- Willow, 37
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between 2015 and 2017, I partnered with University of Alabama at Birmingham sociology professor Heith Copes to create an ethnography of methamphetamine use in rural Northeast Alabama. Together, we interviewed and photographed over three dozen people who use meth and live on Sand Mountain, a community infamous for its extreme poverty, poultry processing plants, Pentecostal snake handlers, and meth production. Our goal was to record the stories of an often derided and misunderstood population and [End Page 172] enter the current national conversation about the pivotal political role and cultural identity of the marginalized rural American South.
Here, Willow, a longtime chronic binge user, sits at a vanity mirror in her bedroom and attempts to inject meth. Over and over again I watched Willow pull the needle back and push it in again in an unsuccessful search for a vein. As blood filled the syringe and tears began to fall down her cheeks, Willow's mood shifted from excitement to determination, frustration to embarrassment. Finally, after what seemed an eternity of sticks and jabs, she looked up at me and said, "Fuck you, asshole. You're making me nervous. I can't do this with you in here taking pictures." And with that, I left the room.
Once outside, a wave of guilt, heartbreak, and complicity in this harmful act washed over me. By being there, by making these photographs, I was confronted with difficult questions: was I helping to end suffering or perpetuating it? How would these pictures be read by an audience that did not have a relationship with Willow like Dr. Copes and I had? Would they see this image as an affirmation of the stereotypes we were attempting to counter?
The reading of pictures is rarely determined or controlled by those who author them. Their interpretations are unavoidably subjective and fragmented. The photograph of Willow reinforces these facts, and through this project I have come to better understand that meaningful documentary images cannot—and should not—be defined through attempts at "unbiased" reportage, didactic aims, or altruistic motives, however well-intended they may be. Instead, the documentary moment compels us—as both makers and viewers—to question our own points of view, contend with our own feelings of guilt and shame, curiosity and voyeurism, disgust and empathy, and ultimately decide how we will respond. [End Page 173]
Jared Ragland (MFA, Tulane University) is a visual artist, educator, and former White House photo editor. His collaborative, socially conscious art practice is rooted in his lifelong exposure to the storytelling traditions of the American South. Since 2015, he has been at work on an ethnography on methamphetamine use in Northeast Alabama. jaredragland.com