Live Through This by Tony Fouhse & Stephanie MacDonald

Steph in her room, New Glasgow, June 19, 2011

“Live Through This” tells the story of drug addict Stephanie MacDonald’s struggle to get clean. Typically a topic for documentary photographers pursuing reportage through candid shots, This project instead relies mostly on collaborative portraits, in which Tony Fouhse enlists MacDonald to sometimes mimic the conventions of documentary and anthropological photography. The images of MacDonald, like the world she inhabits, are both banal and extraordinary, conveying psychological, and sometimes physiological, states with an affecting economy of detail. The inclusion of medical documents and text by MacDonald, both written on scraps of paper and from later emails, provides the viewer with a broken and incomplete narrative that nonetheless directs our comprehension of Fouhse’s disturbing but sympathetic photographs. – STRAYLIGHT Press

Live Through This
Softcover, 9×9 inches, 72 pages,
Published by STRAYLIGHT Press

Left: Steph injecting heroin, November 2, 2010; Right: Steph in her room, November 19, 2010

I discovered your work through Pete Brook of Prions Photography. I believe it was tweet about drool. Naturally I dug in and learned about Stephanie and your project. I was skeptical at first. I’m a tad cynical when it comes drug addiction stories, but I hooked you up on my RSS and started following along. After a few weeks, I began to look forward to your Sunday posts. And soon after that, I started to get hooked on Stefanie’s story. Your passion and transparency drew me into the story and the work. I’m sure many people have had a similar experience.

I suppose I’m getting to a question about your blog. How important a role did it play in telling the story? Why did you choose to share the story and project in progress, rather than waiting until it was done? Is this an approach you see yourself repeating in the future?

Yes, well I thought long and hard about blogging about our “project” (in quotation marks because it’s not really the right word, but I don’t know what else to call it).

First, you’d have to know Stephanie. Obviously I would never blog about what went on between us without her consent. And one of the things that initially attracted me to her was her unwavering honesty. And not only honesty, but her transparency and her courage, not to mention her fatalism (which seems to me to be a common trait of most of the addicts I know, fatalism).

We had many, many talks about whether what we were doing should be made public in a serialized way. I was much more worried about it that she was. I didn’t want to turn what we were doing into a reality show and I didn’t want to jeopardize her safety in any way, either on the street amongst her peers or with the police (who, after a while, were following the blog).

It seemed to me that what was going on here was a perfect use of “new” media, if you want to call blogging a new media. Here was this story that progressed, took twists and turns, was visually appealing and very close to one of the subtexts of my work (the morals and ethics of working with certain subject matter).

I thought that by blogging about it, and by me being as honest about what I was feeling and going through as Steph was, it could shine a light on the processes we, Steph and I, were involved in.

Regarding whether I’d do something like this again. . . .certainly. Given the right circumstances.

One thing the weekly blogging did for LIVE THROUGH THIS was it made the final edit of the book extremely difficult. I came to realize that blogging once a week about something, as it is unfolding, is very different from assembling an edit and sequence for a book. The blog contains all sorts of side stories, banalities that seemed important at the time, videos, navel gazing and so on. Plus it’s really, really long.These are things that serialization can support and is actually good at. I wanted the book, on the other hand, to tell the story mostly through portraiture, with a much greater economy of detail.

I see the blog and the book as related, but completely different. And I believe that that’s fine. They are, after all, different media.

Basement, December 17, 2010

That’s interesting that the police started following along, but also terrifying.

I think one of the big mistakes that people have made in the social media age is that they try to create the same experience online as they would in a book. For me, it just simply doesn’t work that way. When I view a project on a website I can handle about 25 photographs and that’s about it. I tend to view books quickly but will come back to them frequently, sometimes just opening them up randomly.

I think the edit in the book is brilliant. There’s no artifice to it. It’s lean, direct and gets the viewer from point A to point B smoothly. There’s no bullshit. It’s impossible not to have compassion for Stephanie as you turn the pages. But the real beauty for me is that there’s no pity. She doesn’t seem to pity herself and you certainly don’t pity her. It’s almost darwinian in a weird way. She’s struggling for her life and you’re there to help her. Nothing more really.

Your relationship has to be very complicated. The impression I come away with is that you’ve created a life time bond. There’s no turning back. 

I certainly leaned a lot about social media’s strengths by blogging this thing. Problem is. . . .how often does such a compelling narrative, ongoing and evolving, present itself? This project was very different from, say, going to Ohio, meeting various people, photographing them and telling their stories and posting as you go along. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But in a case like that there is rarely any actual progression to the “story”, so the serialization of the trip on social media seems somehow less necessary.

Thanks for your kind words about the edit of the book. What you said was just about my aim with that. These days there’s a trend in photobooks to tell the story in a very elliptical way, using allusion more that actual description. I believe that there is a trace of this approach in LIVE THROUGH THIS. . . almost all context has been stripped away, most of the fotos are of Steph standing against more or less plain backgrounds. But there is no denying that even these simple portraits, given the loaded subject matter and Steph’s openness, are quite descriptive. And the story is fleshed out by the shots of her notes and medical documents and the inclusion of Steph’s words. The idea was to be straightforward but not too “documentary”. The story is told, mostly, through Steph’s body.

