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July 28, 2021

Developing a New Visual Language Around Drug Use | Zibby Jahns | Transform UK | MFA Sculpture ’22

by Zibby Jahns

The overdose epidemic continues to rear its ugly head, only exacerbated but hidden by the global Covid pandemic. Decades of research have demonstrated that the “War on Drugs” has not changed society’s relationship to drugs nor limited its harm: on the contrary, the criminalization of drugs has led to mass incarceration and a staggering number of deaths, especially of young people. 

The data exists and the literature has been written that demonstrates how these mortalities can be avoided–but how to change public policy? How to change public opinion? How to lead people to dense texts on the topic? And most importantly, how to de-stigmatize some of the conceptions people have around drug use?

This July, I began my fellowship with Transform. Transform is a desk-based research organization in the UK focusing on the catastrophic effect drug policies have on communities. Transform’s educational literature and videos seek to bring attention to the harm that drug policy causes, maintaining that drugs are a health issue, not a criminal issue. The organization seeks to protect children through tighter regulations around drugs and an end to the criminalization of drug users. Transform, like so many other progressive institutions, relies on stock imagery to illustrate their points, which often reinforce particular stigmas around drug use. My proposal for this fellowship was to experiment with new forms of representation that call the initial images into question and point to the larger systemic issues at play. 

(Image: Tobacco use is at an all-time low, while 1 in 4 kids report using drugs. Tobacco use has become passe through increased regulation, taxation, and massive educational campaigns that have shifted social relationships away from cigarettes–not through prohibition. For this collage, I tried to represent young people as wearing the imagery of illicit drugs–not using the drugs in visceral, traumatic ways–to illustrate the ways that usage of substances is often a cultural phenomenon, not a criminal one.)

As we are living in a pandemic, this fellowship is remote. I have been familiarizing myself with Transform’s literature, hundreds of pages of thorough research into legal policy as well as public health. I have been pulling out data points that are extremely compelling in shifting opinion about drug use, and then sketching these moments in the most simplistic ways.

(Image: My notes from reading Transform’s literature, with quick sketches and notes to self alongside.)

I have printed out the stock imagery that Transform has used in their publications and spliced it up to make the viewer aware of the problematic nature of stigmatizing, user-focused imagery. Sometimes I juxtapose these images with photographs that Transform member Steve Rolles has taken while visiting various forms of harm reduction centers around the world (such as the Heroin Assisted Treatment Centers in Switzerland and Copenhagen; Safe Injection Sites in Vancouver; or free and decriminalized drug testing operations at festivals in the UK) to create a visual dichotomy between criminalization and mutual aid. 

(Image: For this collage, I did a simple cut and paste of a stark black and white photo of someone being arrested in grimy shadows amongst graffiti–pulled from a Transform briefing–with a color photograph of volunteers testing the validity of drugs at a festival. I wanted to very simply depict compassionate alternatives to criminalization that are already taking place so that we can encourage a more widespread application of harm reduction practices.)

Addiction and drug fatality are systemic problems, not personal ones. But all of the imagery we have ever seen on this topic focuses on an individual, draped in a hoodie, cowering in shame under the shadows of a dark alley. What were the forces that brought people who use drugs to this place? Just as the prohibition of alcohol didn’t stamp out alcoholism but did empower mafia organizations, drug addiction hasn’t been healed by a tough on crime approach. Addiction is the one neurological situation labeled as a disorder where showing symptoms precludes someone from getting treatment.

(Image: I have also been sketching in charcoal as a way to stay loose in my visual practice as I try to illustrate complex relationships in my head. This drawing was encouraged by a conversation with Maharam’s own Kevin Jankowski, where we discussed the stresses of our current world and the way some people use drugs to make peace with it, or to slow it down enough to tease out the individual elements at play.)

I share these images and experiments with the team at Transform through zoom meetings throughout the week. We have conversations about what they are working on, how particular visuals have helped to shift public opinion in the past, and what has failed. I’ve noticed in these meetings how much more interested I have become in the politics and law aspect of drug use, and how much more creatively-minded the team meetings are. We have involved conversations about how to be visually impactful.

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