The Window of Clarity: Eric Hatch’s “Faces of Addiction”

March 3rd, 2019  |  Published in *, Winter 2019  |  2 Comments

Award-winning writer and photographer Eric K. Hatch has made his reputation by focusing on landscapes and the built environment. So when an acquaintance who lost a son to an overdose encouraged him to address drug addiction, he at first hesitated, feeling unprepared to take on such a project. Yet after a meditative cross-country trip and some encouragement from friends, he decided the project would permit him to educate himself about the issue while performing a service to people in the Cincinnati area. As volunteers came forward to tell their stories, he resolved to listen closely and at length before taking each person’s picture. He captured anywhere from 100 to 150 shots of each person, narrowing to one key image to be included in Faces of Addiction. Hatch amassed well over 5,000 portraits before settling on the fifty that would figure into the book. Dignified and unsentimental, the portraits typically feature a crisply detailed visage against a softened backdrop, with occasional wooden bars, a flap of fabric, a beloved skateboard, or a funnel of exhaled smoke entering into the foreground. The results are intimate and unapologetic, with the sitters reaching past the photographer’s gaze to viewers who share their struggles.

Figure 1: Amy Carreazo

 

Figure 2: Jackson F.

That sense of outreach arises not merely as one possible interpretation among others, but rather as a reading that many participants explicitly invite. Adona Swarts, for example, describes her involvement as an effort to assist others: “I’m a strong woman, and I’ve got problems, but if I can just help some people, I’ve done something good” (Hatch 64). Bill Harrison mentions similar goals, and suggests that helping his mother cope with Alzheimer’s gives him the strength to stay sober (68). Participants such as Chrystal Quigley show up despite distaste for having their pictures taken, subordinating personal comfort to the possibility of social intervention. Hatch’s interviews with his subjects thereby bring out the ethical texture of the endeavor, the orientation toward others that becomes necessary for self-care. For some contributors, that compassionate sensibility organizes their daily work: Lee Pioske, for instance, who heads up Crossroads Recovery in Phoenix, and Randy Dannheim, who has built a thriving recovery program for meth addicts. These ventures constitute forms of rehabilitation for their leaders as much as the populations who attend. But Pioske shows interest in prevention rather than rehabilitation alone, advocating forms of public education that counter the logic of the “quick fix” while promoting emotional wellbeing (102).

Figure 3: Tabatha Swords

 

Figure 4: Chrystal Quigley

While documenting his subjects’ personal histories and reasons for participating, he represents their appeals to the audience in high-density monochrome, a precision approach that is at once endearing and uncomfortably probing. In his reflection on the project, he suggests that working in black-and-white gives the photos “impact” (1); it also gives them historical gravity while accentuating facial contours that might otherwise go unnoticed. Some of his subjects have suffered so intensely they have emerged into a kind of fearlessness. Others seem almost too fragile to bear our gaze. They have no singular or over-arching story, for as participant Heather Jenkins says, “Addicts can be anyone, anywhere” (82). Their expressions are by turns solemn and piercing, beseeching and aggressive, guarded and generous, desperately weary. Their addiction often comes with a host of other struggles: decaying bones, lesions, depression, financial strain, homelessness, domestic abuse and molestation, estrangement from loved ones, involvement in prostitution and human trafficking, imprisonment. Although we might imagine prison to be a forced hiatus from drugs, Swarts claims she had easier access to heroin behind bars than in the outside world. People throughout the book experienced such situations, some after beginning careers as athletes, dancers, and carpenters; experiments with pain medication cut a path toward long-term dependence, making it difficult to recapture former successes or hold down a job at all. As economic survival became increasingly difficult, so did survival itself. Numerous contributors to Faces of Addiction have seen friends and loved ones die due to drug-related crises, and at least one volunteer died before the book release.

Figure 5: Wiley McDaniel

The vulnerability of Hatch’s collaborators imbues the project with a sense of risk, a heightened prospect of aggravating the power inequality between documentarian and subject. His decision to listen to the contributors for protracted periods clarifies another ethical layer to the endeavor, then: even though the photographs indicate the idiosyncrasies of his own vision, the singularity of his perspective as an artist and activist, he shows humility before the struggles of his sitters and leads each prose-photo spread with their personal stories. Strong continuities exist between the narratives, as the interviewees recount cycles of rehabilitation and relapse punctuated by near-death experiences. Those in recovery at the time of the interview praise their allies and support systems, suggesting that the slow, uneven process of healing would be impossible without friends and sponsors. That process never really ends. Ashley Perin mentions knowing people who stay clean for two decades, only to relapse and die within a short period (94). Reflection on such losses yields an honest view of the past, and even a tentative look toward the future, though Wiley McDaniel notes that “the window of clarity closes very quick” (8). As the subjects seek those brief windows, Hatch records a sliver of the search, every mark and shadow suffused with significance. But by pairing the photos with interviews, most of which have an elliptical, unfinished quality, he disallows exhaustive or clear-cut interpretations. The page-spreads project a stark beauty while highlighting the limits of aesthetic appreciation; they afford information-rich views while suggesting something much larger, conflicts that the photo-book can evoke but never quite contain.

Those conflicts are national and even international in scope, though Faces of Addiction attends mainly to people living within a 90-mile radius of Cincinnati. 85 percent of those participants have family roots in Appalachian areas (109). Several contributors laud recovery initiatives like the Sojourner program while expressing a need for more such efforts in and around Hamilton County. Hatch provides a venue for those appeals not just in his book but an expansive website and a photo exhibit at Christ Church Cathedral. He belongs to the Quaker Church known as Cincinnati Friends, which works to circulate his book in local prevention and rehabilitation programs, spreading the word in as many media formats as possible. Despite initial misgivings about his readiness for the project, he has taken reassurance from that community while seeing them become dedicated to its success. What that success might look like is as yet uncertain, but one thing is sure: wherever Hatch’s ethic of listening catches on, there is one small victory.

–Christopher Carter

 

Works Cited

Hatch, Eric K. Faces of Addiction. Braughler Books, 2019.

 

Responses

  1. Dan Newman says:

    March 4th, 2019at 3:59 pm(#)

    Working in the field of addiction for over 25 years I was very impressed, and touched, by the photographs as well as the article/review. This is one book I will be purchasing because of the article and the fact it all took place within a 90 mile radius of Cincinnati. Thank you for an excellent article on what I hope to be an excellent addition to my library.

  2. Patricia Roop Hollinger says:

    March 17th, 2019at 12:48 pm(#)

    My son died as a direct result of being prescribed Oxycontin in whatever amounts he asked for. He was dealing with pain from a work related injury. The M.D. has lost his license, but too late to save my son. These meds have their place as Vicodin is what made it possible for me to deal with the pain as the result of Lyme’s disease. However, I spent a weekend from hell as I withdrew from this medication.