Interesting, too, what you say about me not having pity for Steph. I didn’t. That’s not to say that I didn’t have compassion and understanding. But in my mind Steph and I are more alike than we are different, so where can pity enter? And, yes, our relationship was (and remains) intense and complicated, not to mention maddening.

Steph in my studio, March 11, 2011

“The story is told, mostly, through Steph’s body.”

And that body is very hard to look at. It’s hard not be judgmental. Or worse, simply gawk at the horror. I wonder how aware she was of her physical plight. Or did the addiction basically make her blind to what was going on?

What’s interesting as well is that hope is symbolized in the way her body began to heal itself. For me, this makes the book something very visceral. You feel it in your gut. There isn’t much space for intellectual meandering.

I was talking to Steph the other day, she told me she had just been to the hospital for some stomach flu thing and proceeded to fill me in, in great detail, about just what came out of her body then. We laughed because one of the things about her was that, when she was a junkie, she was always squeezing some weird shit or effluvium out of her body. Drugs, man.

And this is one of the things Steph wrote about her body:

And at first i was thinking it was cool until i seen the photos and seen how grosse i looked and just thought that if people that started this drug could see theese photos maybe could change their minds a bit…

We both knew that if she got in to and completed rehab her body would change and we made a point, from time to time, of just taking pretty plain shots of her body, as a record, more than anything.

But when you are a junkie it’s very hard to separate what your body looks like from the general vibe and look and feel and juju of the stress of your life. It didn’t take much to show that because, like I say, Steph was willing to be open and honest and she can’t help but be transparent.

But you’re right when you say that the addiction really changes an addicts perspective about body image and stuff like that.

Steph’s walking around weight when she was an addict was about 105 pounds, when they operated on her she weighed 88 pounds and 4 months later, when I went to visit her in Nova Scotia she weighed (a correct) 125 pounds.

I’m astounded by how quickly her body (and her face) changed during those 3 weeks she stayed at my house and kicked heroin.

Emergency waiting room, March 22, 2011

I’m curious. Now that she’s kicked heroin, how does she view herself? I’m guessing that her identity for the last few years has been associated with her addiction. There probably wasn’t much room in her life for anything else. What are her dreams? Hopes for the future? Has this project turned her into an advocate?

It’s difficult to tell from here, a thousand miles away, how she sees herself. She’s been moving around some, no fixed address, and has relapsed a few times. But she sounds good and strong on the phone and as wild and energetic as ever.

Drugs, and the ritual surrounding them, are so powerful because they work. I’ve always thought that there was a beauty and purity to addiction. Sure, there’s a huge down-side, too, but. . . .

She’s living in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, and when Canadian news wants to do a piece on hard drugs they often go there to do it, seeing as the place is rife with them, drugs. There is also a large unemployment problem there making it difficult to see a prosperous and meaningful future. (I don’t want to paint that whole county in that way, but the fact remains. . . .)

I’d say her dreams are to get over her addiction, finish high school and become a contributing member of society. But the one thing that this project drove home to me was that the future is unwritten, every day seems much like the one before. Sure, we all evolve, but so slowly we can’t detect the changes. Then, every so often, WHAM!!!, something seismic happens.

Left: Writing diary in my studio, March 30, 2011; Right: Site of the operation, March 22, 2011

You decided to publish the book independently, and in fact, launched your own imprint, STRAYLIGHT press. Why did you decided to go that route and what type of plans do you have for it?

I knew I wanted to do a book of LIVE THROUGH THIS (as well as one of USER), so I started doing some research about the foto-book-publishing thing.

Much to my surprise I discovered that most foto-book publishers place onerous weight on the photographer, asking them to contribute to, or pay the full amount of, printing the book. For this money the photographer gets a book, some unknown amount of publicity and distribution and an ego rub.

I’m not sure how the photographer get’s their money back, what that end of the deal might be, because I never got past the idea that most publishers were asking the photographer to take all the risk.

So I began to think about other ways and means. The most obvious one would be a KickStarter-type of thing, raise money by offering the book and other bits and pieces to folks who wanted to kick in to the endeavor. In fact, I used this approach to finance my trip to Nova Scotia to complete LIVE THROUGH THIS.

But that approach seemed kind of selfish and like a one-off. So I began to look at entities like Rob Hornstra’s The Sochi Project and Soth’s Little Brown Mushroom and decided that in this day and age those approaches made a lot of sense. Do it yourself, use the internet, cut out the middleman.

From there it was a short leap to decide that, if I was going to design, start and maintain an online e-commerce site I should ask other photographers whose work I like and fits in with my (or STRAYLIGHT’s) political and aesthetic philosophy if they would like to do a project that we could offer for sale. Not only to support them, but also to help to create a community so more people might be drawn to the site.

