INSP 10 September 2012
Give eight recovering addicts from Glasgow, Scotland a shot with second hand cameras and the results can be phenomenal. A series of raw, powerful images captured by participants of the Hope Street photography project tells an absorbing story about battling drug addiction. (1335 Words) - By Laura Smith
Discarded needles floating in a festering toilet pan, the littered floor of a well-used drug den, an imposing grey tower block, faded family photos trampled in the mud; these are just some of the images to come out of a new photography project in Glasgow based around addiction.
The Hope Street project, which brought together a group of people whose lives have been seriously affected by alcohol and drug abuse, was launched at the beginning of July by North Glasgow College and The Glasgow City Alcohol and Drug Partnership.
In Scotland's largest city, drug abuse has been a long-standing problem, especially in its poorest areas where most of the Hope Street photographers grew up. The initial aim of the project was to give its participants the skills to document the progress of the Glasgow GRAND Recovery Runners - fellow community rehab members participating in the Great Scottish Run, as part of the city's 'Getting Real About Alcohol & Drugs' week - Communities Sub-group.
"Before, [hope] was a luxury we never had - just the hope for the next hit but now I feel stronger."
But as it progressed, those involved realised the project could have a far greater purpose - to give members an opportunity to record and reflect on their personal battles with alcohol and drug addiction, and potentially inspire others.
In the college's photography department, the group were taught basic camera techniques by professional photographer and lecturer, Simon Murphy. For most of the students - who had been put forward for the project by workers at their community rehabs - this was the first time they had ever picked up a camera, but Murphy believes that their personal experiences gave them an edge over regular students. "At the start I found that, technically, we were just scratching the surface but what these guys have is a story; something to say and that makes their images powerful."
"It reminds [people] of the choice they need to make. There's no point in preaching - it's all been said to them before - but I hope these pictures get through to someone," says Michael Kearney, 44, a former heroin addict who, thanks to the community rehabilitation project New Horizons, managed to overcome an addiction lasting nearly three decades. Reflecting on his past three clean years, he says: "I feel like I'm just getting to know myself again. Back then I was like a robot. I'm living now, not just existing."
For many participants of the Hope Street project, being given a chance to revisit their past with a fresh perspective was a disturbing yet reaffirming experience. A visit to a local city centre drug den was memorable for all involved, including Murphy, who recalls the scene: "The floor was littered with needles and excrement - the place was a mess."
Glasgow GRAND Recovery Runners
The initial aim of the project was to give its participants the skills to document the progress of the Glasgow GRAND Recovery Runners - fellow community rehabilitation members participating in the Great Scottish Run as part of 'Getting Real About Alcohol & Drugs' week; a series of events organised by Glasgow's Communities Sub-group to raise awareness of the subject throughout the city.
The ADP Communities Sub-group, in partnership with Glasgow Life provided more than 150 places for Recovery Supporters to participate in The Great Scottish Run 10k, Glasgow on Sunday 2nd September.
More info here.
"When you're buzzing you don't notice all that- you're quite happy and you can relax on your wee couch," reflects Michael, who's shot of the den's 'gouch couch' is part of the exhibition. "I hope the photos inspire people to see things the way we've shot them … and just get something to click."
Growing up in Glasgow's east end where drug use is commonplace, Michael started experimenting with tablets at 14. Two years later, he was hooked on heroin and serving his first prison sentence. During the 90's he turned to stealing to fund his growing addiction and served around 20 short sentences: "That was just my life," he explains. "As soon as I got the habit, I was out to get the money for it - stealing, shoplifting, in the jail, coming out and getting straight back to it. The whole time I knew, this isn't good for me but I couldn't help myself."
Michael moved from hostel to hostel and spent a lot of time on the streets. He sold street papers for a while to help him survive. "I'd be there with a Big Issue in my hand. Not every day but it did help". A scar curving along his left jaw line, which he received in a hostel during a fight over one small dose of heroin, is a constant reminder of his severe addiction: "I'd go hungry just to get a hit," he admits. "I lost a brother while I was in prison - his death was drug-related. That should've been my lowest point, but it wasn't; I used for years after that."
"I hated what I was doing to people and my family. I was 35 and I had no respect for myself. I knew I had to do something so I tried these community rehabs. I've won my battle now but it took a long time to get there."
Murphy's aim was not only to teach his students photography skills, but also to challenge common misperceptions about people who have experienced drug addiction. He shot a series of black and white portraits of the Hope Street photographers during their first class. "I wanted to photograph them the way people might see them."
As the course progressed, so did the perception of both Murphy and his students. "I really got to know them as I learned their stories," he says. "It's quite grim - a lot of people have lost family and friends, so I'm a bit more understanding and sympathetic now, and I'm grateful for that."
James, 41, lost two older brothers to heroin addiction while he was growing up in Possilpark. The severely deprived area of North Glasgow was a hub for the city's heroin trade during the 80's and remains blighted by drug abuse and gang violence.
His own reliance on heroin began at 18 while he was in prison and grew on his release. Along with his partner, he was hooked: "I was taking it every day for years and spending a couple of grand a week. I needed it to feel ok, so I could face the world." The father of three continued dealing and was busted six times during his 20-year addiction: "It's not a good feeling when the drug squad smash your door down and pin you to the ground with the kids watching."
"These guys have a story; something to say and that makes their images powerful."
James' wake-up call finally came after the sixth raid, which led to his two youngest boys being taken into foster care. With the help of another community rehab, Phoenix Futures, James and his partner got clean and after a two year battle to prove themselves good parents, their family has been reunited. Having risen from the proverbial ashes, James hopes the photos will inspire others to do the same: "I just hope people relate to the stories. You can either become stronger or crumble. You stop taking drugs or your kids get brought up by someone else."
Although its subject matter is often bleak, viewed as a whole, the exhibition of the Hope Street photographers' work resonates with hope. This is embodied in Michael's photo 'Wings' which shows a bird's carcass lying in the street with its wings splayed like an angel's; a shot that received high praise from Murphy: "There's death all around these guys, but at the same there's something quite angelic about it. That was hope to me."
For Michael and James, the message that it is possible to overcome heroin addiction, no matter how severe, is what is important.
"People respect you as a person because of what you've been through," says James. "It's ok to say, 'you've been through it - can I get a wee bit of what you've got?' Of course you can - and then you can pass it on to someone else."
"I hope we can bring a load of people with us," agrees Michael. "Before, [hope] was a luxury we never had - just the hope for the next hit but now I feel stronger, it doesn't define me anymore. I'm brand new."
The emphatic first image of the exhibition, taken by George Beattie, says it all: "Hope Street: way out".
Photographer Simon Murphy and the Hope Street team donated the series to INSP for republication in street papers worldwide. The Hope Street photographers: Mark Tighe, Michael Kearney, Theresa Shields, George Beattie, Robert Mcfadyen, James Smith, Johnny Durham and Paul Roberts.
An exhibition of the final body of work produced by participants of The Hope Street project was recently unveiled at Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall and will be exhibited at various venues across the city in the coming weeks and months.