A series of images from within the story over a black backgorund
Photographs by Jeffrey Stockbridge from the K&A Portrait Studio Project.

When Suffering Goes Viral

Down the YouTube rabbit hole of tranq addiction in Philadelphia’s Needle Park

IT WAS THROUGH THE GLASS SCREEN of my windshield that I first saw the people, residents of the city of Philadelphia, where I also live, who suffer from drug addictions so severe that they live, unhoused, unprotected from the elements, buying, injecting, and experiencing the effects of sedative drugs in plain view and so close to a kind of living death that the internet refers to them as “zombies.”

I passed Kensington Avenue, a congested two-lane thoroughfare that runs underneath the raised subway throughout North Philadelphia, and then drove along the edge of a park circumscribed by a low stone wall. Across the grass and through the trees, I could see a noble white-columned building at the park’s center and a sign: the McPherson Square branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, on whose grounds I saw camping tents sheltered by blue tarps and people sleeping on the walls, on benches, and under the trees. I saw trash and shopping carts and many, many people. Some were moving and speaking, and some were not. Those not moving were mostly standing, and those standing were mostly doubled over so far that their hands brushed the ground, or leaning to one side at dramatic and unnatural angles. Most were thin, even emaciated. Many of their limbs showed visible wounds, bruises, or scabs.

Photographs by Jeffrey Stockbridge from the K&A Portrait Studio Project.

I knew already that this neighborhood—Kensington—and particularly the ten-block radius around Kensington and Allegheny, is, according to my local news site, Billy Penn, “the aortic valve of the region’s opioid crisis,” or, as described in a New York Times Magazine piece despised by many Philadelphians for its parachute journalism, “the largest open-air narcotics market for heroin on the East Coast.” Though data on homelessness by Philly neighborhood are notoriously hard to come by, the most recent figures released by the Office of Homeless Services suggests that the majority of unhoused people in the city are also struggling with addiction. The problem was only compounded by initiatives in 2019 and 2021 to clear encampments from Kensington train tracks and underpasses.

But I didn’t know then that this park had long been dubbed “Needle Park,” or that reporter Mike Newall had written a whole series of Philadelphia Inquirer articles about how librarians at this branch were charged not only with recommending books or dispensing computer passwords but also with administering Narcan (naloxone) to patrons inside the building and people overdosing on the lawn. I didn’t know that a new substance—“tranq dope,” a mix of fentanyl and a veterinary drug called xylazine—had popped up in Philly as early as 2006, but was now dominating the streets of Kensington, leaving its users extraordinarily sedated, slow, and “zombie like.” Tranq causes users to sleep standing up or leaning over and decays the flesh with wounds that never close. Further, tranq offers a different and shorter-lived high than heroin, meaning that those who are addicted must use about every two hours to keep from going through withdrawal.

Watching them, my fellow Philadelphians, move through the world that day, suffering and unhoused and unsafe, I did feel stricken, disturbed, electrified with shock. But I’ll offer this truth as well: I did not accelerate my car. I slowed down. I looked longer.

Something was urgent in the act of looking, something in this sight that was confusing, that did not compute, that I felt I needed to better understand before I could look away. I knew about the opioid crisis and the history of this neighborhood and the history of Philadelphia as a city that has suffered from systemic underinvestment as a result of white flight, and yet something both in my eyes and in my brain protested, refused to accept what I was seeing. I looked and looked, and when I got home, I looked some more on my computer.


Photographs by Jeffrey Stockbridge from the K&A Portrait Studio Project.

“The scene along the main business corridor is dystopian,” wrote the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer in January 2023. “Homeless encampments line the trash-strewn streets along with used needles, human feces, and vomit. There are scores of people smoking, drinking, sleeping, sitting, standing, and stumbling in different states of addiction. Those unfamiliar with the jaw-dropping sight should google videos of Kensington, as words can’t capture the daily horror.”

