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An Intimate Look at Drug Addiction in Middle America

Jack’s reflection through a bathroom mirror. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 2018

Millette and her two grandchildren, Anthony and Allana. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 2018

Back in 1971, Larry Clark introduced Tulsa (Lustrum Press) to the world, transforming not only documentary photography and art book publishing but pulling back the curtain and exposing the secret truth about the heroin epidemic that had begun to sweep across Middle America.

Nearly half a century later, things have only gotten worse as the government has used the “War on Drugs” to propel the prison industrial complex to extraordinary heights while simultaneously cultivating an opioid crisis has been created and fueled by the pharmaceutical industry.

The realities of drug use, abuse, and recovery are much closer than we think, often within our most intimate circles of family and friends. Recognizing this truth in his own life, photographer Jordan Gale decided to revisit his upbringing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the series It Is What It Is, which will be published by Daylight Books in 2020.

Inspired by artists including Danny Wilcox Frazier, Larry Clark, Robert Frank, and Eugene Richards, Gale traveled through Eastern Iowa between 2015 and 2019 creating images that offer intense, introspective explorations of the relationship the self and our environment.

Gale’s photographs pose poignant questions, and provoke thoughtful consideration of the underlying issues at stake: Why do some escape and others don’t? What is our responsibility to tell the story of our communities?

It Is What It Is has just launched on Kickstarter. Support the project here. Here, Gale shares his insights in creating this powerful body of work.

Back road after a rainstorm. Linn County, Iowa. 2018

Could you speak about the inspiration for this body of work?
“I’m inspired by my day-to-day interactions. The relationships between myself and my subjects, or myself and the landscape motivate me a lot. A small exchange with a truck driver down by the grain elevator while on a morning walk, may stick with me all day, or even a quick sentence I overhear in passing.

“Sometimes it is my own reactions to a moment. These interactions may validate emotions that I’m feeling, or revitalize confidence in what it is I’m doing. I try to take a lesson from all that. Both the good and bad play a significant role, and largely impact the type images I make, no matter how miniscule of a moment it is.”

Could you speak about the elements of personal narrative that you have drawn upon to create this body of work?
“I believe in the camera as a tool of learning. I wanted to learn more about myself, my emotions, and my community. This project is about self-exploration. Putting my voice in the story was a way for me to push for complete honesty with myself, and with my loved ones and subjects. It Is What It Is is a visual diary that explores my ties and relationships in Iowa to examine concepts such as home and isolation, while confronting a past of dependency and resentment.”

Cocaine at an after party. Iowa City, Iowa. 2017

How do you think the conversation around drug addiction in the American Midwest has evolved since Larry Clark began documenting his friends in Tulsa?
“You don’t get a Larry Clark, or a Nan Goldin everyday. To me, what was so great about Tulsa was the intimacy and Clark’s role in it all. It was a very honest story. Tulsa inspired me to create honest and personal tales, more than it inspired me to confront issues with addiction.

“Photography carries an inherent voyeuristic quality. There’s no way around that. Today I think the photographic community has kind of acknowledged this fact, and is more aware of its responsibilities. Humanizing issues has become more important than capturing shock value photographs. I would rather see people making work that is relatable than photographs that alienate.

“There are unique factors and circumstances in every situation, though. Addressing these complexities is vital to the conversation. Shocking images certainly provoke reactions, but to just create shocking images alone is not something I would consider dedicating my life to. What exists outside those frames? Clark understood all of that. I think it just took other people a lot longer to.”

Dalton gripping a chain link fence. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 2016

Now that the subject of drug dependency has gone mainstream, what do you see as some of the key points that need to be centered in the conversation?
“I’m not sure. Sometimes I wake up, and I look through some of my photos and ask myself if I’ve actually learned anything. Can I now clearly say, ‘I know why this is happening. I know what needs to be done.’

I always knew that my situation could have been worse. I have friends with serious health issues, they’re in and out of treatment, some steal from each other, and some are locked up. It’s tough to see people you care about make those worse decisions. At the same time, I know users who wake up in the morning and go hold a steady job, and care for their families. Their lives seem ‘normal’ most of the time. Like I said, there are unique factors and circumstances in every situation.

“As we move forward with new policies to help combat issues of addiction, I believe it’s important to understand that this is a health issue more than a legal issue. I think it’s important to look at the factors that lead to use, and understand we must change our environments if we want to change our communities.”

Rob and Logan in back of the pickup truck. Linn County, Iowa. 2019

Logan holding up a pipe used to smoke methamphetamine. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 2018

ody unconscious after a bar fight. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 2018

Eileen and Randy outside the Green Gable Tavern. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 2018

Snow covered back roads. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 2019.

All images: © Jordan Gale

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