I Should Have Shot That: Tony Fouhse’s Addict Breakdown

07.16.12 Marina Galperina

ANIMAL’s original series asks photographers about that one shot that got away. This week, Tony Fouhse talks about his live-in addict subject and one step too far not taken.

The addict thing was just a fluke. I wanted to photograph people in the street at dusk, collaborating to act out little scenarios. Nothing really seemed to be working. Then, just out of desperation, I went to a corner in Ottawa where I know a lot of addicts hang out, and I know they always seem to have a lot of time on their hands. I started trying to talk to them, but they were all very suspicious.

I was packing my gear into the car and this fellow Archie came by and said, “Are you looking for a subject?” He let me take his picture, and then a couple of the other people saw me working with him and came over, and I took their pictures too.

As soon as I saw the film, I thought, “Wow, this is, first of all, a really interesting population, and it seems to be possible to do this.” I made some prints and I went back and I found the people I’d photographed and gave them prints. A lot of the other addicts got interested in the process. Typically, either people don’t see them or they’re represented in the media in a really cliched, strange way–as subhumans, or something. I was just dealing with them as humans, and they liked the idea that I wasn’t judging them or trying to change them or anything like that.

I spent the next four years working on a 30-yard strip of sidewalk, and I got to know most of the people down there pretty well. Some of them, I photographed four or five times a year over four years. I mean, I call it “User” because they use drugs, and I was using them, but they were also using me as a conduit to the outside world.

The last year I was there, I met a woman named Stephanie–a heroin addict. I remember the first time I photographed her really clearly. There was just something about her that was really amazing. I met her four or five more times over the next two or three weeks, and then one day I just blurted out the words, “Is there something I can do to help you?” She asked me to help her get into rehab. I asked her if I could photograph her.

That a nine-month trip that Steph and I took that started slowly, then took on all these twists and turns and drama that neither Stephy nor I could have imagined.

With the others, we were collaborating on the sidewalk, and I would come and go. They would carry on their lives, and I would carry on my life. With Stephanie, it became a much more intimate thing, in a non-sexual way. We got to know each other really, really well. Making appointments with heroin addicts, they’re sketchy at the best of times. She would not show up, or I would go where she was living, and I knew she was there, but she wouldn’t answer the door. Either she wouldn’t want to see me, or she was nodded out, or whatever.

She was living in a risk-reduction house with ten other drug-addicted prostitutes. I don’t know if you know–risk reduction is a sociological theory that if you take people at risk, and give them a safe environment, that will help them get their heads straight and get their lives in order. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. She would come down some mornings and she would be really sick. I would meet her maybe two or three times a week. Sometimes we’d go for a soda, sometimes we’d go shopping, sometimes we’d go somewhere and take some pictures.

Sometimes she would ask me for money. This is the kind of situation I found myself in over and over with her. She’d be really dope sick and ask me for $20. I had a choice: I could either give her $20, and she could go and get some heroin and make herself better, or I could say, “No, I’m not giving you any money,” and then all she would do is cross the street and stand on the corner until some guy came by. Then she would suck his dick for 20 bucks and then go get heroin.

What would you do? Would you give her the money? Or say, “No, go and stand on the corner, and then get your heroin.” Anything you decide is wrong. You’re enabling her one way or another if you give her money, and if you say “no,” then you’re making her do this horrible job that she needs to do. I found myself in those positions over, and over, and over again. Not a day went by where I didn’t wonder if what I was doing was just to make the project better, or whether it was to help her, or whether it was to help me.

I helped her get her paperwork in order, and I took her down for some interviews at a rehab center, the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Center, and she got accepted into the program. Five days before she was going to start, she phoned me up and told me it felt like her brain was exploding. I took her to emergency, and they found an abscess in her brain and moved her right away to a neurological ward. Three days later, they operated on her brain.

She was meant to stay in the hospital for six weeks, but three or four days after the operation she phoned me up and said she wanted to go home. I asked her where home was, and she said, “Your place.” So she came and lived with my wife and I for three weeks while she withdrew from heroin and recovered from her brain surgery.

I went down to pick her up, and she was sort of manic at that point. They were giving her low doses of Dilaudid, but she was sort of withdrawing from heroin. The part of her brain that they took out was the motor skills part, but I think it affected other aspects of her as well. She walked sideways, and she chewed sideways for a while.

But she was sort of out of her mind, and all she wanted to do was get out of the hospital. She said to me, “I can’t heal in the hospital.” She was sort of like a child raised by wolves at that point. She was feral and crazy, and she kept going up to the nurse and saying, “I want to leave.”

There was a discussion between neurology and sociology. The neurologist said, “She can’t leave; she’ll die. She just had brain surgery three days ago.” And the sociologist said, “This is not the Gulag. She’s allowed to make that decision.” So they duked it out for about a half an hour. And this whole time, Stephanie is running around like crazy.

