Controversy: ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’

It is fair to say that upon it’s release, Eugene Richards’ ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’ had a mixed reception from both the public and critics. Richards’ depiction of a predominantly black, poor, deprived community was seen by some to ignore the bigger issue of drug use in 90’s America, which was not exclusive to any class, or race.

Those who argued that Richards’ portrayal was biased, and that he was using sensationalism to sell photojournalism cited Richards’ use of cocaine as well as the fact that he had reportedly provided one subject with clean syringes as reason to doubt the validity of the images.

The arguments of bias, drug use and sensationalism in ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’ are best represented in two NY Times articles, along with both a letter from Richards to the article author, and one in reply to Richards.

Links to these articles and letters can be seen below, along with select quotes from each piece of text

- Matt Johnston

Coke Wars
The original article from the New York Times, By Brent Staples
Published: February 06, 1994

‘Like most of his kind, Mr. Richards is a voyeur, obsessed with the grisly. He is a master of the brutal image, though his is a cold, distant brutality that whispers instead of shouting.’

‘Take note of the needle; it could well be one of those that Mr. Richards says he bought Mariella because the ones she owned were too dull for proper use. Note also that Mr. Richards smoked his share of crack to get a feel for the subject.’

‘Reading and looking, I couldn’t help wonder: why are nearly all of the people in these photographs black? The vast majority of drug addicts in America are white. This could be said of any phenomenon in the United States, of course, but why is the white aspect of drug addiction so consistently invisible?’

©EUGENE RICHARDS

Richards to Staples – Letter to editor
Eugene Richards responds to Staples original article, addressing his use of cocaine, the clean syringes and his choice of subjects to document


‘Brent Staples’s review of “Cocaine True Cocaine Blue” (Feb. 6), my book on hard-core drug addiction, is a continuation of the ancient tradition of trying to kill the bearer of bad news. Mr. Staples’s weapon of choice here is the charge of bias.’

‘when I had completed my photographs, I delivered disposable syringes from a diabetic friend to Mariella. I did so after witnessing her jamming a bent needle first into her arm, then her neck. I knew that this woman I cared for would soon be using the syringes of others in that AIDS-plagued neighborhood.’

‘I did indeed reveal to Richard B. Woodward, the author of that article, that I had tried crack back in 1986, long before working on “Cocaine True Cocaine Blue,” but never again.’

‘Look, “Cocaine True Cocaine Blue” is quite obviously not a treatise on all drugs and drug users in America. It is not about a monthly snort of coke or casual marijuana use. From cover picture and title to the final paragraph, it is concerned with family- and neighborhood-destroying, racism-engendering, hard-core cocaine addiction.’

©EUGENE RICHARDS

Staples to Richards
At the end of Eugene Richards letter to Staples, you can find Staples’ response

‘I share Mr. Richards’ horror at the drug-related carnage in our streets. But he misstates the case when he says I accused him of “bias.” My review contained no such accusation; I worked especially hard to avoid that.’

‘I regret causing Eugene Richards the anguish and ill feeling represented in his letter. I respect his photographic eye and his considerable skills as a journalist. As my review said: “His works cannot be called picture books. He arranges his images to make what amount to visual novels, which he augments with pungent stretches of reflection, dialogue or description.”’

©EUGENE RICHARDS

Review/Photography; ‘Cocaine True': Art or Sensationalism? By Charles Hagen
Published: March 11, 1994

‘Mr. Richards presents his powerful study with the impassioned anger of a biblical prophet. Many of his pictures seem intended to shock his audience out of any complacency it may feel about the scope or severity of the drug plague.’

‘But the real problem with Mr. Richards’s project is not the story it tells, but the ones it doesn’t tell. The pictures fit within the traditional functions of photojournalism, in which photographers, as surrogates for a middle-class audience, look at the problems of the poor.’

‘That may be too much to ask from any group of photographs. And despite the project’s limited scope, Mr. Richards’s pictures throw a harsh light on a world that is usually hidden from public view and give voices and faces to some people trapped there.’

©EUGENE RICHARDS

The arguments raised by these articles is just as prevalent with the role photojournalism plays in today’s fast paced, seen-it-all-before media audience. If you have anything to add to this discussion of Richards work, or the modern equivalents, drop us an email or leave a comment below.


- Matt Johnston

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2 Responses to Controversy: ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’

  1. I’m generally sympathetic to Brent Staple’s critique of “Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue” (now, as I was in 1994). He’s right to insist that the book can’t be properly evaluated without situating it within a society and culture that has been shaped, consciously and unconsciously, by racist ideologies and practices. It does seem to me, however, that the general thrust of his argument misses the most essential point.

    Yes, it’s a problem that the faces in the book are overwhelmingly black and brown, although the cocaine problem — contra Richard’s self-defense — wasn’t confined to African-American and Latino communities. Drug use by whites may have been hidden — harder to see and to photograph because of the defenses that social class and racial privilege can erect — but it was a major element in the crisis of the mid-90s. Richards (and the writer Edward Barnes, with whom he worked) certainly should have foregrounded this fact. Not to do so was to reinforce ever-prevalent racist stereotypes about who uses illegal drugs and who doesn’t.

    Staples alludes to, but does not develop, a much more important critique when he says that “Photographs can shock and dismay, but are useless to explain such complicated matters as economic decline [which underpinned the demand for drugs].” This is the heart of the matter.

    Photographs, as every theorist and most photographers will tell you, are very good at showing us how things look, but very bad at explaining why they look that way. Documentary work, however, must be as much about the “why” as the “how.” Pretty pictures, scorching pictures, gut-wrenching pictures aren’t enough. Context and analysis are just as important. And this is where Richards fails utterly. Or, perhaps, “fails” is the wrong word. He doesn’t even try.

    I’m tempted to say that it was rashly irresponsible for Richards to have published the book without attempting to explain the crisis he captured in his images. This was not, after all, an exercise in fine art photography. It’s documentary, and its purpose is to help us to understand the world in which we live.

    Instead, I fear, many readers came (and come) away knowing less about the drug crisis, rather than more. In the absence of analysis and explanation from Richards, many people would have fallen back on ideas already circulating in the culture. A great many — not all — of those notions would have been deeply racist.

    It’s not so much that Richards’ images are decontextualized, it’s that their context would too often have been America’s reflexively racist culture, rather than its history and political-economy. As a result, the photos reinforce, rather than undermine, stereotypes of black and Latino depravity and criminality.

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