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