Humanizing the heroin epidemic a photo essay

The three subjects let me photograph them injecting their medications within Providence Health Care’s Crosstown Clinic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Gradually, over months and weeks, they allowed me to document their lives outside of the clinic.

In my quest to educate the general public about the use of heroin, I was also interested in seeing if I could make visual counter-narratives to combat the traditional tropes of the drug-related genre.

Most importantly, I wanted to portray Marie, Cheryl, and Johnny as human beings and to show that their use of drugs did not define their character; however, that’s the way heroin users are often depicted by news and documentary photographers.

The best method to do this, as I discovered, was to show them the photos I’d chosen and allow them to reply. I added their comments for each image in the collection.

‘Dark, seedy, secret worlds’

Before starting my project, I looked into the work of a few of the most prominent drug-related photographers. I observed that many of them have always depicted heroin users as primitive, exotic, and dangerous to society.

“There is a tendency in drug photography to attempt to make images of dark, seedy, secret worlds,” writes the criminologist John Fitzgerald.

It can also be a way of ” othering” the subject – the notion that, after viewing these kinds of images, viewers could view the drug users as if they were an outcast.

Larry Clark’s 1971 project ” Tulsa” is regarded as an example of documentary photography. Many see the series that shows teenagers playing with sexuality, drugs, and guns as uncompromisingly candid and shocking.

In this photo taken from the seminal project, ‘Tulsa photographer Larry Clark eroticizes the risky behavior of teenagers. Larry Clark, ‘Couple,’ Tulsa, 1971.

Clark’s photo essay that followed, “Teenage Lust,” released in 1983, concentrated on users of drugs in a disturbing, voyeuristic, and sexually attractive manner.

The issue with this method is that it creates a sensationalized image that influences the public’s perceptions, and policymakers make decisions on what to do with drug users.

“For Clark the drug user is a modern primitive,” Fitzgerald writes. Fitzgerald. “Like young boys who shoot guns and play with their sexuality Clark’s drug addicts explore the depths of their lust which is buried and largely unexplored by the modern body. Clark’s mission will be to help bring that ancient desire to light through an open-ended artistic journey.”

Clark isn’t alone in portraying heroin users in this way. Photographer documentarian Eugene Richards’ 1994 book Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue focused on the use of cocaine in three inner-city communities. The cover of the book shows an extremely image photograph of an individual who is clenching the syringe in her mouth.

The cover image of Eugene Richards’ Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue dehumanizes the user of the drug. Eugene Richards, ‘Mariella,’ East New York, New York, 1992.

The image is striking and has also influenced the way that others have painted users of drugs up to the present.

Photojournalists for news agencies like The APGetty Images, and The Denver Post have recently been following Richards’ lead and created photos of drug users sporting a syringe in their mouths. In the majority of these pictures, heroin addicts’ eyes appear to be entirely or partially out of focus or difficult to discern in the smallest detail.

Photographers must come up with more balanced ways to portray the drug user rather than reproducing the same type of images that are stigmatizing and have been prevalent for years.

Shocking images can certainly trigger reactions. However, it’s important to provide context to encourage discussions about options.

The heroin users have been hearing from

In my efforts to create and distribute photos that are humane and balanced, as well as to minimize the chance of misinterpretation and “othering,” – I realized that the images by themselves could not be a complete story. I required a method to provide an understanding of the images for the viewers.

“The multitude of meanings in a photograph makes it risky, arguably even irresponsible, to trust raw images of marginalization, suffering, and addiction to an often judgmental public,” write Philippe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg in their 2009 book The Righteous Dopefiend. “Letting a picture speak its thousand words can results in a thousand deceptions.”

After deciding on my final pictures, I showed my selections to my three friends, Marie, Cheryl, and Johnny. I wanted to find out if they believed they accurately depicted their personalities and if something was missing, as well as what things they could have changed in the event that they had made the photographs themselves.

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