I have decided to title this post Trainspotting in Portland, but not the photo series itself. The post is about my process as much as the result, and I must admit, there is something about walking around taking pictures of people, as I so often do, that feels like actual trainspotting – the hobby of observing trains and logging their numbers, often in bad weather. So, Trainspotting, for what it’s worth.
As with numerous other series I’ve done, I have reduced this scene to three images.
The real title for this series is “Rebecca at the Well” which is a reference to the fountain in Downtown Portland’s Shemanski Park where the photos were taken, but which also lends a poetic irony to the subject of a woman jabbing a needle in her arm.
I do not seek to judge. In fact, I don’t know for certain what substance this woman was injecting. The camera can grab a moment, and that moment can tell a whole story, or it can tell an incomplete one. For me, that’s part of the magic. For most people with whom I’ve shared these photos, there is a strong assumption that the woman is shooting heroin. That seems to be the story the photos tell about the subject. But this is a series in which our own doubt plays a role, and we question what we are seeing. Were that not the case – were these just pictures of an addict servicing their addiction – I wouldn’t have published the images. Our uncertainty about the story is what makes this series real.
I do believe addiction is an illness, not a crime. If I judge anyone, it is the pharmaceutical companies and doctors who have pushed opioids on unsuspecting people for decades because it was profitable, and the politicians and profiteers in law enforcement and corrections who seek to criminalize drugs because doing so is profitable.
The reality of the illness of drug addiction is that it is a social illness as well as an individual one, and at the social level, its most damaging symptom is unchecked greed. In 2018, greed appears to be the only American value left, though I would argue that for a great number of Americans, numbness is a virtue if not a value.
Somehow, I see it all in these photos, taken on a spring day in a park, with many people walking and talking within feet of the subject. I watched her as she walked with her bags of groceries into the park, set her bags down, and prepared her syringe. It was as business-like an act as walking a dog, or writing an email. It was just something that needed to be done in this woman’s day.