Opioid Epidemic: Recovering Project
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
A multimedia and participatory project seeking to change the narrative on the opioid crisis. This project was created as part of a journalism course at Emerson College, titled Humanizing Multimedia Stories, developed and taught by Assistant Professor Aaron Goodman.
Link to project: https://www.recoveringproject.com
A man in a black fedora hat walks down the stairs with his suede shoes. His checkered dark purple and black Gucci backpack hangs on his back. Purple long sleeved dress shirt, large black coat, and suspenders peak on his side. This is how I met Alan Baker.
Alan is my and my partner (Christina Henderson)’s participant in our counter-narrative photo elicitation project against opioid addiction. I met Alan right when I was leaving the Devine Recovery Center, in defeat of the prospect of finding a participant for my photo project that day. But, he came in, with his swagger and large smile and I knew he was the one I wanted to work with. In our short meeting, I learned that after suffering opioid addiction, Alan decided he wanted to change his life and wardrobe. I was lucky enough to be with him in this journey and tell his story.
Although Alan is recovering from addiction, there’s more to him than just the drugs. I’ll admit, I came to this class not knowing anything about opioid addiction. All I knew was that these people were crazy and dangerous and they used spoons and injections. I also thought they must be weak and hopeless to not be able to give up on drugs. This is because so much of the coverage I saw about opioid addiction was gritty, scary, and dangerous. Photos are in melodramatic black and white. Needles and tattoos are shown. People are on the streets shooting up or overdosed.
As the War on Drugs started, journalists started covering these stories in a sensationalized manner, showing graphic images that exploit these people affected by the epidemic. Yes, journalists have a job to photograph the story, but they also have a responsibility to maintain humanity. This is the goal of my photo project: show the real truth about addiction, remove the exploitive stereotypes of persons using opioids, and humanize these people. I wanted to make a counter narrative by actually spending time with Alan, take photos of him in his natural habitat, get to know him, then in the end conduct a photo elicitation. In the end, I wanted people to see Alan not just a recovering opioid “addict” but a jazzy, free-spirited, man with great style and a big heart.
In my first conversation with Alan, I learned that he liked to shop. A lot. Almost everyday. He also exercised at Planet Fitness in Downtown Crossing whenever he could. Since he lived in a halfway house, he was constantly looking for a job as well. With these in mind, Christina and I wanted to photograph him in his day to day life of him doing these activities. We wanted to show that Alan is just like everyone else, he shops, he works out, he’s looking for jobs.
In our first official meet up with Alan, we followed him as he went shopping in TJ Maxx. This was a really fun light hearted experience. It worked well that Christina and I would switch off taking photos and just talking to Alan. We learned why shopping was so important to Alan. He said the recovery center told him to change everything about him, even his clothes and so he did. Instead of spending money on drugs, he spends it on loafers, suspenders, and bowties.
While the first meeting was fun, the second meeting was different and brought an unforeseen challenge. We decided to visit Alan in his halfway house then commute with him to his Alcohol’s Anonymous meeting. The unforeseen challenge was finding out too late that his house actually resided in a risky part of Boston where there were a lot of people influenced on drugs walking the streets. I was glad I had my pepper spray, but it was a jarring moment to pass by these people. Half of me wanted to run or walk faster for my safety but I didn’t want to offend Alan. I just gripped my pepper spray tighter instead. Although, it was a scary moment, I became much closer to Alan. Right from the start, Alan said he was an open book and that worked well for me and Christina to really get to know him and build a connection with him. He showed us his “spot” over the highway bridge looking at the trains, and he told us his whole life story. I’ll never forget when he told us that the hardest part people don’t know about is the constant overdose deaths around him. Alan said he eventually goes numb to it.
Although there were challenges, Alan was a darling to work with. His laugh is contagious, he’s witty, and he’s just genuinely good company to be around with. He calls himself “The Little Helper.” He was pure bliss to work with, but with that came some sadness and hope when I learned more about him. Empathy can be used well for journalists. My and Christina’s empathy for Alan allowed us to build trust with him and understand his story more. That in the end, choosing the seven final photos was such an easy process. We chose the photos based on what we knew meant the most to Alan then we conducted our photo elicitation interview.
Photo elicitation is an interviewing technique where photos are used to create comments and thoughts from the interviewee. In this specific process, Christina and I showed Alan the final photos, then interviewed him about the photos while he writes his thoughts on them. Bieke Depoorter did this process when they photographed strangers around the world. The results were beautiful images that showed “the other” in a different light. They weren’t just objects in a photo, but they had a voice in the photo too.
We asked Alan if the photos were accurate representations of who he is, if he liked the photos, why or why not, and how would he take these photos differently. The photo-elicitation process was appropriate because it allowed us to really get a better sense of Alan’s quotable character into the photos and into our audio recording. Since we established a great relationship with Alan, I was able to ask the tough questions about how he got here, what do opioids feel, and the hardest part of his journey with all the overdoses. Alan articulated so well that addiction is an illness. The high from opioids “almost like you’re invincible,” as Alan said, and then the withdrawals, like it’s the flu.
We may have known Alan pretty well at this point, but to have a proper sit down interview with him and really go in depth, made us learn more about him than we could have imagined. In the “My Spot” photo I learned that the names he wrote down on the bridge were people in his life who passed away. That was powerful and people wouldn’t be able to get that if it wasn’t for this photo-elicitation process. We already had great lyrics and quotes on the photos, but the process also resulted in such a rich audio interview. I decided to edit the recordings and break it down to Alan’s whole story and his reaction to each photo. I believe this elevates Alan’s story even more because people can now look at his face, read his handwriting, and hear his voice.
I’m glad I had the privilege of meeting Alan and doing this project with him because I learned the other side of opioid addiction. I learned about loss. Beautiful souls, like Alan, can be victims to this. But, they can recover. I remember Alan told me he wished people saw him differently, and not just an addict. It’s important that we change the way we talk about and see addiction because it does affect how people can recover. We need to give them support and hope that they can change. It is through projects like this that we can change the narrative and inform people about marginalized groups. I’m glad I used photo elicitation. It’s definitely a process I would use again because I was able to evoke Alan’s true, happy, hopeful spirit in his face, handwriting, and voice.
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