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What we need to see: In conversation with photojournalist Daniella Heminghaus

Heminghaus' current projects include covering a new street drug in NJ, the infrastructure problems on the shore and groups helping refugees overseas.

In an age when moving images on social media and YouTube tend to monopolize our attention, it can feel like a marvel when we stumble upon still images that move us. How refreshing is it to find well-shot photography that commands our attention and, dare we say, makes us stop and think.

Undoubtedly, advancements in technology have changed the photography profession over the last two decades. In a recent article with NJ Indy, legendary photographer Jay Blakesberg discussed the evolving landscape for professional photographers and how adaptability is essential for individuals pursuing a successful career in this new, digital era. 

NJ native Daniella Heminghaus is one such photographer who is currently making a living off of her pictures of music events, political rallies and anything else that interests her. As a professional photojournalist, a title she humbly eschews, Heminghaus is subject to all sorts of assignments from the “feel-good,” like local high school proms, to other subjects more serious in nature. Her photographs capture some familiar scenes that many of us want to see and habitually seek out, like the candid images of athletes mid-contest or kids stage diving at a punk show, but they also, and perhaps most importantly, show us what we need to see but seldom do.

It seems that the most celebrated photographers have an uncanny understanding of the gravity of certain moments, paired with a creative vision to capture them in such a way that few words are necessary for accompaniment; for photojournalists, specifically, empathy and intestinal fortitude are also essential. Heminghaus embodies those traits. For example, some of her most captivating and telling work has been done on the streets of Kensington, a neighborhood in Philadelphia that’s been particularly devastated by the opioid epidemic and a place that many Americans would seemingly rather pretend doesn’t exist.

This week, NJ Indy got to chat with Heminghaus about her latest projects and the passions that define her career, how she got introduced to photography and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

According to your bio online, it says you split time between Jersey and PA. Where is home base for you?

New Jersey; the shore. I’m on staff at a place out in Pennsylvania taking photos there, but I also cover pretty much everywhere from Northern Virginia to New York City, whether it be shows or news events or anything like that. Basically, if I can get to [an event in that general area], I’ll get to it.

Some of what you cover is pretty heavy compared to taking pictures at shows. What do you prefer to be documenting? 

Honestly, whatever interests me; it depends on the day.

Krust at Creative Space at the Shore. 2019. Credit: Daniella Heminghaus.

When did you start with photography?

Maybe when I was like eight. I started with a throwaway camera. Then I started going to shows when I was 12 and I would take those throwaway cameras to shows. I don’t think I got a real camera until I was like 14 or 15; [when I did] I would take it around town, to the beach and I would try to sneak into shows. Having an all-ages venue that wasn’t barricaded was so important [for me]… I’m talking about the old (Asbury) Lanes before it got commercialized, DIY spots or VFW halls, places like that. 

And then I started taking a photo class in high school and my teacher was super punk, low key. We started talking because he saw show photos and was like, “Oh, I know that band. I saw that band in a basement in Philly one year.” That was instrumental because he was a sort of support system where it was like, “Yeah, I want you to go and experiment, but I want you to also get the fundamentals down.”

From there, I wanna say at some point in high school I started paying more attention to news photography and the idea of doing work where you’re kind of forcing people to pay attention to things they might not have known about. So all those worlds kind of intertwined with photography, if that makes sense.

So would your official title be photojournalist? Or do you prefer to say photographer because you do more than just news photography? 

Again, it depends on the day of the week. I mean, officially, yeah, I guess I’m a photojournalist. But it feels so boujee to be like, “Oh, I’m a photojournalist,” haha. I just… I document stuff.

The aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Elizabeth, NJ on 9/2/21. [DANIELLA HEMINGHAUS]

Do you remember your first assignment as a professional?

I think it was in 2017. I got really lucky and got a call either on the day I graduated college or the day after, I forget. But, I got a call from a local weekly, and they were like, “Hey, can you freelance for us?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” I think my first assignment was [covering] a Memorial Day at a VFW hall in Red Bank.

So what projects are you working on right now?

So I am split between three assignments that are swirling around my head at the same time. One being this drug called Tranq—the actual name is Xylazine but on the street it’s called Tranq. It’s in New Jersey, I just need to find out where. I’m [working on] finding that out, but, we live in such a society where you could say, “Yeah, it’s here,” and then nobody will believe you unless they see it. So, I could shout from the rafters, “Hey, it’s here!” but unless I have a picture, people’s minds won’t go, “Oh, it actually is here. It’s a problem. We should know about it. We should educate ourselves.” 

