Shaun Buck, pictured alongside this article, was supposed to be the “posterboy” for a new photography exhibition titled “Grit, Grime, and Grace,” aimed at humanizing people who use opiates and their struggle to get clean.
But four days before the exhibition’s opening, Buck was found dead inside a Porta Potty in Deering Oaks park. He had died of an opiate overdose.
Buck’s portrait, a photograph by Joanne Arnold, still hangs proudly at the exhibit, on view through May 29 at the Union of Maine Visual Artists Gallery on the first floor of the CTN building on Congress St., but with a makeshift memorial underneath it, asking others to share memories or condolences. A caption alongside his photo reads, “Do You See Me Now?”
Arnold, the photographer who captured Buck’s enigmatic expression back in November, said that his recent death ironically served to emphasize one of the exhibition’s core messages: the recovering addict community in Portland grapple with death and dying every day, but their suffering often goes unnoticed by the public.
“I wanted to make a stand and say, see, this is what happens,” said Arnold, whose work, along with Nick Gervin and Colin Malakie, makes up the UMVA street photography exhibition. “He was a great guy that was sailing smooth, but had a fall he couldn’t recover from. It's a typical experience of the community of loss.”
On average, at least one person dies of an overdose a day here in Maine. According to the Portland Press Herald, which published a detailed 10-part special report about opioid addiction titled “Lost” last March, 376 Mainers died of overdoses last year, from different backgrounds and points of life: young and old, wealthy and poor, rural farmers, coastal fishermen, and affluent suburbanites.
Arnold and photographer David Wade (who curated "Grit, Grime, and Grace") say that despite the sweeping scope of addiction and its coverage in state newspapers, the misery of those caught in it goes largely unseen. Arnold and Wade hope to steer viewers away from the “postcard pretty” image of Portland to the grim reality of the streets, where many locals struggle to get warm, fed, and clean from potentially fatal drug use.
“Portland’s not your happy, inviting, bucolic, summer-y, and touristy little city by the sea,” said Wade. “Nobody wants to see the reality of the opiate epidemic; it gets swept under the rug.”
Wade aims to show another side of Portland, one with “Grit, Grime, and Grace,” as the exhibition’s title aptly suggests.
“I'm not ignoring it anymore,” said Wade. “We have a real opiate epidemic here in Maine; it's bigger than I thought.”
The pervasiveness of this reality confronts viewers as soon as they enter the exhibition space with a banner that reads “We See You: Have you lost anyone in your life to Maine’s opiate crisis?” Underneath, dozens of post-it notes smatter the space featuring the names of those that lost their life to drugs. It just took one night to fill the banner.
“You can't just ignore this crisis and hope it goes away,” said Wade. “Maine’s billed as The Way Life Should Be, but hey, this is not how life should be.”
The exhibit features the work of Nicholas Gervin, Colin Malakie, and Joanne Arnold, who all have vastly different approaches to photography, but wind up embracing the same theme: objective, street level reality. Gervin’s a nightcrawler who roams the streets of Portland in the wee hours and with a “gotcha” style of flash photography which captures intense scenes of police arrests, house fires, drug abuses, and drunken 2:00 am brawls. One might say he covers the “grime.”
Taken on the streets of Portland by Nicholas Gervin.
Part of Gervin's artist statement reads: "Yes, life is good here in Portland, but not necessarily for everyone and certainly not all the time. Like many cities across America we have our fair share of issues that often go unresolved over the decades. Homelessness, drug addiction, poverty, unemployment, state budget cuts, an understaffed police force, overworked fire department and EMT’s, gentrification and global warming among many others. How will the greater community of Portland address these issues? The time for action is now."
Malakie’s black-and -white photographs reveal moments that don’t seem like they took place in Portland. His work embodies the “grit” of the city.
And Arnold, with her intimate and arresting portraits of MaineWorks employees — an organization that connects recovering addicts, ex-felons, and Veterans with employment opportunities — deftly embodies the “grace” portion of the exhibit.
As an Interfaith Chaplain and photographer who peers into personal, complex, and often times stigmatized experiences, Arnold says communication with her subjects is imperative. She understands the importance of conveying the difficult journey of recovery without tokenizing with experiences of addicts with her photographs.
“I get permission and build a relationship first,” said Arnold, who says she's often up at 5 am to meet with the MaineWorks group. “I don't want to take advantage of them.”
Arnold says she hopes viewers see her photographs and don’t jump to labeling her subjects as “junkies or idiots,” but instead as complex and tenacious humans who are burdened with a long and difficult journey.
“Some of these people have lost all their friends,” said Arnold. “The exhibition shows sadness and misery, but I hope it has a healthy effect.”
IN HER OWN WORDS
It’s been 10 months, since Kaylee Michelle, a young mother born and raised in Portland, last used heroin.
As a person in recovery, Michelle said that she’s used to people judging her, but often times, when they do, they don’t know her full story. Sometimes an exchange between a recovering addict and a sober person can result in a complete disregard for the complex forces that chained them to chemical dependency in the first place.
Michelle encourages those that are “quick to judge” to go see the “Grit, Grime, and Grace” and is glad that such an exhibition exists. She said it lets other addicts “know that they are not alone.”
Last Sunday, on Mother’s Day, Michelle took to Facebook to write a status — which, with her permission, I’ve reprinted below — that neatly sums up the point of this photo project and is symbolic of a recovering addict’s life experience. One who might cry out, “do you really see me?”
“You see heroin, I see low self-esteem. You see cocaine, I see fear. You see alcohol, I see social anxiety. You see track marks, I see depression. You see a Junkie, I see someone's son. You see a prostitute, I see someone's daughter caught in addiction. You see self-centeredness, I see the disease. You see a pill head, I see overprescribing of opiates. You see someone unwilling to change, I see someone hasn't connected with them yet. You see denial, I see someone hurting. You see someone nodding out, I see God showing us they need help. You see the end, I see the beginning. You see a dope fiend, I see a future success story. You see them, I see me.” - Kaylee Michelle