Photographing a Heroin Addict through Despair, Horror and Hope

Tony-Fouhse photography

In the Fall of 2010 Ottowa photographer Tony Fouhse asked Stephanie MacDonald if there was something he could do to help her. Stephanie is a heroin addict. She asked him to help her get into rehab.

And so began a journey that lasted nine months, that began in despair and moved through horror towards hope, that took twists and turns unimaginable when they began. Told through portraits of Stephanie, photographs of her notes to Tony and in Stephanie’s own words, LIVE THROUGH THIS is a book that describes, defines and evokes that harrowing journey.

We asked Tony some questions about his relationship with Stephanie and the emotional toll this series has taken on him both as a person and a photographer.

Tony-Fouhse photography

Tell me about “Live Through This”- how did you begin working on it? Why was it an important story for you to tell?
“From 2007 to 2010 I collaborated with a group of crack addicts in Ottawa, shooting portraits. I worked those four years on one 30 meter strip of sidewalk, ‘the block’, that this particular society of addicts called home.

“I got to know many of the addicts quite well, but I didn’t want to change, save or judge them; I just wanted to take pictures. Then, the last year of that project I met Stephanie. There was just something about her and one day I blurted out the words, “Is there something I can do to help you?”.

Tony-Fouhse photography

“She asked me to help her get into rehab. I asked her if I could photograph the process as she moved from where she was to where she wanted to be. She agreed and we began. That trip Steph and I took lasted nine months, began in despair and moved through horror towards hope. It took twists and turns neither Stephanie nor I could have imagined when we began.

“All my work straddles the lines between portraiture, sociology, anthropology, art and the document, but mostly I consider myself a portrait photographer, so this is the approach I took with this “Live Through This”.

Tony-Fouhse photography

“In terms of the importance of telling the story, well, that all came afterwards. The reason I take pictures is to have experiences, that’s what’s important to me. The photos are, really, just souvenirs of the experience. So, to quote T.S. Eliot: ‘We had the experience but missed the meaning. And approach to the meaning restores the experience In a different form’.”

Tony-Fouhse photography

The project involves images, documents and text. How do these components work together to tell the story of Steph’s struggle with addiction?
“As I mention above, I’m a portrait photographer. Almost all the photos of Steph are shot with her cooperation and input, they were set up. In almost all of them she is against a plain background with minimal perspective, there is no real context. This approach makes it very difficult to tell a story the way you would if you were a traditional photojournalism or documentary photographer.

“By adding the notes and documents the arc of the story is fleshed out. Those photos provide slivers of context and news that are missing in most of the portraits.”

Tony-Fouhse photography

The text is just as arresting and moving as the images. Tell us about how it came to be, and about your decision to retain Steph’s voice?
“I knew, after we had finished shooting this thing, that i wanted to somehow add Steph’s voice. She has a very honest, insightful and poetic way of putting things. She now lives in Nova Scotia and I only see her once a year or so, so we worked on the writing over the internet. I’d ask her questions and she would answer them.

“She writes just like she talks, you can hear her voice in her writing. She uses lots of wrong grammar and malapropisms (like calling a migraine a “mindgraine”, she says “long and behold” instead of lo and behold). She never uses spell check and doesn’t seem to care if a word is misspelled or not. It never occurred to me to change what and how she wrote.

“It was also important to me to have her as an active participant in this thing, that she not just be “the subject”. In the book, her words will be included as a separate, removable booklet. The symbolism of this, to me, is that it reflects the whole process in a way: we are two distinct people who came together to do this. The photos are mine, the words are hers. They are joined together in a book but can also exist, the photos and the words, as separate objects.”

Tony-Fouhse photography

At a certain point, your voice is just as present as Steph’s. The story becomes about your relationship with your subject. What does Steph mean to you? What do you think you mean to Steph?
“We are friends.”

What sort of ethical considerations did you have regarding your involvement in your subject’s life?
“Not a day went by when I didn’t ask myself if I was doing what I was doing for the good of the “project” or if I was doing this to help Steph. The fact is, I believe that no one thing is ever the result of just one other thing, that there are always many complicated reasons why anyone does anything.

“During the time I spent with her I was always being faced with situations where it was impossible to make a “correct” choice. I’m sure that certain aspects of what we did together enabled her, just as I’m sure that our involvement also helped her move away from the drug life.”

