Welcome to the lives of drug addicts and the homeless in Aarhus. Please check your preconceptions at the door.
I recently spent time with a handful of incredible individuals over the course of three days at three different locations: a homeless man’s tent made from tarpaulin, cardboard, and wood; Nåleparken (Needle Park), the only public space in Aarhus where junkies can freely shoot up; and Værestedet i Jægergårdsgade, a shelter and community house.
As an outsider, I was greeted with wariness and curiosity, but most of the people I met were welcoming. With no certainty that they would ever trust me, I introduced myself and began by asking them to tell me about themselves and how they had come to be where they were.
For three days we spoke, drank coffee together and laughed. When they eventually became comfortable with my presence, they allowed me to photograph them, laying bare their suffering, strength and fleeting departures from sadness. A few of them also shared with me the very personal act of smoking or injecting heroin and other drugs – acts that many of them perform daily just to get by.
The result of my experience is a photo essay divided into two parts: one that depicts these people’s lives as defined by their addiction and homelessness, and one that shows their lives as community members at Værestedet.
Through this dichotomy, these fringe members of society are brought to the foreground, revealing stories that are at times shocking and tragic, but always utterly raw and – though we often overlook or wilfully ignore it – human.
Now Rasmus receives free heroin twice a day from Kontakthuset, a heroin recovery clinic in Aarhus. Tortured by his past and his current existence, he speaks to high school students to warn them about the dangers of drug abuse. “If I can stop one person from doing what I’ve done, I’ve made a difference,” he said. “I can’t stop thinking about the people I’ve hurt because I needed to get drugs. Over the years, the veins in his arms have sclerosed (scarred) due to repeated use, leaving him with groin hits as a last resort. “I live in hell. There is nothing good about this life.”
Jimmy Kragh, 45, gasps and withdraws the blood from his arm as he injects a morning dose of heroin. “I need this to start my day, to make it through the day.” Kragh is homeless and a daily heroin user. “I used to be a butcher,” he said. “Not anymore.”
Irag, a long-time regular heroin user, did not want his full name, face or age to be revealed. He smokes heroin, bought with his pension, in Nåleparken. Surrounded by heroin in his youth in Iran, he continued to use after moving to Denmark. Relapsing into heroin use despite multiple attempts at recovery, he is now separated from his family except for extremely brief visits. “I am trapped,” he said. “I am not happy. None of us really are.”
Ulrik Szkobel, 41 and homeless, stands in front of a shelter he built for himself out of tarpaulin, cardboard and wooden boards near Aarhus Rutebilstation. He uses cocaine, amphetamines, hash, ritalin, antidepressants, and antipsychotics.
Inside the shelter, Szkobel hangs a lamp. Homeless for about three months, he describes himself as “atypical” because he is happy about his situation. “It was a fight for everything: the next cup of coffee, the next cigarette, the next warm place to sit,” he said. “The fight made me live more. It was like I was my own master again.”
Jennifer Tse is a photographer and journalist from Toronto, Canada. Currently she studies in the international multimedia journalism and photojournalism programmes at the Danish School of Media and Journalism in Aarhus. Always in search of a great story, adventure and breakfast, she has had her photography and writing published in various major outlets in Canada, Germany and Denmark. You can see more of her work at pencilprism.com.
Next Week: ‘Life at Værestedet i Jægergårdsgade’– a look at the junkies’ lives at an Aarhus shelter and community house