arm.7 Without any accompanying text, this image would certainly risk essentializing Tina , since its distinguishing feature is the needle being inserted into her vein, thereby identifying Tina merely as an another addicted body attending fully to the moment of her “fix.” This effect is increased by the fact that Carter’s face is not shown, reducing him to the role of supplier, a pair of hands used to inject the drug. The background is indecipherable, keeping the image from being grounded in time or space, robbing it of narrative context. There is little to give Tina or Carter a more fully human dimension aside from their existence as users, as vehicles for heroin consumption. The discourse associated with the image, however, reveals the complicated social context surrounding Carter’s injecting Tina. Bourgois and Schonberg explain that Carter’s injecting Tina “was a way of expressing their romantic intimacy and further reinforced Carter’s assumed responsibility to generate enough income for her new heroin habit.”((Ibid.)) This explanation allows both subjects to appear as multifaceted individuals with fuller identities beyond that of mere addicts; it illustrates the complexity of their relationship to each other and to the drug. Without the text, the viewer would have no way of knowing that Carter figures injecting Tina as an act of “love,” or that Tina is new to the use of heroin. Because of the accompanying text, the image avoids the essentializing effects the Kleinmans identify in Carter’s photograph of the Sudanese infant.

Bourgois and Schonberg take great care to avoid essentializing their subjects, mostly by using accompanying prose to provide ethical context.

The naturalization of suffering–the misrepresentation of suffering as an inevitable part of a certain culture–is also not especially problematic in Righteous Dopefiend.  Referencing the example of the photograph of the starving Sudanese girl and the resulting generalizations made by Americans about the Sudanese, the Kleinmans warn that images representing suffering in one culture are likely to reinforce stereotypes when distributed widely in another. Though we glimpse addicts managing their dependency (injecting heroin, preparing the drug, storing needles), the bulk of the images depict the residents of the homeless encampments in normative activities: conversing with friends, contemplating their lives, sleeping, or eating. In this way, the addicts are known to us as whole persons whose lives are not completely defined by their struggle, their pain, or their precarity. Bourgois and Schonberg urge us to understand them as persons within their communities.

A casual viewer of some of the photographs in “Chapter 3: A Community of Addicted Bodies” could accuse the authors of sentimentalizing the suffering of the addicts. Photographs depicting abcesses or amputees, at first glance and without reading the surrounding text, are undeniably shocking. For example one photograph shows Hogan with one arm severely scarred, and one arm amputated.8. With no explanation, the photograph provides a sentimentalized representation of Hogan’s suffering; it induces intense pity, with no layers of response beyond pure emotion. However, the authors include an extensive background of the photograph in which they detail Hogan’s trip to the hospital and his neglectfully early release, describing Hogan “hobbling down Edgewater Boulevard leaning on Felix’s shoulder immediately following his release from the hospital.”9 Though the inclusion of this account does not make the emotional response to the photograph any less intense, it does provide a layer of meaning beyond Hogan’s pain. This extra dimension eases the sentimentalizing effect because it directs the audience’s emotion. The specification of the inattentive and unsympathetic hospital system as the clear cause for Hogan’s pain identifies a specific problem to be dealt with. The text provides a rational outlet for the emotion catalyzed by the image; it helps stir an audience to action rather than inducing aimless depression.

Bourgois and Schonberg are conscious of the social aspects of suffering, one of the Kleinmans’ central concerns. A series of three photographs showing Tina and Carter in various stages during and after injection very clearly convey the social nature of their suffering. The three images depict Tina injecting herself as Carter looks on; Tina laughing in the foreground as Carter, holding a needle, laughs in the background; and finally, therighteous-dopefiend-1 Pain and Power: Images of Human Suffering in Righteous Dopefiend two in a loving embrace.10 The two most prominent concepts in the photo are Tina’s and Carter’s love for one another and (slightly less emphatically) their heroin use. This characterization of the two as lovers first and addicts second reveals how their relationship links their suffering to each other. This idea is especially clear in the first photograph, where Carter watches closely as Tina injects herself. The text surrounding the images reveals that the photograph depicts Tina learning how to inject herself, shedding light on the fact that Carter is taking care to make sure that she does so properly.11 The images and text illustrate how their heroin habits are linked and, likewise, how their suffering is mutualistic.  They suffer not only simultaneously but also reciprocally, both with and for each other. By conveying this dynamic, the authors represent the full spectrum of each person’s pain, confining neither Tina nor Carter to singular spheres. They avoid the Kleinmans’ fear that images of suffering tend to isolate the subject outside of his or her social context.

