Recovery Allies – Photographers
recovery allies - photographers
Written by Alison Webb

In the early days and weeks of recovery, when the heart is raw, relationships are shattered, deep fear about what happens next abounds and a future in wellness seems impossible, Joanne Arnold captures moments of connection that tell stories of determination and hope.

She photographs people, mostly men, three days a week at MaineWorks in Portland, early in the morning around a fire circle as they prepare for a day at work. Most are in early recovery from addiction.

“I select images that reflect who the men are, in dignified employment,” she says. To Arnold, these men are on a hero’s journey. They have to go through pain, slay the dragon and bring home the prize, she says. They’re heroes on their way back home.

Arnold, 61, lives in Falmouth and has been a photographer for 11 years. She posts her photos from MaineWorks on Facebook and has been amazed at the connections that have happened as a result. Her posts receive scores of “likes,” “shares” and comments. But there’s more. “An unexpected consequence of posting them on Facebook,” she says, “is that some of the men get connected to their families again.” One mother saw her son’s photo and commented, “This is the boy I thought I lost,” and the two reconnected after years of estrangement.

Arnold, an ordained interfaith chaplain, says she says she firmly believes in the importance of creating a space for people to be seen, not judged – to be safe and to just be who they are on their journey in life.

She feels it’s important for people in the community to see her photos because they show us people we otherwise would not know, in that safe space. Arnold’s photos are a way to share stories of lived experience that moves us toward connection. She believes her photos can shift the paradigm of addiction and recovery in the community.

David Griffin, National Geographic’s photo director, aptly sums up what Arnold aims to do by saying that photographers are in search of that moment of connection, that split second of intimacy, when visual elements come together to define not just what was happening at the moment but also the photographer’s emotional connection to their subject. And later, that connection is conveyed to the viewer.

When this happens, when photography is the currency of connection, as Arnold puts it, art is in service of something larger.

Jen Dean also is in search of that moment of connection, when subject and photographer are in intimate relationship. In her Westbrook studio, Dean photographs survivors – mostly women who are survivors of domestic violence, rape, suicide attempts and mental illness – and women in recovery from addiction. As a visual storyteller, Dean is interested in looking at “the other side of trauma” and truly seeing the person in front of the lens.

Dean, who is 46, has been a professional photographer for 20 years. She shoots weddings and offers other services like head shots for people in business. Her mission with her photography is to help people to be visible, in their professional and personal lives. She also has created the Gardenia Project, a labor of love that gives women the ability to explore a “catalyst” – a large change in their lives. She photographs the women, listens to their stories and finds ways to make them visible to themselves, and to others, and she shares their podcasts online. This is a self-funded endeavor, but she accepts donations from participants and welcomes sponsorships.

The women she photographs “still have voices in their heads that tell them that they aren’t enough.” Time and time again, she hears from women who think they’re lacking something that everyone else has – beauty, confidence, skills, you name it. And they feel shame about their experiences. Dean says she wants an answer to this question: What would happen if we loved ourselves completely, and confidently shared ourselves with the world? “Could we just get rid of shame?” Dean asks emphatically. “These women have built and rebuilt their lives. Can’t we just say that out loud?” “Everyone is vulnerable in front of the camera, and that’s scary.” Dean says. When women are being photographed for the Gardenia Project, they drop their “happy persona” and tell their real stories. “There’s so much power in the idea of telling people’s truths,” she says. In front of the camera, in her studio, “people are honest, show their imperfections,” Dean says. “I want to be a part of that.”

Both Dean and Arnold see photography as an agent of change. Dean wants to create community, to bring people together to share, have a voice and be heard. Arnold wants to change the way we think about addiction and recovery.

And both are saying to the people they photograph, “I see you. I know you.”

Alison Webb

Alison Webb

Alison Webb, MPH, PS-C, a columnist for Journey, is a public health professional with over 20 years’ experience in community outreach and organizing, substance use and overdose prevention, community based substance use recovery supports, and linking community members with healthcare services. Alison is a strong recovery ally in her own community, where she has been a member of the Portland Overdose Task Force, Young People in Recovery, and as a past member of the Board of the Portland Recovery Community Center. She is active in legislative advocacy to increase recovery support services.