Hampshire HOPE: Photo exhibit seeks to smash stigma around addiction, inspire recovery

  • Veronika Patty photographer from Ashburnham, MA. taking photograph of a person in recovery for the Northampton Recovery Center. —STAFF PHOTO/ANDREW GRETO

  • Frank Santosus and Lynn Ferro from The Northampton Recovery Center pose with Samuel Jackson from Chicopee who is recovering from addiction for photographer Veronica Patty form Ashburnham. STAFF PHOTO/ANDREW GRETO

  • Veronika Patty photographs Kyle M for The Northampton Recovery Center. STAFF PHOTO/ANDREW GRETO

For the Gazette
Published: 8/27/2019 9:22:14 AM

Inspiration for the Project Redemption traveling photo exhibit came to Ashburnham photographer Veronika Patty two years ago while she listened to a woman talk about her experiences as a person recovering from addiction.

“As she was speaking, I was thinking, ‘man, she’s really just like me with the only difference that she struggles with addiction and I don’t,’” said Patty, who works full time in the substance misuse prevention field.

She thought about the misconceptions surrounding people who struggle with drug addiction. Then she devised a plan to use her skills as a photographer to illustrate the notion that there’s really no difference between people in recovery and the rest of the world.

The result is a stigma-busting photo exhibit with 80-plus black-and-white portraits of people in recovery, many of which can be viewed on the Project Redemption Facebook page (facebook.com/pages/category/Community/Project-Redemption-1038362982924246). The images were taken at photo shoots in three communities, including Ware in 2018 and Northampton earlier this month, with another session planned for Whitinsville.

Each Project Redemption portrait is accompanied by a tagline: “People in recovery…” These taglines end with a few words related to the recovery of the person in the picture. Patty hopes the exhibit will help dispel stubborn, negative stereotypes about people recovering from substance use disorder by showing the great diversity of people in recovery and the richness of their lives.

So far, Project Redemption images have been exhibited in small batches at public receptions and prevention coalition meetings. Patty is now working to bring the entire collection to the State House in Boston for a September exhibit in conjunction with National Recovery Month.

The federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (commonly referred to as SAMHSA) sponsors National Recovery Month as an awareness campaign to foster understanding about substance use disorders and celebrate people in recovery.

This year’s National Recovery Month theme is “Join the Voices for Recovery: Together We Are Stronger.”

Project Redemption comes to Northampton

On a sweltering Sunday earlier this month, Patty was at the Northampton Recovery Center at 2 Gleason Plaza with camera in hand for another photo shoot of people in recovery.

When participants arrived, Patty chatted easily with them, asking if there was anything in particular that had been especially meaningful or supportive of their recovery. People participating in the exhibit are encouraged to bring props — or loved ones — for their pictures if so moved.

She discussed settings or poses that might relate to the taglines. Some people arrived already having thought about what their photo might include, while others needed help thinking through their options. All pictures were taken outside on the nearby bike path or other spots not far from the NRC.

By day’s end, she had taken 12 Project Redemption portraits, with several featuring two people each, including couples and two friends.

One man opted for a portrait of himself near railroad tracks, where, at the height of his addiction, he sometimes slept underneath a railroad platform for shelter: “People in recovery find strength in the broken places.”

There’s an image of a father playing with his young son: “People in recovery show up.” A woman stands next to her husband, holding her cat named Luna: “People in recovery shoot for the moon.” A portrait of a man standing next to his bike: “People in recovery find fun at every corner.”

Another man had his picture taken alongside NRC’s director Lynn Ferro and longtime member Frank Santosus: “People in recovery choose to accept help.”

For Robert Johnson, settling on a tagline took some thought. His recovery, he said, really solidified when he was able to be honest about his issues, something he felt became clear to him one day as he organized an art project at the recovery center.

The process wasn’t always easy, and he said he realized he had to look at his part in what made it difficult. His portrait depicts him standing on a tree-canopied section of the bike path holding the piece of abstract art he helped the group create: “People in recovery find a path to honesty.”

Johnson said he decided to take part in Project Redemption because he saw it as a way to help others.

“I’m doing it for people who are thinking about recovery or who are having trouble getting clean and sober and might find inspiration,” said Johnson, 54. “I think it’s important for people who have been through the struggle to be out there to let other people know it’s possible to find recovery after a lifetime of drinking and drugging and many failed attempts.”

Patty said that’s her goal, too.

“It not only shatters the stigma, but it shows people who are not in recovery that people in recovery are just like everyone else and it shows people who are still struggling that there’s still hope,” she said.

John Sullivan showed up for his Project Redemption photo shoot accompanied by his 10-year-old golden retriever Rory.

“I don’t think I’d be alive if it wasn’t for her,” he said. “At the end, the only reason I got out of bed was to take care of her.”

His portrait was taken on the bike path bridge overlooking Main Street, with Sullivan scooching down next to Rory, man looking straight at the camera, hands on his companion, dog looking contentedly into the distance.

He chose the tagline “People in recovery can change the world” because he’s noticed that many people in recovery wind up working in the field of substance use treatment. “When people get an appetite for recovery, they want to help other people,” he said.

Sullivan said when he first heard Project Redemption was coming to Northampton he did not hesitate to sign up.

“I thought it was super important. I think it really dignifies people in recovery,” he said. “I dare anyone to go into an Olin Mills studio and pick out the people in recovery.”

Laurie Loisel is director of community outreach and education at the Northwestern District Attorney’s office, which is part of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition run out of the city of Northampton’s Health Department. Hampshire HOPE members contribute to this monthly column about local efforts addressing the opioid epidemic.


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