The Photograph Not Taken
I’ve been fortunate to have been given access to photograph at the two Drug Consumption Rooms in Australia, the Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) which has been running for over 17 years, and the recently opened Melbourne Medically Supervised Injecting Room (MSIR). Most of the photos I’ve been taking are of the staff and the facilities at the projects… but I’d like to describe the photo I didn’t take.
I was sitting in ‘Stage Two’ at the MSIC in Sydney, this is the area where people inject their street drugs while staff (both medical and non-medical) keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t overdose. I’d taken photos of the staff on duty but the place was getting busier. The scene in front of me grabbed my eye, but I put my camera down rather than taking a photo, this is what I saw:
To the right was a man behind a glass screen that was frosted in strips so I could still make out his bare legs, he was a large guy and earlier he was having problems finding a suitable vein for his injection… one of the nurses had spent time with him looking for one and has recommended he drink more liquids. On his arm was a rubber glove filled with warm water to help encourage the flow of blood (it’s cold outside at this time of year in Sydney).
Between the gap where the glass screen ends and the entry to the room is I can see through into resus, earlier a guy had overdosed and was in the room on oxygen being monitored. He’s semi conscious and still has a nasal cannula in place to help him. I can’t see her from where I’m sitting but I know his partner is in there with him as well, she’s calm and knows he’s in good hands.
Then we have booth one, a couple are there, they’ve prepared their shots but haven’t had them yet, instead they are laughing and chatting with the nurse who earlier helped the guy find his vein (she’ll check on him on her way back to the desk). They are clearly comfortable and the laughter is the genuine kind that comes from familiarity.
Booth two had two friends, both men, on in the middle of prepping his shot and one injecting. They don’t stay long and they’ll move to stage three soon for a chat and a cuppa.
Finally (at least in the mental photo) one of the MSIC staff cleaning down a booth ready for the next person to come in (each person using the service cleans up after themselves, but the booths, chairs etc are then fully wiped down, after all this is a medical centre).
The article How Photography Exploits the Vulnerable by Ryan Christopher Jones says that photography about drugs often relies on gritty black-and-white photos’ and ‘images of people jamming needles into their arms’, which I totally agree with. However the mental image I’ve described, while showing a reality of life and substance use also shows human connection and a better way of supporting people. This is a stark contrast to the work of photographers like James Nachtwey whose Opioid Diaries photo essay show situations like injecting in the snow under a lorry trailer with needles on the ground (by ‘stark contrast’ I mean in both the gritty style James uses in his photography AND the contrast between the injecting environments he depicts and the environment at the MSIC).
But I didn’t take my photo, there are many reasons why; no prearranged consent, my own rules of who and how i shoot etc. But the main reason is the stigma faced by the people in the ‘photo’ .They live in a country where they may be verbally/physically abused if their situation was more public (many already are), they may be refused employment in the future based on the lives they are leading now Society accepts this stigma as a ‘norm’, a stigma that in many cases prevents people entering the treatment system because they are so used to the way they have been treated.
This is why, to me, the photo I didn’t take is one of the most important ones, it shows that we can support people in better ways than we have in the past (and how we still do, in areas without these safer spaces, like the UK).
I’d like to thank Uniting MSIC for supporting my visit and making this work possible.