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August 12, 2021

Stripping Preconceptions in Accessible Imagery Around Safer Consumption | Zibby Jahns | MFA Sculpture ’22

by Zibby Jahns

When you search image databases for “drugs” or “drug use”, this is what you’ll find:

Desperation, shame, homelessness, death. These aren’t actually the symptoms of drug use–they are the symptoms of a society that criminalizes drug use. When the visuals of drug use reflect society’s stigma and place the blame on the user, as opposed to the system, education around overdoses cannot progress. 

For the past month, I’ve been working to make a new type of image, one that doesn’t replicate images of drugs–or kitchen cabinet substances posing as those drugs–or distraught teens huddling in a corner. I am working to create images that demonstrate healthy relationships with substances on a personal and social level, through accepted modes of discussing harm reduction and safer use.

Instead of making visuals within my own aesthetic confines, I’ve been experimenting with stripping these images of all their stigmatizing factors. I want to remove users from shadows and hoodies, and normalize use that doesn’t end in strife. I want to represent people in a way that isn’t gendered, nor do I want to give them a race or a body type–i.e. not white or black, fat or skinny, old or young, straight or gay–in order to eliminate the possibility of preconception or stereotype. My goal is to portray people, in a world, using drugs or not, existing in a society that could be our own. 

Why does it seem so far-fetched and dangerous to have conversations about safer drug use without some sort of visual warning sign? Our society already has safety measures in place for objects and activities that pose risk. This is a simple and ingrained part of our everyday lives. We are trained to use powertools and sharp objects; users are given protective-wear such as goggles, hardhats, and gloves; first-aid boxes are always on site for emergencies. Rarely do people chop down trees alone–they do so in a team. All of these protocols are the same for using drugs: Never Use Alone, Test Your Drugs, Use Clean Needles, Sterilize the Injection Spot, Carry Narcan. There are always ways to reduce harm in any situation. We know what protocol works–it was passed down through community members of drug users and their allies. The only thing standing in the way is stigma. How will your mind, dear reader, shift so that these principles seem one in the same? How can images help locate such a pivot point in the average viewer?

I have been sketching out these ideas in the most simplistic way I can imagine, to envision innocuous, accessible and de-stigmatized entry points for talking about these concepts. I have been experimenting with paints and collage, continually trying to strip down the shapes and images, until I began taking a hint from kindergartners and used construction paper to talk about adult safety. (This has been a great challenge, as I don’t find these to be very aesthetically pleasing.) 

We don’t dull a knife’s blade to make it less dangerous, we standardize education and safe practice around knife use at home and in school.

The overdose epidemic has hit kids so hard, but children are continually taught only abstinence–a method with a 96% failure rate. Why do we make discussion of safer drug use only a topic for adults? Why can’t we incorporate the conversation of testing drugs and knowing the effects of and first aid for overdoses into our everyday vernacular? This inspired the image of a parents taking a picture of youth preparing for a party or celebration, and casually reminding them to test their drugs. 

I like to imagine a world where an active, concerned parent talks to their children about condoms, urges them not to drink and drive, and gives them fentanyl test strips. 1 in 4 children report using drugs– “Just Say No” has not limited the death toll. 

Have fun, kids, and don’t forget to test your drugs!

This image I tried to “complicate” the collage by using stock images of safer consumption and partying to connote the actions of the people involved. As I did in the smoking illustration in the last blog entry, using fashion as a way to talk about systems and choice is a way to remove a moralizing factor from people. Even though historically our society has found a way to moralize every color, pattern and shape of clothing (from “only royalty can wear blue” to “men can’t wear pink” to “you were asking for it with the length of your skirt”), it is very less stigmatized than more radical stances on drug use.

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