Tony-Fouhse photography

What was is like photographing a person’s more sorrowful, painful moments? How did you gain access to those moments? How did they make you feel as an observer?
‘We got to know one another fairly quickly, we began to have conversations; conversations about all kinds of stuff: the creative process, being a junkie, the past and the future, and just plain day-to-day things. It didn’t take long to become friends. When we were together and doing stuff, there were lots of times that were pure horror. But I wasn’t an observer, I was a friend, so I would often just put my camera away and deal with whatever drama was happening. Probably not the best thing for a photographer to do, but the only option if you are a friend.

“The whole process had a profound effect on me. I got bent out of shape, confused, frustrated and emotionally wrecked.”

Tony-Fouhse photography

This post was contributed by photographer Greta Rybus.

If you’re a photographer, you can now promote your new series, website, gallery show, recent assignment, etc. on Feature Shoot for a very affordable price. Find out about becoming a Spotlight Photographer here.

  • Peter

    This is a shocking series of pictures and when you imagine the devotion and strength it took to make them, all you can say is: thank you. This is real and genuine.

    What is disturbing is that even under such a feature, there´s an ad about how cheap and easy it is to buy yourself a feature. It´s legitimate, since the blog has to be maintained – what else to add. However, whereas it may be legitimate, it is also utterly sad and disappointing.

    I wish that photographers who have shown amazing courage and integrity – and most of them do – would not ever be made feel that they need to pay money in order to be seen. An ad at the bottom of such an article namely hints exactly towards that. It´s shocking, since it shows that even the traffic generated by showing someone else´s despair can and will be turned into money.

  • Alison Zavos

    Peter, There is no buying of features. The “spotlight photographer” is a small image on the right hand side of the site which drives traffic back to the photographers website. Clearly not editorial content.

    Like most every other website out there with advertising, we do not discriminate where ads are placed on the site. They go under posts covering every topic imaginable. If we put an ad for needles under this particular post then maybe you would have a point, but in the grand scheme of things some innocuous text about promoting gallery shows, new websites, etc. on the site could hardly be considered “disturbing” , “sad” and “disappointing”.

    Advertising/marketing/promotion exists for every profession including photography. Most photographers would not have their work seen without it in some form. If it makes you personally uncomfortable to pay to promote your work, then that is understandable… but it’s a necessary part of the business for many others.

  • Peter

    Alison, I´m not saying (self)promotion is not part of photography. I´m sharing user experience with you – that is, how a reader might feel when they use your website. Directly after reading this great interview, which in detail describes how difficult the work on this series was, you´ll bump into the text: “If you’re a photographer, you can now promote your new series, website, gallery show, recent assignment, etc. on Feature Shoot for a very affordable price”.

    As a reader, you´ll go from one text to the other and can´t help but think: “ok, so that´s how it works. More shattering stories are welcome for a small price” (whether this means an ad or a feature, is not clear from the small text – the bad feeling is already out there).

    My point is: the ad could have been placed elsewhere – as I said, I´m not against ads. I just find them inappropriate after such strong, emotional content (especially, if they´re written in a very similar font, looking like they were part of the same text).

  • One cannot ever be friends while someone is an addict.

  • Clancy

    Oh nice stereotype Beth. I have been both an addict and a friend to addicts.

    Many addicts addictions are quite invisible. You may have been friends for years with someone without knowing of their addiction. I was an opiate addict for 17 years. In that time I held down a steady responsible job, studied for and attained a degree, and ran my own business. I never broke the law, stole or was violent to anyone. I paid my mortgage, looked after my elderly mother, kept house and did all the normal stuff you do. It is a small proportion of addicts who live up to the stereotypes.

  • Francisca

    She’s very beautiful i hope she hold on for ever. Stay clean!

  • libby

    why? 10-25 08 my father died because of this junk. pure shit fuck them all

  • Beautifully done and nice that someone isn’t judging us, shows us ‘junkies’ as human. I’d love you to check my blog, no www. Just in the address bar, not google. Here’s a snippet

    It’s been a Cunt of a week, but yet again I found comfort in the arms of a loved one, or two..
    Heroin, crack, fentanyl, clonazspam, temazepam, diazepam, special brew and pregablin.

    The darkest of depressions rose in my soul, my brain burned like pyre and my heart had sunk like a lead box in water. I had given up again. I escaped, ran to Irish knowing that no matter what I’d always be welcomed with the love I so desperately craved.
    That’s when it went a bit wrong.

    While having a dig my gear started to change, I was struggling to get it in a vein, then “POP”
    Claret exploded like a cut jugular all over the flat, it was everywhere. Everywhere. The force of the exploding pin catapulted the end of the 44mm needle into my groin hitting a nerve , leaving me screaming and my leg twitching out of control. Irish ran in, passed out. The amount of junkies afraid of blood and needles is damn right stupid.

