Southern Etiquette: Gender and Drug Use in the South

A Photovoice project by members of the Urban Survivors Union of North Carolina

Funded by Third Wave Foundation

Project Statement

Southern Etiquette is a participatory, documentary photography project by seven women and trans people across North Carolina who use drugs. I led workshops on documentary photography and writing, and the group took photos of their lives. Through making images of their day-to-day lives, the group explored the intersection of drug use, gender, public health policy, and Southern culture. Together, we curated a body of work to reflect the nuanced experiences of participants' and their loved ones' drug use and recovery in North Carolina.

These individuals come from communities with some of the highest rates of injection drug use and overdose death both in the state and nationally. They photographed moments that outsiders often aren't able to capture: intimate images of family and friends, homeless camps, overdoses, hospitalizations, life-saving public health work, and moments of beauty and peace. They produced complex images with unbounded enthusiasm for making photos and telling their stories. The voices of women, trans and gender-nonconforming individuals are rarely included in media coverage on drug use. We believe these individuals' stories can elevate policy discussions about drug use and recovery, and their photographs can reduce stigma by humanizing people who use drugs. Through this project and the act of crafting their own narratives through art, participants can feel empowered rather than silenced.

Said one participant, “You taught me so much about photography, and capturing the beauty, pain, and realness of life that shouldn’t be hidden in shame and darkness. This was an honor, and I’m blown away at the outcome.”

This project was a partnership between myself and the Urban Survivors Union of North Carolina, the state chapter of a national direct service and policy advocacy organization. The project was made possible with generous funding from Third Wave Foundation.


Participant Testimonials

"Being a drug user is so isolating. You think you're the only one in the world going through what you're experiencing, but you're not. It was amazing to see everyone else's experiences in pictures. It really changes your perspective. You really feel like you connect with the other photographers, even if you barely know them. I can't tell you how much this project helped me. And it was so much fun, too."

“I want to document my life. I’ve learned that it’s worth sharing with people.” 

"You taught me so much about photography, and capturing the beauty, pain, and realness of life that shouldn't be hidden in shame and darkness. This was an honor, and I'm blown away at the outcome."

“I was excited to become more engaged with art-making through the process of the class. It was work where I could focus on a gendered space between myself and a greater society. I found myself drawn towards both inner and outer narratives in my life, and I think that brought a sense of it into my photos.”

"I was really struck by how much drug use is a part of my identity. I'm not sure if it's from sitting in [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings for years, being made to say over and over again, 'Hi I'm a drug addict.' My substance use and misuse is part of who I am, and internalized stigma and shame rule my inner dialogue about who I am."

"You [all] have touched my heart on such a deep level. Thank you for letting me into a little piece of your life."


Exhibitions and Press

The Huffington Post, Documenting the Lives of People who Use Drugs through Photography

Amplifier Magazine, Exploring drug use, gender, and Southern culture through photography

National Harm Reduction Conference, November 3rd to 6th, 2016. San Diego, California