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Photo series: recovering addicts capture hope

 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

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Members of the Hope Street photography project based in Glasgow. Portraits taken by Simon Murphy, a professional photographer who taught recovering addicts in Glasgow the basic camera skills required to document their journey to recovery. Photo: Simon Murphy

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'Split Family' by Paul Roberts. A broken key ring found in a drug den with the faded image of a happy family on it. Paul, a heroin user, photographed this image to depict how drug addiction can damage family life.Photo: Paul Roberts

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'Spoon' by George Beattie. A spoon from a "one hit kit" obtained from chemists to allow users to avoid infection. The kit contains citric acid, a spoon and a clean needle and syringe. Photo: George Beattie

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'Wings' by Michael Kearney. "Simon did a back flip when I took this photo. The birds long-dead but the way its wings are lying, it could take off again. At the start, I wasn't sure what that photo or the whole project really meant project but I get it now." Photo: Michael Kearney

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'Needles in pan' by Michael Kearney. The toilet pan inside a den is littered with used needles. For Michael, the Hope Street project has “shown me a different way of looking at things – about what they mean to you.”Photo: Michael Kearney

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'Only colour around here' by Theresa Shields. Three brightly coloured towels in a grey block of flats in the notorious Red Road area of Glasgow. This is an image of hope reminding Theresa of growing up surrounded by addiction.Photo: Theresa Shields

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‘Gouch couch’ by Michael Kearney. This is a 'couch’ in a den where an addict would inject. After a hit the addict goes into a "gouch", a feeling of euphoria. The contrast of the cartoon character mattress and the dingy conditions make a striking image. “I can’t believe how normal it seemed back then.”Photo: Michael Kearney

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'Paranoid' by Theresa Shields. One of the side effects of Theresa’s addiction to speed was paranoia. She felt like everyone "knew her business" so never took her child to the school just across the road or even to the ice cream van. For years she "hardly left the house, only to get drugs"Photo: Theresa Shields

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'Life in our time' by Johnny Durham. An empty packet of pills sits beside a child's "colouring in" book: an Image depicting the loss of innocence and childhood experienced by many kids who grow up in deprived areas of Glasgow, surrounded by drug abuse and gang violence.Photo: Johnny Durham

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‘Under the surface’ by James Smith. Addicts often have feelings of low self-esteem and self-worth. James took this image of peeling paint on a fence. He feels it is important to give people a chance and look a bit deeper into people’s circumstances, to "scratch under the surface".Photo: James Smith

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‘Goals’ by Robert Mcfadyen. “I was good at football but as I got older I got into gangs. On a typical weekend we would drink then go fight boys from the other schemes. It got serious at times.” This image is also reminder of his future goals. Photo: Robert Mcfadyen

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‘Hope Street’ by George Beattie. The title shot of the exhibition is a photograph of the exit of a train station on Hope Street in Glasgow’s city centre. It speaks of the students’ hopes, goals and constantly striving for a "way out" of a life of addiction.Photo: George Beattie

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Michael Kearney overcame a 30-year addiction to heroin and is inspired by his three-year-old daughter, Carly: “Now I know I’m good for something. I’m a great dad – the relationship I’ve got with youngest is amazing!” Photo: Simon Murphy

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At the height of his addiction James Smith came close to stabbing a man to death over money: “To this day I see this guy quite a lot and think, I could’ve murdered him, I could be in prison right now for life. When you’re full of heroin or tablets, you just don’t realise what you’re doing.”Photo: Simon Murphy

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Simon Murphy’s portraits of the Hope Street photographers aim to remind people that, when the barriers come down, you stop seeing the addict. George Beattie, a recovering addict who took the exhibition’s title shot, says he’s lucky to be alive: “I was found lying on the car park stairs by an off duty policeman.”Photo: Simon Murphy

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."

Watch the Hope Street photographers in action.

"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.

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