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Photographer Tony Fouhse documents one addict’s journey to get clean

By Gabrielle Tieman on February 2, 2013

Looking to be inspired this February? Carleton University Art Gallery will be playing host to the solo exhibit Live Through This – a photo narrative by Ottawa Tony Fouhse depicting the story of heroin addict Stephanie MacDonald’s journey to get clean.

Carleton will be hosting the free show until March 17 on the Mezzanine level of the gallery. We caught up with Fouhse and took a look back on his journey with Stephanie and how 30 meters of sidewalk led to his life-changing project on Ottawa’s Lowertown addicts.

Apt613: So what initially drew your attention to Ottawa’s Lowertown addicts?

Tony Fouhse: I had this idea of going out at dusk and finding strangers, setting them up into scenarios and photographing the scenarios. It came out of a bunch of work I was doing in the States where I was going out to desert and small towns in the middle of nowhere in backwoods Mississippi. I had had kidney failure so I had tubes coming out of my body and I couldn’t really leave [Canada] – I had to keep going to the hospital – so I thought ‘well I’ll just start doing things in Ottawa then.’

I went to about four or five different spots and set up a thousand people, or I didn’t find people, or people were in a hurry. I would get the film back and everything was disappointing. Out of desperation I said to my assistant ‘why don’t we go to the corner of Cumberland and Murray, there’s always people hanging around there.’ To do what I do, you kind of need a population that’s not going anywhere.

We went down to the corner. I knew they were all addicts, and typical me, I thought ‘well, okay, so what, they’re just people?’ There was a lot of suspicion and they were not quite sure what I was about. It obviously wasn’t going to work, so we started to load the gear back into the car. Just as we were loading up a guy came by and said ‘are you looking for a subject’. I said ‘dude, that’s exactly what I’m looking for’ and he said ‘well you can take my picture.’

So we shot him, and a couple other people said ‘take my picture too’. I think I shot three separate people at that time. When I got the film back I thought ‘man… not only is this sort of what I wanted to do, the actual subjects were really interesting.’

Apt613: How did you get involved with Stephanie?

TF: In 2010 when I was on the same corner, this woman came up to me and we started talking. I asked if I could take her picture and right away there was some sort of connection. You meet a hundred people and then you meet the hundred and first and something goes ‘ping’ and clicks. There was something about her that I came to understand as honesty and fearlessness and her ability to get in touch with her emotions and show them to me.

Over the next six weeks I met and photographed Stephanie about five times. By the end of it there was something about her that I was attracted to as a subject and as this amazing person. So I asked her if there was something I could do to help and she asked if I could help her get into rehab. I told her I would help her where I can and asked if I could take pictures of her from where you are to where you want to be. And she said sure.

Apt613: How did you get involved with the gallery at Carleton University?

TF: The director came over to my studio this summer past and three weeks later she asked if I wanted to be part of the show and present my Stephanie Project. I said yes.

Typically this population when they are represented are shown in a real cliché  way – drooling people with needles sticking out of their arms – so I wasn’t trying to photograph the drugs, I was trying to photograph the people. I want people to see that.

Apt613: For anyone who hasn’t yet been down to the gallery, what can you tell us about the space?

TF: The way it is hung is it is just a row of 4o photographs stuck to the wall – there are no frames – and they’re really close to each other. I don’t see it as 40 photographs but I see it as one thing in this strip.  It’s a kind of narrative in a straight forward sense of you see her as a drug addict, you see her getting sick, you see her better and than you see her three months later.