“I understood how afraid of the world they were”

For nearly three years, photographer Jessica Dimmock documented the lives of a group of young heroin users who lived on the ninth floor of a building in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. She gained entrée to the apartment through a cocaine dealer who approached her in the street. At the time, Jessica was studying documentary photography and photojournalism at the International Center of Photography.

The Ninth Floor project became a book, won the Inge Morath Award for Photojournalism and was published in several magazines, including The New York Times Magazine. Since then, she’s become a full member of VII Photo, her work has appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, The Sunday Times, Time, and she has done video work for HBO and Doctors Without Borders.

Jessica gave us detailed insight into the production of The Ninth Floor.

CV:How did The Ninth Floor project get started?

JD: I was with my camera on my way to a dinner party and was approached by a man who seemed a little bit crazy. He said that he had been photographed by a student before. He asked me what was I taking pictures of, and if I maybe wanted to take pictures of him. He made it clear that he was a cocaine dealer. TheN he said, ‘You can follow me around if you want.’ I had two bottles of wine for the dinner party I was going to. I put them down in the street and said ‘Ok.’

I followed him around for three separate evenings. I had no idea of what I was doing, except that I knew that there was something there. I went everywhere that he went; from really fancy parties to people’s apartments.

The last place he took me to was the apartment where the Ninth Floor story happened. He used to trade cocaine for heroin to those guys. It was really late at night, probably 4 a.m. In the elevator he said, ‘You’re never going to believe what’s on the other side of this elevator.’ Then, the doors opened and I found myself in a crazy apartment in a really rich part of town. He brought me in and said, ‘This is Jessica, my photographer.’ He was arrested a couple of days later.  I’ve never spoken to him again.

CV : Did you start shooting right away?

JD: No. The first time I went back I just brought them prints. I thought it was a little bit risky because those are not the most flattering images. But they loved them. People get what they look like.

CV: Did being a student help you somehow?

JD: Definitely. Being a student gives you the opportunity to experiment and not be thinking about your editor. You’re just taking the pictures that make sense to you, because that’s the only reason to be doing that. You’re not making them for anyone else at that point, you just make them for yourself.

CV: How did you get such intimate access?

JD: I worked very slowly. Sometimes I would come over and bring them prints. Sometimes I would just hang out with them. Sometimes I would come over, feel that something wasn’t quite right and just leave. Sometimes I would shoot a lot. By doing a combination of those things, they got used to me. The more they accepted me as someone who was part of this crazy mix, the more it was ok.

CV: Once in a while you spent the night or several days on end there.

JD: It was a difficult thing to do but I am very glad I did it.  I wanted to get into the same emotional spaces as them. I needed to stay and understand what night and morning felt like in that place.  By doing it, I understood them, I understood their fears. I understood how afraid of the world they were; how isolated, how dark it was inside of the apartment.

CV: Did you show them prints throughout the process?

JD: Yes and it was a really effective thing. It was really important for me that they didn’t feel outside of the process. They made a collage of all the pictures that I gave them. We are talking about people who don’t do anything. A cat died in that apartment and it took them, like, 10 days to get the body out. They made the collage because they felt engaged with the project, because they felt part of the process.

CV: When did you feel that the project had come to an end?

JD: I had won an award that involved the publication of a book. I also felt that I had seen the darkest moments. The only darkest thing would be to watch one of them die. I was not going to do that to myself, or to the audience of the project. Everyone got it at that point, and they didn’t need to see the last morbid bit.

CV: Was it hard to detach from the project and your subjects?

JD: It was. I had never done a project before. I spent so much time with them that didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know how to not be with them. I had to get involved in other things. But I kept seeing them.

CV: What were some of the lessons that you learned by doing this project?

JD: This project taught me to value long-term work. For some reason, we have an appetite to connect with people by putting ourselves in their shoes, by seeing what they see. And long-term work is the best way to that because you can really see what’s happening in their lives.

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