Most documentary projects about addiction expose someone else’s self-destructive behavior, but Graham MacIndoe took a very different approach: He photographed himself during the years he was addicted to drugs. He’d place a cheap digital camera on a table or bookshelf, set the self-timer to take a photo every so often, then turn his attention to the rituals of his habit: filling a crack pipe, cooking heroin, shooting up. Over time, he became more deliberate about lighting and composition, but the point was not to glamorize what had become a solitary existence, the monotonous repetition of an addict’s daily life.
I’m not a casual observer of these images; after Graham and I broke up because of his drug use, I found 342 self-portraits—images that he had not meant for me to see.
“In some way, this is exactly what I’d been curious to see,” I wrote at the time. “All those close-ups of the needle going into a vein, his expression during and after, the rooms and stairwells I never saw … Maybe the point is, ‘So you wanted to see? Here it all is.’ And then we’re supposed to feel sick over our voyeurism, because maybe we didn’t need to see that after all.”
Now I think we do need to see it, and try to understand addiction from the inside, as Graham describes what he wanted to show. Not the view of an outsider, but a first-person account of the isolating, all-consuming nature of addiction.
No one else is in the pictures; drugs have replaced everyone and everything that used to matter.
Beating the odds, Graham has been clean since 2010, and we’ve been back together for most of that time—a road to recovery that included four months at Rikers Island and five months in immigration detention, after he was ordered deported from the U.S. (Born in Scotland, he moved here legally and has a green card, but even a minor conviction can lead to permanent exile these days.)
A rare prison rehab program and a compassionate judge set him free, but Graham did the hard work to rebuild his life. To anyone who knows him, these photographs are a painful reminder of a dark, difficult era, but they also exhibit signs of hope: that Graham wanted to live to show them someday. —Susan Stellin
Graham MacIndoe: “I walked into someone’s bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror, and I looked so bad. I looked so gray and so tired, I hadn’t slept for days. I looked so—just not me. I had a cell phone with a camera in it, and I took a picture of myself. I looked at it later, and that’s what sort of inspired me to take more pictures of myself, just to document my fall into addiction.”
“Even in that haziness of addiction I was thinking like a photographer. I was thinking how these pictures would be perceived. And they got stronger as time went on. I’d lost my house, I was living in different people’s apartments, I was in an environment that was so far removed from where I had been that it was important for me to document that.”
“I decided not to photograph other addicts because people on drugs can’t really give you true consent to use their picture—their minds are not there. When you’re an addict, you’ll say yes to a lot of things because you’re not thinking straight. But once you get clean you would never do any of those things. So when you say to someone in that situation, ‘Is it all right if I take pictures?,’ it becomes a fraught issue for me, having been that person in that addictive state."
“It’s a very, very difficult thing for me to bare my soul to people that I don’t know, and try to explain what I went through and that I let this happen to me. But I want to take this thing out of the shadows and take away the stigma as much as I can. I’m not going to be ashamed about it because I’m really proud of the fact that I got clean. Yeah, you’ve got to take personal responsibility for letting yourself go down that way, but if you can pull yourself out, you should be the proudest person in this world. Because it is an affliction that is so powerful it destroys not only the lives of the addicts and the dealers, it destroys the lives of the people that love you—the collateral damage is huge. And there’s a whole bunch of guilt and denial and shame surrounding that, and I think that has to be taken away.”