Sinister Photo Series Shows Adult Worker Battle £240 A Day Heroin Addiction
Heroin addiction is a serious problem over in America, and photojournalist Sara Naomi Lewkowicz wanted to try and do something to raise awareness of just how serious it is. When she met addict Alex in a bar in Baltimore (one of the hardest hit areas, even 15 years after The Wire ended) back in 2011, she befriended her and asked her consent to photograph her journey.
Alex first tried heroin when she was 17 and started using heavily after her mother died from alcoholism. At the height of her habit she would spend £240 a day on heroin, and would strip and occasionally perform sex acts on customers in order to fund this.
Lewkowicz explains her journey, alongside some stark, harrowing photography of it. None of the images are staged – they represent an intimate look into the life of a drug addict:
When I first saw Alex I could tell she was quite clearly an addict.
When you live in Baltimore you get to know the look of a heroin addict; it’s a big drug trafficking area.
At first I was very… intimidated isn’t the right word, nor is frightened, but I didn’t know how to react.
A lot of people have that reaction when confronted with addiction.
We became friends on Facebook so I messaged her.
I thought I’m not going to learn anything from not talking to her.
I explained what I wanted to do and she was okay with it.
I think she started out smoking but she moved on to injecting. She was injecting pretty heavily by that point.
Shooting, injecting heroin was her drug of choice.
First when I saw it, it was quite shocking. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
But the human brain can get used to seeing a lot. At some point I was used to seeing her doing it.
Alex was paid in cash for her work at the strip joint but was warned by managers that if she didn’t stop using then she would lose her job.
She tended to shoot up a bunch of times during a shift, saying she couldn’t dance on stage or deal with customers if she was sober.
Alex always carried a kit with her at all times, but never shared needles.
She and her friends Mary, a fellow dancer, and Twon, a childhood pal, would often rent hotel rooms in Baltimore in order to get high together. Alex lived in a house but her roommates were increasingly wary of her drug use, so she would rent a hotel for privacy.
Surprisingly they were pretty cool about being photographed. I wouldn’t take pictures of anyone who expressed discomfort at it.
I got used to seeing Alex and her friends do drugs.
That was her reality at that point. Accepting that was her reality and understanding it was part of my job.
I wouldn’t say I was desensitised because that would imply neutrality and I never felt neutral about her.
I said whenever you are ready to get help; I have friends who would have been equipped to help her.
The wake up call came when she was arrested on a robbery charge and got sentenced to 18 months in a correctional facility.
As she had no prior felonious arrests, Alex was offered alternative sentencing which involved a stint in a rehabilitation centre.
Maryland is quite liberal and has drug court.
Rather than throw someone who has committed a non-violent offence into the system, the programme gives you a choice: live out your term in jail or you can get out early and attend narcotics anonymous meetings daily.
Then you live in a half-way house, check in with a probation officer, hold down a job… basically you go through these steps and if you graduate from drug court your felony is wiped.
Alex failed her first attempt to get clean in the summer of 2012 and ended up back in prison, but tried again the summer after and has now been clean for four years.
She now lives in an apartment in Silver Spring with two other roommates, both in recovery. Living in a sober household is a key part of preventing a relapse.
As Alex completed the program she no longer has a felony record and has a full time job, working as an administrate assistant. She’s also taking college classes and wants to become a drugs counsellor.
She recently got promoted. She really has a fire under her ass to make up for lost time.
She’s one of the most driven people I know because she knows how significant it is to get a second, third chance.
I still photograph her now. I saw her in January but I didn’t bring my camera that time. We hung out and just had lunch.
I’m so protective of her. I don’t want her to be defined by the addiction issues. She’s a whole person.
She struggled with issues but in terms of sheer progress, she’s made more progress than most people make in their lives as she was so far behind.
Heavy stuff, but also an inspirational story for anyone who has ever been addicted to drugs and doesn’t think that there’s a way out. The contrast between the first and last photographs in the series – even if there were six years between them – proves that there’s hope and that whatever situation you may find yourself in, there is a way out.
For more photos of heroin addiction, check out this gallery of heroin addicts on the 9th floor. Harrowing yet again.