    Irish went to his girl friends for the night, leaving me 3 and 3, a few valium and a couple of fentanyl patches for the pain. After a quick google search I found if you suck them you get high a lot quicker, it’s basically a slow relief morphine patch. Sucking them hits you quick.
    I got on the decks , pumping the tunes out, suckingmy patches, swallowed 15 diazes (Valium) clomazes and temazes, handful of pregablin, two special brews, 60ml of methadone then hit up the 3 White 3 brown. I took the patch out, I felt woozy, not a good woozy though. Bad. I fell, vinyl crashing down on me. I knew I was going under I kept trying to keep myself awake, looking at the posters on the wall reciting who they were, Kurt Cobain, Joe Strummer, Pete Doherty, Any Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Richey Edwards, oh fuck most of these lot are dead….

    I woke up bolt right, covered in my own mess, in hospital. Irish had argued with the Mrs, the Dr had given me something to bring me around and straight into a rattle.

    “If you were my mate you’d score for me Irish, Im clucking like a Cunt” Ibegged, pleaded, he gave in. We go back. I met him my first night on the streets, he showed me the ropes and I shared my cash when he had a slow day. Plus he’s a lovely man, very intelligent, we share our musical passions. Our drug passion. Two hours later and Irish is pushing a snowball into the canular in my hand, all junkies should get one, save a lot of fucking grief I can tell you!

    I never tried to kill myself but I never tried to stop, so today in Rotherhithe 4th April I was saved again. A lot of other shits happend in the last week but I’m very weak and can barely type. I’m going to neck a few valies and stick a patch in my gob, or I’ll never sleep cos whatever they gave me in hospital sucked all the opiates out of me completely.

    Always thankful to Irish though. Firstly for teaching me that you shouldn’t let the fuckers who try and damage and change you ruin you for yourself and others, better to be naive and trusting and be burned than bitter. And for the whole life saving stuff too.

  • Hate the smack head

    No life being a addict! They are self centered smack heads,don’t beleave they sad stories, everyone has a choice! If they can afford smack, then surely they can have a better life paying for things! Instead of fucking stealing from working class! Fucking loosing fuckers!!!!

  • mark wren

    wow,i think this was a great idea, though what about the family,who has been hurt,heartbroken ,lets get to hear their experience ,as i know so well the kind of hurt and pain i caused mine ,,x never say never



  • Karen

    I am looking for users to tell me their stories from how you got started and full details and pictures. schools talking to children does no good anymore. that was back in the day. I think they nneed to see what heroin does to a person. they have no idea what that one time will do to you. I am trying to start up meetings here in the north country and could really use some help. and April I totally agree with you. Until you have walked in a users ( heroin ) shoes, no one should judge. once I can get graphic pics of paraphernalia, pics of what it does to ur arms and the stories, then I will go into how it affects the family. but the users are the ones I am interested in now. please help me!

  • Whit

    I feel sorry for you that you have no compassion for other people.. you think a said “smack head” is proud of that they are doing.. its the same a drinking to much and operating a vehicle.. I hope and pray for you you never have a love one that suffers from a hellish addiction..

  • timothy davydov


  • jshove77

    My daughter has Crohns disease. Had major surgery. On pain meds for 4 weeks. Since 3/2014 sneaking pain meds until we found out a few months ago and got addicted now on H for a month. She can’t stop. Called places, no help.

  • BluePotion

    Neither of those choices are good for other people. My nephew is a heroin addict. He was a beautiful, talented little boy who now has a huge problem at 25. He steals from his grandmother and his sister and his mother. He has tried to kill himself. Etc. from the guilt and misery of being an addict. He has a child he never sees.

    He has been in rehab 3 times and keeps going back. Yes it is a disease but it is hard for those who work 2 jobs to survive only to watch your nephew steal your mother’s things and sell them. Sadly my mother has since passed away (we never told her about her beloved grandson’s serious issue).

    He also stole his own mother’s wedding ring and sold it. I have empathy for him and love him but frankly it annoys me that I work so hard to pay my bills only to have it taken from me if I let him in to my home. Which I do because I know it is a sickness.

    His last suicide attempt made me detach. The thought of losing him is unbearable.

  • Laura

    Wow. You really need to calm down and chive on hater. There are two sides to every story and you obviously are too closed minded to comprehend that. No one CHOOSES to be strung out on dope.

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