It is a gorgeous, heartbreaking image: A woman shooting heroin into her bruised leg while her boyfriend and a friend's child sit beside her on a bed. As it turns out, she is baby-sitting the boy for the friend, who is out working as a prostitute. Nonchalant, wearing his pajamas, the kid munches on a cookie. The room's dirty sheets and dirty laundry-littered floor presents a vignette of poverty, squalor and addiction—and yet the composition is so perfectly balanced, the light cascading over the woman's body so deliciously golden, the spectacle of her Rubenesque curves spilling out of her tank top so captivating, it's hard to turn away.
There is a seductiveness to the image that draws the viewer complicitly in, as the voyeuristic impulse jostles up against a progressive heart. This kind of moral complexity is what makes David Rochkind's photograph, Heroin, and the exhibition from which it is drawn, Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit, so complex and rewarding.
For this body of work, the Port-au-Prince, Haiti-based photographer traveled through Mexico, capturing the human face of the ongoing war between drug cartels and the government. Rochkind's approach is far from photojournalistic. He deploys a gift for symbolism in works such as Border, a hilly cityscape darkened by gathering storm clouds, the composition slightly off-kilter. In Jail, he uses motion blur to obscure a prisoner's face, while in Prostitute he again hides his subject's face, this time clicking his shutter just as she pulls off her top on a bed in a dingy motel room. Does it matter what the individual looks like, the photographer seems to ask, or are they interchangeable pawns in a larger game? This finessing of symbolism and the push-pull between thematic subtext and beauty exemplifies what theorist Charles Jencks calls "double-coding," where moral outrage and optical delight stand at cross-purposes. In photography, the phenomenon was pioneered by Larry Clark's 1971 series, Tulsa, which sumptuously portrayed the sex-and-drug-addled lives of teenagers in Middle America. Rochkind has taken Clark's ball and run with it, traveling territory often harrowing and always thought-provoking.
SEE IT: Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit is on display at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Ave., 225-0210. Through Feb. 26.