Survive This.

review of the exhibition Tony Fouhse: Live Through This:

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Fig 1. Tony Fouhse, Stephanie, from the series USER, 2010.

Live Through This is a remarkable series of portraits following the journey of a heroin-addicted woman named Stephanie MacDonald and her struggle to overcome substance abuse. The portraits are unique in that they capture not only the essence of a woman who is fighting for her life but also evoke a presence unseen. This presence is Ottawa-based photographer Tony Fouhse who documented Stephanie from her initial state of addiction to recovery. Fouhse is known for his most recent photographic series USER in which he uses drug addicts as subject matter much in the same way that they use substances but without the abuse. Fouhse reveals the triple entendre of the term “user”as the premise for the series: “I called it USER because the people I was photographing used drugs but I was using them. But they were also using me as a conduit to the outside world.”[1] However, it was not until he met Stephanie MacDonald on one of his excursions that USER would turn into more than the photographing of the drug addicted; instead, it was the beginning of a strong relationship between photographer and subject unprecedented in Fouhse’s previous street photography. Tony Fouhse crossed the invisible line between photographer and subject, documentation and portraiture that resulted in a breathtaking display of one woman’s struggle to get clean and the role art could play in it.

The exhibition, curated by Robert Evans at the Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG), displays a series of portraits of Stephanie from her initial drug-addicted state to her recovery. “In June of 2010 I met Stephanie and the second I took her picture I knew there was something about this woman. I got to know her over the next six weeks fairly well; I photographed her three or four more times,”[2]Fouhse described the day which set the project in motion and refers to the first picture he ever took of Stephanie (Figure 1).  Stephanie appears in an orange bikini top and shorts, displaying her emaciated form. She looks at the viewer with a defiant look expressing a “no bullshit” attitude most likely acquired from nights spent on the street. Behind her fierce expression lies a certain softness in her eyes suggesting there is more to this woman than the two dimensional stereotype of drug addict. Fouhse recalled that he could not help but be drawn to her: “There was just something about her and one day I blurted out the words, ‘Is there something I can do to help you?’ She asked me to help her get into rehab. I asked her if I could photograph the process as she moved from where she was to where she wanted to be. She agreed and we began.”[3] The viewer moves from this initial picture to a series of photographs documenting the journey of Stephanie and Fouhse as they struggled with Stephanie’s substance abuse, withdrawal, relapse and almost death. The viewer is confronted with raw images such as Steph Injecting Heroin, Ottawa, Nov. 2010 (Figure 2) in which Fouhse shows Stephanie in the act of injecting heroin into her neck so calmly that one can assume it has become routine. Fouhse does not romanticize the subject but instead captures a truthful portrait of Stephanie. He shows her as she is: a woman with an addiction to heroin who the act of injection is but a mundane routine.

Fig. 2 Tony Fouhse, Stephanie Injecting Heroin, Ottawa, November 2010, 2010.

Live Through This was more than a photographer simply going into the streets and photographing the marginalized members of Ottawa’s society. Fouhse may “use” his subjects but he does not take advantage of them or treat them any differently than he would anyone else. Fouhse considers his work a collaboration in which his subjects contribute to the creative process as well. For instance, many of the photographs were posed such as Steph in her room, Ottawa, Jan 2011(Figure 3) where she appears clutching a white blanket with a look of distress.

Fig. 3 Tony Fouhse, Steph in her room, Ottawa, January 2011, 2011.

She was “dope sick” as Fouhse explains, “It was all too much chaos, so she was sick, and I said, ‘Steph, go stand against the door,’ so she would stand against the door. And the other ones are all pretty much posed even when she was injecting. She said ‘I’m just going to do this’ and I said ‘no, let me get my light right first.’ So we were very much collaborators creating on this.”[4] The portraits are also paired with journal entries that Stephanie had written throughout the process. Stephanie’s words seem to breathe life into the portraits which would otherwise not have had the same effect had they stood alone. Fouhse thought it was important to include Stephanie’s voice, “I think the writing really reflects what I was doing and shows how honest she is and how smart she is in terms of being able to see things.”[5] In Note, March 2011, Stephanie writes “I got as high as I could off Heroine and Crack that there isn’t any point but to quit. You can’t get any higher. So where does the crazy life end?”

The crazy life for Stephanie would end after she was admitted into the hospital for brain surgery resulting from a cyst that had grown on her brain. Stephanie writes “I will never trade this life now and go back to it but for some sick reason I miss it but deep down I know I had to have brain surgery cause it was my sign and only sign that I was ganna realize that I had quit or die.”[6] Site of operation, Ottawa, April 2011 (Figure 4) physically displays the hardship Stephanie endured through the visual of her head post-operation.

Fig 4 Tony Fouhse, Site of operation, Ottawa, April 2011, 2011.

The site of the operation is shaved and shows the metal staples which carve a sinuous line into the back of her head. They mark not only the physical suffering but also the emotional pain Stephanie had to persevere in order to get clean. The site is a testament to her battle with substance abuse and the fight to become clean.

It is easy to look at Live Through This and conclude the exhibition is a remarkable display of humanitarianism and that Fouhse was merely documenting the process of Stephanie being “saved.” However to assume this would be to grossly misinterpret the complexity and unusual nature of the project. Fouhse explains that the reason he pursued the project was not out of a humanitarian motive but one of a more selfish nature, “I wasn’t doing that because I wanted to be a stand up righteous dude. I was doing that because the time I was spending with her was about the most exciting thing I had ever done in my life, running wild in the streets, going to crack houses. I was doing it for the experience.”[7]  Live Through This is an experience: the experience between two people from two different worlds who have shared something no one but them can fully understand. The art of photography brought them together and as a result has brought the wider public together to experience the work and understand the danger of the stereotype “drug addict.” Stephanie Macdonald is not just a “heroin addict.” She is a beautiful woman who struggled with an affliction and survived.

Works Cited

Rybus, Greta. feature shoot (blog). http://www.featureshoot.com/2012/09/photographing-a-heroin-addict-through-despair-and-hope./ 

[1]Tony Fouhse, Round Table: Youth + Substance Use/Abuse in Ottawa, March 12, 2013, transcript.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Greta Rybus, Photographing a Heroin Addict through Despair, Horror and Hope,(blog), September 7, 2012, http://www.featureshoot.com/2012/09/photographing-a-heroin-addict-through-despair-horror-and-hope/.

[4] Tony Fouhse, interview by Brittany Gushue, March 12, 2013, transcript.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Wall Text.

[7] Tony Fouhse, Round Table: Youth + Substance Use/Abuse in Ottawa, March 12, 2013, transcript.

To see the original publication:

http://cuartgallery.tumblr.com/post/47223501231/congratulations-to-the-first-ever-winner-of-cuags-art

 

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