I looked up videos of Kensington, and page after page of results on YouTube and TikTok appeared, mostly trained on people living on the streets. The appetite for these videos is voracious, routinely accumulating hundreds of thousands, even millions, of views. Now as many as 69 YouTube channels are devoted exclusively to them, with the majority referring to “Kensington Zombies” in their titles. The videos are recorded and uploaded by creators who travel from all over—Florida, Indonesia, Russia—with the express purpose of making this content and offering it online, often for money through YouTube’s creator monetization program. According to the Philadelphia Citizen, a local news outlet focusing on solutions-based journalism, “it’s as common to see volunteers passing out food on the sidewalks of Kensington Avenue as it is to see people prowling the pavement with iPhones, recording.”

These videos seem to seek out the most extreme moments of human suffering and zoom in on them for viewers’ benefit—the thinnest bodies with the most visible wounds, people in the middle of active drug use or overdose, the most makeshift and slapdash shelters packed the most closely together. A few of the subjects are aware and consenting to being filmed or interviewed, but mostly they either lack the ability to consent by being powerfully intoxicated or have clearly not consented by virtue of being unconscious or unable to communicate. Sometimes there are messages from sponsors before the videos start, and often self-promotion afterward, urging viewers to subscribe for similar content.

I scoured the comments sections, looking for some way to understand this phenomenon. In addition to their shock, commenters were sharing up-to-date resources for drug recovery programs, debating who was at fault for the Kensington crisis, giving information on local giveaway locations for toiletries and other essentials, recognizing their loved ones, and processing emotions brought up by the videos.

“This channel has helped me nearly get clean,” writes one commenter on a video made by Frank Rodriguez, creator of “Morals Over Money,” a channel devoted exclusively to Kensington videos, which has 147,000 subscribers as of this writing. “I watch to see why I’m going through methadone withdrawals.”

“I used to be on the fast track to this sort of life after having a rough time and making bad decisions,” writes another commenter on a Morals Over Money video. “God saved me and I am overwhelmingly grateful I never got to this point. Praying for everyone in these dark places.”

“My emotions are so split . . . I’m angry, I’m sympathetic, I’m disgusted and I am amazed.”


Photographs by Jeffrey Stockbridge from the K&A Portrait Studio Project.

“I’ve been binge watching your videos and they have changed the way I view people and I’m so greatful for the education.”

“Your doing the work that journalists don’t want to do.”

“This is absolutely heartbreaking. How can this be allowed to happen in one of the richest most developed countries on earth?”

“Missed another live & especially the conversation, so bummed out,” wrote one commenter, referring to the YouTube live streams that Rodriguez hosts. It’s clear that, for many people, the videos are a community, an honest place for discussion about drug use, addiction, and recovery.

Yet they’re also extremely uncomfortable, and not just to me.

“Faces of Kensington overdose (graphic)” is the title of Rodriguez’s highest-performing video to date, with 1.6 million views. Its thumbnail—the preview image selected to entice viewers to click the link—features a man overdosing on the ground. “kensington ground zero fetty epidemic” is his second most viewed, with a thumbnail he often reuses, depicting a young, thin white woman wearing only short shorts and a crop top, unconscious in the middle of a sidewalk. Other titles include “mom sold me at 14 yrs old” and “half naked in kensington.”

All videos bear a perpetual watermark of his Instagram handle. Some begin with an advertisement for legal services by a local lawyer who happens to sponsor Rodriguez.

“I’ve been a subscriber for awhile. I see that you do good works,” writes one commenter. “But I can’t help feeling that you are exploiting and using them for monetary gains.”

“You are completely going against the entire reason you started this page,” writes another. “It used to be about humanizing those going thru addiction, instead you’ve lumped them into a group of ‘zombies’. I’m sorry, but this ain’t it.”

We fear them, even when we also love them for who they are.


RODRIGUEZ WAS EASY TO FIND and responsive when I reached out. We spoke by phone as he was driving to Kensington for his next video. He lives in central Pennsylvania, a three-hour drive each way. He used to make this same long drive when he sold drugs in Kensington, so he figures he can make it now, too, to do something positive. He started the videos in 2016, just after he got clean. A barber by trade, he’d drive into the city and offer free haircuts and pass out free clothing or water.

“People I used to get high with and used to sell drugs with were still there, still in addiction,” he says. “It was a way of me keeping it fresh to remind me what I didn’t want to go back to.”

On one trip, he took a friend, who had the idea to do a Facebook live video.

“At first I said no,” Rodriguez says. “I was all, ‘Don’t take no pictures, don’t do no videos.’ A big thing for addicts is anonymity.”

