Birth of a Story: A Photographers Journey into the Drug Crisis

Goshen NY, October 2017: A Narcan kit being prepared by an attendee of a public training course on the administration of the life-saving drug which temporarily blocks the effects of an overdose.

I don’t blog often. Not because I have nothing to say, but because I would rather put out something of substance rather than just add to the ‘noise’ on the internet. This story though I thought should be shared. I have just started a photo essay on the drugs crisis in Orange County NY.  Like any assignment I set myself, it is a story on a subject about which I have little prior knowledge and understanding  – so for me it is a journey of discovery.  “How can that be? We’ve known about the opioids crisis for years!’ I hear you ask. Like many, I have held a stereotypical view of druggies/addicts/victims. Whenever I saw the headlines of drug abuse, it was the same reaction: “yeah, yeah..” I had the image of the junkie in the gutter with a needle in the arm – the usual thing that media trot out whenever the subject comes up. That was until a very good friend of mine told me that one of his children was a heroine addict. I had met her – a very pleasant girl, nicely spoken and educated. Her father is a successful businessman, very down to earth, the kids wanted for nothing materially although he didn’t spoil them.  How could this be? It didn’t fit the narrative that I had in my head. Then another friend of mine, a retired alcohol abuse councilor told me that he had been asked to come out of retirement as the unit that he worked for was completely overwhelmed and they needed him back so that substance abuse resources could be freed up. I thought about this. I paid more attention to the media stories which still seemed like endless stories of who was busted for what, pictures of the arrested and of course the endless eye-glazing statistics. And the visual coverage? Still the same – one national UK newspaper recently ran a story on the problem in New York city and the paper published a set of mediocre photographs of  a group of people in an alleyway in the South Bronx shooting up. Each frame was of the same group. To me that is lazy journalism – how does it educate, how does it contribute to the narrative?

I started my own research a while ago – yes, I checked the stats but got them from reputable sources and the complete sets, not just the media headliners click-bait. I looked at what the community was doing about it, what law enforcement was doing, where the local government was on the subject. In other words, I started to get educated. What finally convinced me to do this journey visually was a comment from someone on a local community Facebook page that said that the biggest problem we faced in the area was the building of a theme park by a well known toy manufacturer. Is that really the biggest problem we face? It is certainly an issue with a long term impact and yes it needs to be discussed. But the biggest problem? I am not so sure. Maybe he, like I was, just does not know the extent of the drugs crisis. It is not personal to him. There is no frame of reference when someone says 140 people die each day due to an opioid overdose.

I have jumped into creating the visual story with both feet.  I am concentrating on the people, the individuals impacted by the crisis – not the dealers, or the supply network. I’ll leave that side to the various government agencies and law enforcement. I am looking at not just the victims (and many are just that) but the parents, the siblings, the law enforcement and emergency responders who get called day and night to respond to  drug related emergencies, and community action groups who are taking the issue on at the grass root level.

A story about the people.






So what’s it all about…? A photographers forced introspective.

I have recently been photographing a series on how music and the arts materially benefit special needs children (other than being a source of entertainment that is). The not-for-profit organization that I have been photographing have a regular slot on a local community radio station and asked me if I would agree to come along and be interviewed on air and talk about my journey from a corporate life to humble documentary photographer and my work. Hmm.  No experience with radio, not really a public speaker, but perhaps something good will come of it.  “Sure”, I replied.

I prepped for the interview, gave some hints as to what the host should ask me (nothing like leading the conversation!) and on the day happily trotted off to the radio station and did the piece.  You can hear the interview by clicking the link below, but it went quite well – at least I don’t think I came across as a babbling schoolboy.

But here’s the thing: Prepping for the interview really made me think about what I was doing. It was local radio, and on at 11am on a Tuesday so hardly headline prime-time stuff, but even so. Having to think about my motives for photographing this subject, how I was approaching it, and was I really being objective in my imagery was actually quite a challenge.  The overall project that this is a part of specifically looks at how music benefits us (in a non-entertainment way). It’s a long term project – so far nearly three years. That is a long time. But the up-coming interview really made me look at what my underlying drivers were and reaffirm, to myself at least, that this was a good road to be on and the work had a wider benefit to people other than just me.

The lesson learned was that we should re-assess from time to time. As a photographer in todays insta-everything mindset where everyone around me with a cell phone is a citizen journalist, stepping back and taking an objective second look at what I am doing has actually energized me, and given me more confidence to continue photographing this project. My suggestion? Don’t wait for a radio interview – take some time out to honestly review what you’re doing.

Interview recording: 





I have started the Music Connections project. The aim of which is to document some of the lesser recognized skills that go support or produce the music that we enjoy.

Starting this off, I have to thank the staff and students at the Warwick School of Music in Warwick NY. A particular shout out to Mike LaRose (the owner) for allowing me to photograph there. Mike is a talented classical guitarist who keeps the whole school inspired. The teachers are multi-disciplined and the school boasts the ability to teach guitar, percussion, piano and vocals. Upbeat, fun and instilling life-long skills.

On a similar note (pun intended), the image (below left) is of Joseph Osborne, who kindly agreed with his partner Nat Everett to allow me to spend a day photographing some of their daily activities at their workshop in Carlisle Pa.

It has taken Joseph over 40 years to amass the knowledge that he has in taking care of the venerable instruments, which he is know passing on to his new business partner Nat.

Joseph Osborne repairing a 1924 player piano
Joseph Osborne repairing a 1924 player piano

The Music-Connections project is ongoing, and given the scope of the subject will probably never end. But I’ll post more as I do more.

If musicians or anyone involved in music related activities from the east coast Tri-state area would like to be part of this project – drop me a line!