Second [assignment] being how infrastructurally unsound the Shore is post Hurricane Sandy. I mean, I was out all day yesterday and I’m gonna be out for the rest of today documenting shore towns and areas that [after just the bit of rain] we’re having right now, they’re completely flooded down certain streets. I saw that some emergency management sent out firefighters yesterday to survey whether or not they wanted to shut down the walking path to the inlet.

The third one is, sometime in November I’ll be in Berlin documenting groups that help out refugees—Afghan, Syrian, Ukrainian—helping folks either resettle or just find temporary placement, find safe shelter, food, water, clothing, get their kids into school if they can. So those are the three big projects that I’m currently working on each week. 

At the end of the summer you wrote a piece on the housing market/instability and the skyrocketing cost of living around shore towns. For someone who calls the shore home, I imagine this issue continues to weigh pretty heavily on you. 

Yeah, definitely. The fact that all my friends were like, “Hey, we’re lucky that we got a place, but we mostly got a place due to word of mouth.” I’ve got friends that are moving back in with family. Right now, when I’m at the shore, I’m living with family because I can’t afford to live by myself, and neither can my friends. We can’t even afford to move in together in a place at the shore because it’s so unstable down here. 

When it comes to renting, full-term rentals are few and far between these days; you get a place that’s a winter rental that you can afford, but you’re getting kicked out probably around April. So then you have to find another place and move all your stuff. Can your roommates move with you? Did someone lose a job? Did someone get a better job someplace else? It’s just completely, completely unstable for people who don’t make like [$100K] and can’t afford to have that sort of instability.

A controlled burn in Brick, NJ on 3/6/21. [DANIELLA HEMINGHAUS]

The part of the article that discussed corporations buying up residential/rental properties was particularly alarming.

I’ve gotta give credit where credit is due: the Asbury Park Press did an amazing series on this. There were a few articles and what they had found is that LLCs were just snapping up [properties], whether it be homes people are renting or properties that have since turned into new condo communities. Unless you’re actually living it, renting from them, going from your original landlord who might’ve been cool, might’ve actually fixed stuff, to an LLC, you don’t really know the full extent of the struggle there.

Their [APP] article was instrumental and eye opening because there are folks that are living down in South Toms River or down that way, and they’re just like, “I don’t wanna live in this house anymore because it’s not getting fixed up. It’s just not safe.”

What projects have you been most deeply connected to thus far? Do you have any poignant memories that stick out from those assignments? 

Every time there’s like a tragedy at the shore. I was in high school when Hurricane Sandy happened and I was walking around with a camera, not to be voyeuristic, but to document. That was my first time ever experiencing the weight of this job [although it wasn’t actually my job yet]. I just walked around and felt like garbage. I was like, “Alright, I gotta do something other than just take pictures.”

Last year I got sent out for Hurricane Ida and [I got that horrible feeling again]. I would walk into these devastated neighborhoods… there was one woman who stuck out the most to me. She was like, “My daughter recently died and I put all her stuff in the basement and now my basement is under six feet of water and we don’t have a sump pump and I lost everything.” You sit there and you’re just like, “I wanna help you, but I literally don’t know how to help.” That woman was in Elizabeth, the shore got spared [during Hurricane Ida]; we expected to get slammed, but no. I went from Bergen County all the way down to Mullica Hill, where the tornado was.

Julia Filomeno, a nurse in the city for six years, on left, and Griffin Wynne, on right, both of whom volunteer at the Savage Sisters Recovery outreach, getting wound care supplies together for folks who need to get their wounds checked out on E. Allegheny Ave. in Kensington, Philadelphia, PA on 8/2/22. Credit: Daniella Heminghaus

Some of your most intense photographs have come from the coverage of Tranq in Kensington. Is that an ongoing assignment? 

So that was just one period of an assignment. I had driven through Kensington before that but, again, it just goes back to not wanting to be a voyeur. There are tons of people that go into Kensington and they’re like, “Well, this is what I’ll do my MFA thesis on!” I’m like, “No, that’s gross. Don’t do that.” For that assignment, I basically reached out to Savage Sisters and asked, “Hey, before I do anything, can I document your group?” I wanted to introduce myself to the area so that way folks knew that I wasn’t going to be exploitative; that’s definitely not the goal. They (Savage Sisters) were super gracious. They were like, “Yeah, you come out to our outreach, come see what we’re about.” From there I got a feeling for the place, the folks that are there and I went back a few times over the span of like a week or two. 

Some of the folks that I met there were super nice and super informative, but they need help. Thankfully groups like Savage Sisters and other groups like The Everywhere Project and Homies Helping Homies are stepping up because folks need real help and they need help more than just one day a week or once a month, you know? 