But he finally was convinced to post one, and soon received a message from a viewer: “I hadn’t seen my son in four years until your video,” Rodriguez remembers her writing. “I didn’t know if he was alive or dead. Can you please make more?”

Rodriguez had been thinking about the addicts, he realized, but not about their families and the wider community. That family member added Rodriguez to several Facebook groups for parents whose children are missing in Kensington. He made a habit of walking the streets with his phone out. When the weather got cold, he started filming from his car. In many videos, the viewer can see Rodriguez stopping and parking to get out of the car and shake people who are nodding off, hunched over, or unresponsive.

“I was still a little torn,” Rodriguez says. “But my thing is, when I was in addiction, I hated the way people looked at me. I wanted to humanize addicts, people dealing with mental health, with homelessness.” He feels this is what his videos do.

Photographs by Jeffrey Stockbridge from the K&A Portrait Studio Project.

He owns that he may bear some responsibility for the explosion of eyeballs on Kensington, particularly on YouTube. “At the time when I started my channel, there was no other channels doing it,” he says. “There’s so many channels out there now and it’s like, a lot of them are doing it for the wrong reasons. They’re just doing it to, maybe, financially benefit, or maybe to become popular or for selfish motives. They’re almost showing people like it’s a safari or something; they could see someone slumped over and they’d rather record them than get out and be like, ‘Yo are you all right?’ . . . I feel like, well, maybe if I wouldn’t have opened social media’s eyes towards it, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. There wouldn’t be fifty channels out there—voiceless, faceless channels.”

Ultimately though, he feels the explosion of Kensington-related video content, even if salacious and exploitative, does more good than harm. “You have to get these images out there by any means necessary because the cycle of addiction and the dangers of addiction doesn’t stop. That goes 24/7/365 and we have to fight that any way we can. So in that sense, even the people that don’t have good intentions . . . maybe one of their videos, someone will see and it will help somebody.”

Rodriguez does get paid by YouTube based on the number of views his videos receive (except for content YouTube demonetizes if it contains active drug use), but he says, considering the cost of gas and lodging he’s provided to various Kensington people over the years, he hasn’t “profited.” And his content wouldn’t be as powerful if it were audio-based or written.

“Especially in this day and age, everything has to have an image attached to it. That’s the way we communicate now. Seeing things that are very shocking and provocative, that will pull you in to be, like, let me see what’s going on here.”

Why have his videos become so wildly popular?

“I think some people watch because they were staring at a car accident and couldn’t turn away,” Rodriguez says. “I think it’s also disbelief. Especially people from other countries, this isn’t the America they hear about and have in their head. They’re like, Hold on a minute. Why do these people have to live in the street? Why are these people using in front of the cops? A lot of people watch the channel now because they used to be addicts and maybe they’re having a bad day. They need to be reminded, from the comfort and safety of their own home: this is what I stand to lose if I pick up one time.”

From a scientific standpoint, Rodriguez’s supposition of the effects of viewing pain may have some basis in fact. Christian Keysers of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam is one of the leading researchers on empathy and how it is experienced through screens. “When we witness what happens to others, we don’t just activate the visual cortex like we thought some decades ago,” Keysers told the Association for Psychological Science. “We also activate the . . . emotions and sensations as if we felt the same.” In other words, watching someone else do something can trigger the same neural networks that would be triggered if we were having the experience firsthand.

Keysers’ studies have shown that a number of brain regions that are involved in the direct experience of pain—particularly the insular lobe (a section of the cerebral cortex)—increase in activity while participants are simply perceiving the pain of others through screens. Other scientists, particularly Paul Gilbert of Kingsway Hospital in the United Kingdom and author of Compassion: Concepts, Research and Applications (Routledge, 2017), trace these biological reactions all the way back to our earliest human ancestors, believing that these processes arose from “the evolutionary advantage of caring for others, especially offspring, kin and in-group allies.”

What people then choose to do with that sense of having felt what others feel is another story. Rodriguez says he’s noticed a change in the time since he began posting his videos: lately viewers are less interested in gawking and more in helping. More and more commenters ask how they can get involved, or how to contribute supplies. He says one time when he was walking through McPherson Square shortly after George Floyd’s 2020 murder, a cop stopped him to thank him for his work. “You’ve opened my eyes,” Rodriguez remembers the cop saying. “Everybody on your channel I know. And now I know how to deal with them better.”

