LIVE THROUGH THIS

Live Through This tells the story of drug addict Stephanie MacDonald's struggle to get clean. Typically a topic for documentary photographers pursuing reportage through candid shots, this project instead relies mostly on collaborative portraits, in which Tony Fouhse enlists MacDonald to sometimes mimic the conventions of documentary and anthropological photography. The inclusion of medical documents and text by MacDonald, both written on scraps of paper and from later emails, provides the viewer with a broken and incomplete narrative that nonetheless directs our comprehension of Fouhse's disturbing but sympathetic photographs. Recently, Fouhse came clean to Arts East.









You have a large body of work featuring street life, and Live Through This developed out of a friendship you initiated with Stephanie MacDonald, a heroin addict and a native of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, after you first photographed her on the streets of Ottawa. You helped her get into rehab and became involved in her life in a very direct way – were you worried things might take a turn for the worse?

Of course it had crossed both our minds: What if she dies? But we were just rolling with the punches. We realized that so much, for a while, was totally out of our hands. I tend not to make too many plans, have any expectations. I try to be open to any eventualities and go from there.

It strikes me that the title of the exhibit not only alludes to the subject's difficult journey, but also invites viewers to vicariously experience the struggle of addiction through the photographs. Tell us about your selection of the title.

The title comes from desperation as much as anything. I was calling it a "project" right up until near the end, but "project" just didn't seem like the right word. Then, after some thought, I decided to call it Live Though This. Initially the title referred to what Steph was going through and, too, what I was going through with her. It was only later that other senses of that phrase became apparent to me: that by showing this work the viewer has to live through it as well.

In some instances you've paid subjects, in particular drug addicts, small amounts of money to pose for you. Were you conflicted about paying them?

Yes, a bit. But after spending time shooting addicts I came to understand that they have an economy, too. Plus they are always on the lookout for ways to get by. Usually that involves stealing, robbing, prostituting and dealing in any way shape or form they can. A sociologist wrote a paper on User [Fouhse’s previous exhibit], comparing, amongst other things, standard sociological field work with what I was doing. He mentioned that paying subjects for their time and "expertise" is practiced in their profession.

Surely some viewers will be quick to see these photos as unsavoury, even as exploitation of a sick person. How do you respond to that (do you even want to)? Why is it important to look at work that disturbs us?

Interesting question and one that I often answer by saying, "I'm a photographer, I take pictures. That's my job. I leave it to others to sort out, contextualize and judge." In my more magnanimous moods, I explain that just because someone is on the edge, the periphery, it shouldn't mean that they are denied a voice or the right to be seen. While my photos are always taken from my point of view, I think it’s important to note that the subjects all have a say, that these are very much collaborations. The addicts I shot for User all saw the images of them I wanted to use, and could (but never did) have asked me not to show that image. Mostly, though, they were proud of being seen. As well, they used me as a conduit to the outside world, so that folks could see some aspect of their lives where they, the subjects, actually had some agency in how they were depicted.

Morality and art is a thorny topic. The only thing trickier is probably the concept of "artistic integrity." How do you interpret this?

First of all—and I hope that this doesn't sound (too) elitist—I think that not everyone has a real vision to remain true. But if you do, and if that vision treads the outer banks of what is socially acceptable, I believe that it is your job to follow it. Of course, like you say, morality and integrity are slippery things. One thing I know is that when you take photos like mine they tend to polarize. Those with an axe to grind will use your images to reinforce their point of view, positive or negative. Having said that, I also know that there is also a middle ground, people with open minds who haven't been exposed to this type of work and use it to expand their vision and thinking.

Do you feel that, if made well, art stands a chance of discouraging self-destructive behavior? Your photos - which show how damaging drug abuse can be - do you think they may have a deterrent effect?

I have no hope and no real ambitions about this. I mostly take photos so that I may have experiences. The camera is a key to create those experiences and the photos are souvenirs.

ViewPoint Gallery tends to show crowd-pleasing photography with an emphasis on traditional fine art landscapes and portraiture. This exhibit marks a bit of a departure for them. Do you feel a sense of pride that your work is being sought out to broaden a gallery's self-defined borders? How does the mantle of 'rebel artist' suit you?

Yes, I realized that after researching ViewPoint. Many of the galleries I show in embrace work that pushes the envelope and the people who attend the shows kind of know what to expect and are maybe drawn there for those kinds of experiences. And, yes, I am very happy to be able to bring Live Through This to ViewPoint. But, no, I don't like the mantle of "rebel artist," I don't like any mantle. Being put on a podium makes me uncomfortable. Then again, I like the idea of discomfort. I have a theory that most first world middle class and above people suffer from a surfeit of comfort. And comfort equals stasis.

Live Through This
ViewPoint Gallery
1272 Barrington Street, Halifax, NS
Exhibition Dates: June 5 - June 30, 2013
Opening Reception: Thursday, June 6, 2013, 6pm to 8pm
Artist's Talk: Saturday, June 8, 2013, 2pm to 3pm