Despite Bourgois’ and Schonberg’s careful efforts to represent their subjects ethically, their work occasionally participates in the victimization of the homeless addicts. The Kleinmans identify this potential problem in their essay; they assert that in some depictions of suffering, the sufferer “becomes a victim, an image of innocence and passivity, someone who cannot represent himself, who must be represented.”12 It is possible that in facilitating the public representation of addicts’ lives, Bourgois and Schonberg may symbolically rob them of their powers of self-representation. This is not to say that the structural changes that the authors identify in their conclusions could not benefit the addicts, but rather that by assuming responsibility for the portrayal and intended eventual uplift of the homeless, the authors negate the possibility that their subjects could do anything to help themselves. The photograph of Hogan’s mangled body and its accompanying text exemplifies righteous-dopefiend-1 Pain and Power: Images of Human Suffering in Righteous Dopefiendthis victimization. Hogan is presented as helpless, lost in a hostile system from which he has no hope of escape. While the image and text are effective in inspiring the audience to action, they have the detrimental effect of indicating the authors and the audience as the source of any real change, removing any power Hogan himself may exercise. It is also significant that the authors themselves are never depicted in the images in Righteous Dopefiend; this effectively separates them from the suffering in their photographs, delineating victims with little power from observers with much more.

Before condemning Bourgois and Schonberg for victimizing their subjects, however, it is important to recognize that the issue of power differentials is inherent to the very genre of documentary.

Before condemning Bourgois and Schonberg for victimizing their subjects, however, it is important to recognize that the issue of power differentials is inherent to the very genre of documentary itself. The language of power differentials is inherent to the very genre of documentary itself. It may be impossible to document human suffering without creating a power imbalance, as the relationship between the audience and the subject is narrow and one-sided. The audience can never perfectly understand a subject’s life, nor can a subject actively participate in how that audience interprets the information presented by the documentarian. In this sense, it is the documentarian and the audience who hold most power in the rhetorical relationship. The agency of the subject is entirely absent from the process of production, distribution, and reception. If a documentary cannot be produced without limiting the power of its subjects, then representing suffering becomes a question of balancing the project’s benefits and liabilities. Is it possible to represent the suffering other without more or less victimizing the subject? If so, what makes such a representation acceptable?

Through images and texts, Bourgois and Schonberg carefully adjust their representation of San Francisco’s homeless heroin addicts to avoid many of the sticking points the Kleinmans identify, but they cannot fully escape the power imbalance inherent in the documentary genre. It is left to their audience to evaluate whether the good that can come from these representations–for example, the potential solutions the authors offer in their conclusion–is worth the victimization of the subjects. These same considerations much be taken in account in every case of the visual or linguistic representations of those who suffer. We must judge whether the propagation of such images causes significant good to outweigh the harm in this imbalanced relationship between the viewer and the subject.



Bourgois, Philippe and Jeffrey Schonberg. Righteous Dopefiend. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Kleinman, Arthur and Joan Kleinman. “The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times.” Daedalus 125, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 1-23.



  1. I would like to thank my classmates in Writing 101: Representing the Other and our professor, Dr. Hillard, for providing thought-provoking discussion of the ideas in this paper and for helping me through the revision process. []
  2. Arthur Kleinman and Joan Kleinman, “The Appeal of Experience; the Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times,” Daedalus 125, no. 1 (Winteer 2009): 2. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Ibid., 10. []
  5. Ibid., 3. []
  6. Philippe Borgois and Jeffrey Schonberg, Righteous Dopefiend (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 5. []
  7. Ibid., 243. []
  8. Ibid., 105 []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Ibid., 245. []
  11. Ibid., 246. []
  12. Kleinman and Kleinman, 10. []