Do we know how long Tranq has been in the tri-state area? 

If I had to give an educated guess, I’d say it’s been up here since right after it appeared in the Puerto Rican drug scene in the early 200’s. So let’s say the 2010s? But there’s really not a whole lot of research and that was another thing that kind of drew me to want to investigate it more. [Tranq] really started taking prominence in 2020; that’s when I really started to see more articles, more drug busts, more, you know, documentation of it being not only in the tri-state area, but also throughout the rest of the country and Canada. 

Based on everything I read, be it scientific journals, criminal reports, things like that, in 2020 when the international drug trade shut down because we stopped taking international mail due to COVID, they had to come up with another way. I think they were like, “Oh yeah, there’s Xylazine, let’s funnel this into the scene.” 

But it also seems to be localized almost. And I say that simply because you can go to Philly and say “Tranq” and everyone knows it, but you go to Paterson or Newark or Lakewood and you ask people if they know what Tranq is and they look at you like you have 10 heads. But then I was talking to one guy in Paterson and I showed him a [picture of a wound associated with Tranq] and I asked, “Have you ever seen somebody with a wound like this?” He was like, “I’ve seen wounds like that, but not here.” So then you go and you talk to harm reduction specialists and MAT center workers and nurses and they go, “Yeah, it’s here because we’re seeing the wounds, and once we see the wounds we ask them, “Hey, what did you take?” and, “What are you using? So we know how to treat you in terms of medical care.” So I’ve had a few harm reduction specialists and nurses say that people have told them recently, “This is from Tranq” or, “This is from stuff I got out in Camden.”

It’s largely under-reported in New Jersey… the only people that I’ve seen talking about it in New Jersey are harm reduction groups and rehab centers. If you look up “Xylazine, New Jersey,” the first thing you’re gonna see is [a result for] a harm reduction team and I think there’s one spot in North Jersey and one spot in South Jersey that are rehabs that have a page on it, and that’s it.

How does one recognize the presence of Xylazine? Is it just simply through the unique wounds that manifest?

So the wounds are one thing, the other main thing is when a person overdoses with Xylazine, it’s a lot harder to bring them back. Xylazine is found alongside Fentanyl and coke and heroin, so using Narcan is definitely a smart thing. But with Xylazine, because it’s not an opioid (it’s a tranquilizer) it has a lot more to do with respiratory depression. So you 100% have to go to rescue breathing. That’s why when you get a harm reduction kit, it kind of looks like a plastic mask for when you don’t feel safe doing mouth to mouth; you put that over the person’s mouth and then you do rescue breaths. 

People crowd surfing a cut out of Rudy Giuliani at Laura Jane Grace’s show at Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia, PA on August 21, 2021. Credit: Daniella Heminghaus

I saw you covered the “Save America” Trump Rally in Wilkes-Barre, PA. What did you take away from that experience? 

I think there’s definitely a larger discussion, but I won’t get too crazy into it. It is 100% a show, and I’m not trying to be disrespectful in any way, shape or form. I interviewed one man who was outside and he was actually from the shore. He’s one of the guys that puts up those popup trailers and sells a bunch of merch on the side of, I believe it’s Route 88. I ended up talking to him and he said, “This is the greatest show on Earth!” I was like, “What?” He’s like, “Yeah, this is the greatest show on Earth. This is my 50th rally, I love it here!” After talking to him, I went into where the actual speakers would be and I kept that in my mind.

Some of these people [who attend the rallies] consider it a show that they’re a part of—that mindset was so different compared to [what you’d expect from] a political rally, where there’s a lot of vitriol and things like that. Seeing that people were having fun there was much different than any of the other GOP things that I’ve covered before.

Rally goers giving the media the finger, thumbs down, and booing during a trump rally in Wilkes-Barre, PA on September 3, 2022. Credit: Daniella Heminghaus.

Are there any other projects you’re working on or things that you’d like to bring to folks’ attention?

No, we touched on all of the projects. What I’ll say is this: local support is so pivotal. Whether it’s your friend that has a coffee shop or a bakery, whatever people are doing, especially nowadays when everything is so tight, just support them however you can. Even if you just—this is gonna sound so “Gen Z” or whatever this new one is—share your friends’ posts; things like that help your friends and help your community in general. Support people because you never know when that support will come back for you.

For all things Daniella Heminghaus: | Instagram

For more information on Xylazine and harm reduction resources:

Savage Sisters – Philly harm reduction organization
Prevention Resource Network – Central Jersey Harm Reduction
NJ Harm Reduction