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.
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?”.
“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”.
“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’.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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