I ask Rodriguez why he thinks so many of the videos use the moniker “zombies.”

“Before when they would use it, I almost looked at it as, like, disrespectful, derogatory,” he replies. “But it’s fitting. With the sores and the xylazine, it’s literally eating people’s flesh. People in Kensington look exactly like the Hollywood makeup that they put on zombies.”

The metaphor has become so powerful that even if you post a picture from Kensington on Instagram, “Zombieland” is one of the location tags that comes up.

Photographs by Jeffrey Stockbridge from the K&A Portrait Studio Project.

WHAT MAKES A ZOMBIE? After speaking to Rodriguez, I felt that if I could understand the soul of the comparison, I could understand something powerful about the appeal of these videos and the narrative they offer about the environment of Kensington.

“A will-less and speechless human (as in voodoo belief and in fictional stories) held to have died and been supernaturally reanimated,” offers Merriam-Webster. “The supernatural power that according to voodoo belief may enter into and reanimate a dead body; a person held to resemble the so-called walking dead; automaton.”

“Relentlessly aggressive, reanimated human corpse driven by biological infection,” according to Matt Mogk, author of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies.

More related to how the word zombie is used colloquially, I find an article titled “30 Signs You’re Living Like a Zombie and What to Do About It.” Four of them are: “You don’t feel a life purpose,” “You think, believe and do what everyone else thinks/believes and does,” “You don’t feel connected to nature or anything bigger than yourself,” and “You don’t feel anything.”

It seems then that a central part of the word has to do with a sense of a body without a mind or soul, a form lacking in there there.

“Although the zombie organ manipulates the brain, it cannot feel pain or utilize any higher brain functioning, and carries on despite loss of limbs until either the body decomposes or the brain is destroyed,” writes Cale Corwin, a student at Cal State East Bay in an article titled “Do Zombies Deserve Ethical Consideration? Or, Should We Pull the Plug on Life-Support?” “Thus the zombie exists as a marionette: a human body reduced to reflexive functioning, movements orchestrated by the virus, and driven to infect any individual it comes in contact with.”

Corwin articulates the goal of his paper is “to determine whether or not zombies are sentient and thus worthy of equal consideration.” He concludes ultimately that, no, they’re not, because they are incapable of feeling pain; but, he says, this doesn’t mean that we should go out and kill any zombie we might meet.

Photographs by Jeffrey Stockbridge from the K&A Portrait Studio Project.

AS I WRITE THIS, my father lies under a black-and-white herringbone wool blanket in a rehab care facility. He has fallen badly, bonked his head and shattered ten ribs and, with them, temporarily we think, his grasp on truth and reality. It is gray and lightly spritzing outside his window. Inside it is warm and bright, and my mother and I are there. Yet he keeps trying to get out of bed and go outside. I want to take a walk around the grounds, he keeps saying. He also won’t eat. He is nauseous or uninterested or it just doesn’t appeal. He calls out in the night. Let me out, he says through the phone. Trying to get out one night, he falls again. Where does he want to go? I ask my mom. Neither of us knows. This modest facility has no grounds; it sits on a gravel lot with a few scraggly trees.

“I would like to live out my last days at home rather than in a hospital if it does not jeopardize my chance of recovery to a meaningful and sentient life . . .” goes the thoughtful document he had prepared for just this moment.

The Merriam-Webster meaning of sentient: “capable of sensing or feeling; conscious of or responsive to the sensations of seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, or smelling.”

But what about the meaning of meaningful?

There is something profoundly destabilizing, I am thinking now, about a person who has lost track of their animal instincts toward safety and shelter and food, whether because of supernatural reanimation, old age, mental illness, or some ravaging disease, whether real or fictional. It’s perhaps for this reason that we fear them, even when we also love them for who they are or once were. They unmoor our sense of what makes sense.

Yet my dad is undoubtedly sentient. He is capable of sensing my mother nearby, of hearing me read aloud, of tasting—and criticizing—the coffee, of smelling and appreciating a tomato and mozzarella sandwich on a good baguette brought in from outside.