STRAYLIGHT launched in June of 2012 and we’re still finding our way, making it up as we go along and learning from our (many) mistakes. It’s a lot like photography, if you ask me. We started with 4 or 5 ‘zines, a couple of mine, one by Shannon Delmonico and one by Josh Hotz. These are limited run zines that cost 8 bucks but also come in Special Editions that include an original, signed print and are a bit more expensive. STRAYLIGHT believes it’s better to sell 50 things for $10 each than one, similar, thing for $500, so we try to keep the prices as reasonable as possible.

We have slightly more ambitious plans for the future, including a book by Adam Luis Amengual, of his work HOMIES, which should be available late February. We’re also doing a book with Scot Sothern, who’s book LowLife lit up the internet a year or so ago. With Scot we’re doing a thing titled SadCity, which, like LowLife, will contain photographs and stories. These will both be limited to an editions with the first 10 will be Special Editions that will come with a print.

It’s a hard row to how, this book publishing biz but so far things are working out. All the ‘zines, with the exception of The Units, by Josh Hotz, are sold out and LIVE THROUGH THIS seems to be on the way to breaking even and turning a profit. Any profits we might realize will be spent on producing more books.

From my (publishing) end I can’t stress enough how important it is to have support in terms of people buying product, supporting independent publishers and voices. It makes me giggle every time I sell something and the other photographers who’s books and ‘zines we distribute are tickled, too. We’ve sold STRAYLIGHT publications around the world and there’s something warming about knowing that there’s a bookshelf in someone’s apartment in Barcelona and NYC and Vancouver and Berlin and Tokyo and so on that holds the fruits of your labour.

I must say, too, that one of the other things about actually printing your photos and making books of projects is that that process brings everything into sharper focus, forces the creator to make more difficult decisions vis-a-vis whatever it is they want to say. It makes the “problem” more difficult but I’ve never been a fan of easy. Shooting stuff, or writing stuff, and throwing it up onto the web has its place, but to really get to the meat of the matter there needs to be more commitment, and that’s what publishing is: commitment.

Site of the operation, 3 months later, New Glasgow, June 22, 2011

It’s been encouraging to see the number of small imprints that are popping up. I think we’re starting to build an infrastructure that will make it easier to market and distribute indie books and zines. Naturally, it’s something I firmly believe in. When I started publishing a print issue my perspective completely changed. Doing stuff purely on the web has become too disposable. To take it to the next level I think you have to be creating objects. A thriving independent publishing scene can only be good for photography in my estimation. Although, it does perhaps make it difficult to easily elevate certain photographers and bodies of work. But I’m ok with that. I think there’s enough good stuff out there that can attract a decent audience to keep us all busy.

I suppose my last question would be to ask what you have in store for the next couple of years. What’s your next project? What excites you about photography in 2013? What do you wish would change?

In terms of my next project, well, I’m already into it. It’s called OTTAWA, a survey, and is, I think, a reaction to all the pain and hyper-drama the my last 2 projects entailed. I’m trying to shoot my hometown, Ottawa, the capital of Canada, in a way that re-contextualizes it. I plan on pecking away at this for 3 or 4 years. The first bit is done, under the sub-head of OFFICIAL OTTAWA, which looks at the Capital City aspects of the place, the clichés shot from a different angle. For instance, I took a shot of press photographers, not in action, but waiting for something to happen. I also shot the Prime Minister’s bulletproof limo in the middle of nowhere with 2 secret service agents standing around, and so on. . . .

All shot very quietly with a 4×5 camera, it’s more an intellectual pursuit that an experiential one, just a matter of coming up with an alternate take on a cliché and quietly pointing a camera at it. So there’s definitely a drama-deficit in my life.

I like to work on a few things at once but really, really needed some time to recover from all the drug stuff I was immersed in. So now I’m looking around for some subject that will provide me with the experience I crave. But I don’t want to force it so I’ll do what I always do in these situations, I’ll put myself about, turn over stones to see what kind of bugs crawl out and wait until one of them grabs me by the throat.

Steph in her room, New Glasgow, June 23, 2011


  • John King

    Bryan, excellent issue, especially the interview with Tony Fouse and the images from Live Through This. I lost the better part of a day last week following the threads of this compelling story through Tony’s blog

    I just re-opened Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” looking for a half-remembered quote that this visceral and committed work would so convincingly refute. It seems that “Live Through This” and its back story on Fouse’s blog easily stand opposite to much of what Sontag wrote in that book. For anyone who thinks photography might be predatory, reductionist or superficial, look no further for the right prescription to cure that delusion.

    In Live Through This the photography is excellent, the humanity is its equal. This is work that was made possible by commitment, true collaboration and risk.

  • C. Rowe

    A photo essay on drug users… um… what next? a photo essay on homeless people? Please… this has been done to death if you’ll excuse the pun. Can we try something new please? Doing a photo essay on drug users is like writing an essay on what I want to be when I grow up. I love Tony’s work.. but not this. Its just too easy…. to do a photo essay on drug users and not getting a decent picture wouldn’t be that hard. NEXT essay please.