Johnny and a nurse before he self-injects his medication at Vancouver’s Crosstown Clinic. Q: “How would you have liked me to take photo differently and why? What’s missing?” A: “I would like it if maybe they’d let me comb my hair, instead of looking like a real hard core junkie here. I didn’t realize my hair looked so bad when I take my shirt off. The reason why I take my shirt off is because I muscle the dope, I don’t IV it, because the reason why I do the dope is different from why a lot of other people do it. They do it to get high, I do it to help with some pain issues I have. I don’t want people thinking, ‘You know, these guys are going in there taking our tax dollars and doing heroin and getting high, look at them. You know, they’re nothing but detriments to society.’ Well, I’ll tell ya, it’s saving my life. I’m hoping within six months to have a new hip put in, and go back to work, do some part-time painting work. Just start to get back to living life on life’s terms.”

When a Drug User Looks at Photos of Himself

Heroin-assisted treatment has improved Johnny’s life. Through photographs he reflects on new-found stability

by Aaron Goodman

This is the second in a series of three articles in which I share the results of a project in which I photographed three long-term heroin users — Cheryl, Marie and Johnny — and asked each to interpret my photos.

Part One introduces the project and recounts Cheryl’s story. Part Three tells Marie’s story.


PART TWO: JOHNNY’S STORY

Tattoos on Johnny’s back.

Aaron: What do you think people on the outside see in this photo?

Johnny: They see a tattoo of a tiger. A Siberian tiger. That’s what they see in the photo.

Aaron: Do you think this photo accurately represents you?

Johnny: Yes it does, I have a love for animals, especially cats. I had a cat in my life for the last year-and-a-half ... well no, the last eight months and the more time I spent with humans, the more I love my cat.
 
Aaron: Is there any other information you would like people to know? What do you hope people get out of this photograph and what do you want to show?

Johnny: I just want to show my love for animals, my cat. I’m not much on being a show off, that’s why I put it on my back. So it’s not to give anybody stigmas about, ‘Oh, he’s showing off tattoos on his arms or his stomach, or his face or whatever.’ It’s something I’ve always wanted to do — of getting — and I managed to do that.

Johnny collects cans from a Vancouver food court. He is proud of the work he does and the money he earns.

Aaron: Do you think this photo accurately represents you?

Johnny: At this point in my life, it does accurately represent me. What it represents me is being somebody who is trying not to break the law and grab some bottles and cash them in. So I can basically, eat and have food.

Aaron: How would you have liked me to take photo differently and why? What’s missing?

Johnny: What’s missing is the security guards who usually hassle me. And, they have no reason to because I’m not hurting or stealing from them. That’s what’s kinda missing. That’s the message that’s not getting across here.

Aaron: Is there any other information you want people to know? What do you hope people get out of this photograph and what do you want to show?

Johnny: What I would like to show is, for one I’m helping the environment because 80% of these bottles end up going to the landfill or the garbage. It’s not good for our ecosystem. And plus, it’s helping somebody else, it’s helping somebody who is not going to go — go into a store and shoplift or anything.

Aaron: Could you imagine a different photograph that would help people understand your life?

Johnny: No. At this point in my life, I feel like I could come home at night and look in the mirror and not feel guilt or shame for what I was doing out there. Because I’m not stealing from anybody or hurting anybody.

Johnny collecting cans from a Vancouver food court. He is proud of the work he does and the money he earns.

Aaron: What do you think people on the outside see in this photo?

Johnny: What they see is a fella who looks very intense. He looks tired. He’s out trying to make an honest dollar. He’s not proud of what he’s doing. But he’s doing what he has to, in order to survive.

Aaron: Do you think this photo accurately represents you?

Johnny: At the point where I’m at in my life, I think it’s a 100% accurate description of where my life is at. You can see the weariness, the life, the trials and tribulations I’ve been through.

Aaron: How would you have liked me to take photo differently and why? What’s missing?

Johnny: I don’t think there’s anything you could have taken differently. Like I said once again, just the intenseness and the wear and tear of abusing drugs and way of life has become, is so accurately shown in this picture.

Johnny walks in a store where he used to shoplift before starting heroin-assisted treatment. He is proud that he now buys all his own food and supplies.

Aaron: Do you think this photo accurately represents you?

Johnny: No. What this photo does accurately represents is the fact that I used to go into the shops and shoplift. I shoplifted quite a bit of food from this shop to feed my drug addictions, and that’s one thing you don’t see in this picture right now.

Aaron: How would you have liked me to take photo differently and why? What’s missing?

Johnny: I came and stole from this place and yet, a year later, I’m welcome to come in that store because I made an immense change and do not steal in there now. I come in and buy food like any other individual, and it makes me so proud to be able to do that.

Johnny pauses in front of a tourist shop in Vancouver’s Gastown neighborhood where he used to shoptlift to support his heroin addiction. Since starting heroin-assisted treatment, he has stopped stealing.

Aaron: Do you think this photo accurately represents you?

Johnny: Yeah. Sitting down because I can’t walk a whole lot. Being the fact is I gotta get a new hip. Yeah, I take a bit of time to sit down and relax, more than normally.

Aaron: How would you have liked me to take photo differently and why? What’s missing?

Johnny: I don’t think there’s anything really missing. You can see the intenseness in my face. It looks like I’m thinking deep about something and it’s just a feeling of gratitude of being happy and being alive.

Aaron: Is there any other information you want people to know? What do you hope people get out of this photograph and what do you want to show?

Johnny: What I hope people get out of this photograph is that it’s never too late. And what I’ve been through in my life. We always have a chance as long as we stay positive in the moment. Live in the moment.

Jade figurines in a window of a tourist shop in Vancouver’s Gastown neighborhood where Johnny used to shoplift before he started heroin assisted treatment.

Aaron: What do you think people on the outside see in this photo?

Johnny: Some nice carvings. If you look close enough, done in jade. So Chinese jade, B.C. jade, and Canadian jade there. Very nice done little pieces and very expensive little pieces.

Aaron: Do you think this photo accurately represents you?

Johnny: This photo accurately represents a point in my life when I needed money to do dope. These were the things I would steal to feed my drug addiction. And they were small enough, and easy enough to steal that I would do it. And I had no problem doing it. I never once got caught stealing and grabbing these pieces of ornaments.

Aaron: Could you imagine a different photograph that would help people understand your life?

Johnny: No. I would go into the store and take about five minutes. Five minutes of work would keep me unsick for approximately two or three days.



Aaron Goodman is a photographer, multimedia producer, documentary maker and instructor based in Vancouver, B.C. and Montreal, QC. Connect with Aaron on Twitter and LinkedIn.

This project was supported by a Katalyst Grant at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C. where Aaron is a faculty member in Journalism and Communication Studies.