So, too, fundamentally, I think are those in the Kensington videos. They are temporarily zombies, perhaps, infected with a disease that keeps them addicted, but they aren’t zombies forever. And, as it turns out, they feel everything. Even our stares.

Photographs by Jeffrey Stockbridge from the K&A Portrait Studio Project.

RODRIGUEZ MAKES OTHER VIDEOS too, ones that feature less driving around looking at bodies and more talking. Interviews, he says. Scrolling deep through the recesses of his least-viewed videos, I find one called “‘i’m scared to leave here’ cj & tim— faces of kensington.” For the first time in one of his videos, I can really see the environment that the subjects are living in beyond a swatch of pavement or brick. It shows two unhoused white men sleeping in adjoining structures made of tarps and trash as they attempt to start a fire using a plank of scrap wood. It takes a long time to start the fire, and the first several minutes of the video are mostly silent. This act of showing them seeking warmth feels essential somehow, in reminding me as a viewer of their sentience—they are cold, they are shivering, they feel.

Rodriguez asks them how long they’ve been out here. Tim, standing and moving around, says seven months. CJ, sitting, huddled under a blanket, his face obscured by his hoodie, says several years.

“I say it every day, I’m gonna get out of here,” Tim says. “But I’m scared to leave, scared to get sick.”

CJ adds, “If I go ten minutes away, it’s like I get sicker quicker.”

“Anxiety,” they both say at the same time.

They both have children—a thirteen-year-old daughter for Tim, a seven-year-old son for CJ. Both keep in touch with their families and have family members looking for them.

“They check up on me every so often,” Tim says. “They try to help, but I just . . . I don’t know.”

“It’s crazy how drugs will make us put all that shit on the back burner,” Rodriguez says, from behind the camera, “and then have it seem like normal.”

“I say that every day,” CJ says. “I always am like, yo guys, do you realize . . . people drive by here, it’s like we’re like animals, we’re a tourist attraction—”

“Drive by and videotape us,” Tim adds.

“We think what we’re doing down here is so normal because in Kensington it is the normal,” CJ continues. “Anywhere else, you can’t do this. We get so used to it. If you really think about it, it’s insane how we get used to thinking that it’s okay, the things we’re doing.”

“They looked at us like part of the landscape,” Rodriguez says. “I remember I used to hate that shit.”

“That’s the worst feeling, though, to get looked at like I’m a monster when I’m the one . . .” CJ trails off.

“If someone were to offer you a bed and treatment would you take it?” Rodriguez asks then.

“Probably?” Tim says, but the question mark at the end is strong.

“Depending on the situation,” CJ says. He describes how he was in a shelter last year but he missed curfew one night and they put him out. They were even willing to take him back in, but he was worried about going to the hospital and going through withdrawal there.

“I feel like I’m stuck,” CJ says. “This fentanyl and tranq, it’s a whole new ballgame. I was in jail for two months, clean, and I still felt like shit. I don’t even know why I’m getting high. I don’t like how it feels. I don’t feel like anything.”

In a world where people cannot always choose how much to feel or when it is time for their bodies to die, these videos seem to offer a glitch in the system, a portal to a place where you can be alive but not alive, sentient but not feeling, unhoused but not afraid, even if we know, as CJ and Tim remind us, that none of these things are true. For isn’t that it, the thing we’re trying to work out by watching these videos: What does it feel like to be neither inside the wretchedness of a human mind nor yoked to the needs of the animal body?
What we see when we look at our fellow people in Kensington are humans fighting with the very things that make us human—longing and desire and will and pleasure—animals fighting with surroundings that are not equipped to support life, trying to make the best of their environment to survive. They are only making the struggle obvious.

In 1936, Zora Neale Hurston, researching spiritual practices in Haiti, met a woman who’d been declared dead thirty years earlier. “I think I’m the first person on Earth, and probably the last one, to ever photograph a zombie,” she would later say on the Mary Margaret McBride Show.

Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl and a novel, Housemates, forthcoming in 2024. She is the cofounder of Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts in Philadelphia.

Jeffrey Stockbridge is a photographer whose work has been featured in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, and included in exhibitions at The National Portrait Gallery, London, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and The Houston Center for Photography. He lives and works in Philadelphia.