Newborn babies. High school graduates. Wedding parties. Drug addicts.
What do these groups have in common? They are all common subjects of photography at Swadley Studio in Martinsburg. Lori Swadley, who co-owns the studio with her husband, has been taking photos of models, families, and weddings in the D.C. area since 2001. But in January 2016, she pivoted, and began a new project.
“It has only recently begun to make headlines, but heroin has been killing people I care about since 1998 …” Swadley begins in her blog post introducing 52 Addicts—an ongoing photo essay that chronicles the lives of recovering addicts. She goes on to admit that 13 people she knew lost their lives to the drug. To her, they weren’t “junkies” or “low-lifes,” but friends—people she laughed with, cried with, danced with at concerts.
To add insult to injury, Swadley noticed an abundance of judgement towards addicts. “I’ve seen how little people want to help and how much people think that addicts just need to help themselves,” she said. “Once you fall down that path, it’s hard to get out of it.”
In the fall of 2015, Martinsburg was planning to build a rehab facility downtown. Swadley was motivated to action. “There were all these council meetings, and so many people would come and argue against it, saying ‘it’s in my neighborhood,’ or ‘Martinsburg needs to be cleaned up, we shouldn’t have a rehab there.’”
Swadley thought the reaction was inhumane. “People acted like they shouldn’t care about those who are going through something tragic,” she said. It also frustrated her to see that s0 many didn’t seem to grasp the importance of rehab facilities.
“They were spreading myths about what rehabs do for communities,” she maintained. “Very rarely will you find a rehab that has destroyed a community … people go there to get help.”
Swadley decided she wanted to increase awareness about not only the addicts as individuals, but the potential for positive change that rehabs bring. She started reaching out to those she knew in the recovery community, photographing them, listening to them, and posting the final product—a captivating image with a blurb about life in recovery—on social media.
Her work proved both relevant and impactful in an area beset by the damage caused by addiction. Swadley hopes the recovery community will continue to grow the way it has—and the judgement will continue to shrink.
“These are mothers, businesspeople, nurses,” she indicated. “It could happen to anyone.”
Once she completes the project, she hopes to showcase her work in galleries and possibly even a published book. In the meantime, she’s happy to give recovering addicts a platform to express themselves.
“I’ve had several people who’ve done the project who aren’t vocal in their circles about their past. But once I post their stories, their friends will comment and say, ‘Oh my god, I had no idea you went through this. I never would have guessed you’re an addict.’ I think that’s pretty telling that people can recover from addiction and lead a normal, healthy, productive life.”