I’m not taking any pictures at all. All I’m doing is trying to figure out what’s going on, trying to calm Stephanie down, and trying to deal with the situation that’s going on. I spent some of that time sitting on a bench in the lobby of the neurology ward. Stephanie would be yelling at people, and demanding to leave, and there were three security guards blocking her from getting on the elevator. Then she would come and she would sit beside me and she would throw her arms around me and sob for awhile, and then she would get up and say to the nurse, “I want to go. Let me go.” And the nurse would say, “No, we have to fill out a bunch of forms, we have to get some meds for you.”

This whole time, it’s total drama. People are standing there with their mouths open, watching the scene. I’m not taking pictures. I’m just dealing with the situation. It was really important to the story, but I felt that it was not the right time to pull out a camera and start taking pictures.

The shot I wish I had taken is when she was sitting on a bench in the lobby of the neurology ward and she had this super crazed look in her eyes. She weighed 88 pounds at that point. She had the back of her head shaved and 20 staples stuck in the back of her skull. She was crazy, and she was tired, and she was perplexed, and you could see all that in her face. Stephanie was sort of running around like a chicken with its head cut off and the nurses didn’t quite know what to do. The doctors and the neurologists and the sociologists were having a big discussion about whether she should be allowed to leave or not.

The whole time she was in the hospital, she had a guard 24 hours a day in front of her room, because she tried to escape a few times. She had phoned me from the neurology ward and asked me to go to Dan’s and get her heroin, and I told her I wouldn’t. They knew that, and they were convinced that I was bringing her drugs. So whenever I went to visit her, the guard would just sit there and stare at us and make sure I didn’t give her any drugs.

She had been a handful. Some of the nurses were great and some of them would just go, “Why are we spending all this time saving a fucked up junkie? Aren’t there more deserving people?” But most of the people really, really cared about her. I remember I went into neurology once–Dilaudid, on the street, are called dillies, and they also use them at the hospital. They don’t call them dillies, they call them Dilaudid. I went in, and one of the nurses said to me, “Yeah, we just gave her a dilly four. I went, “Did you just use street lingo?” and she goes, “Yeah, Steph taught me.” People would fall in love with her.

Eventually Stephanie gets all the papers signed, the nurse gives her a big bottle of meds and says, “You have to take three of these every four hours, or you’re going to die.” And Stephanie grabs the pills away from her, looks at me, and says, “Let’s go.” The nurse grabs the pills back and says, “Stephanie, what did I just say?” Stephanie says, “If I don’t take the pills, I die.” She grabs the pills back, and the nurse says, “Yeah, you die.” Then the security guards get into the elevator with us and we go down and exit the hospital. But before we exited the hospital, the nurse comes up to me and says, “We’re signing her out. She’s going to your house, right?” And I said “yes.” And the nurse says, “Well, there’s one thing you should know. Even if she does take the meds, in the first week, there’s a 50 percent chance she’s going to die.”

When we left the hospital, we didn’t come directly home. She said to me, “Let’s go to Dan’s,” which is the crack house she buys her drugs at. “I got $10, I just want to buy a 10-rock.” So we went directly from the hospital to a crack house.

If you saw this crack house in a movie, you would go “As if. That’s way too dramatic.” It’s right across from a public school. You go up the stairs and you knock on the door, and Marina, Dan’s girlfriend, answers. She’s like the classic crack whore, she sort of does the body movements and stuff. She picks her nose with tweezers. We go in, and you have to step over a body or two on the way in, and you go into Dan’s bedroom. Dan is 6’2″ and he dresses like a woman. He reclines on his bed, and his bed is covered in hard drugs. They don’t let me take pictures there. That’s not even the picture I didn’t take, it’s the picture they wouldn’t let me take. That’s a whole other scene, there. And she said to Dan, “Don’t sell me any more heroin.” And he said, “I won’t sell you any more heroin, and I’m putting the word on the street. No down for Steph.”

So we go home, and every morning, I would get up and go into the room she was staying in to feel her, to see if she was still warm, that she didn’t die.

We had this pretty complicated relationship, in terms of the dynamic between me, who was a straight, old photographer, and Stephanie, who was a 23-year-old heroin addict. We spent nine months getting on fairly intimate terms. We kind of knew everything about each other by the time this was all over.

I totally trusted her; I knew she wouldn’t steal from me. If she wanted anything, she would ask, and she always did. She was doing low doses of Dilaudid that she was buying on the street, when she was here, and she would give them to me to hold and dole out. She was starting to wean herself from opiates after she moved in here. I would just leave them on the table. Sometimes, it’d be three in the morning, and she would knock on my bedroom door and say, “Tony, I want a pill,” and I’d say, “You know where they are.” She said, “No, I need you to give it to me.” So she was relying on me to keep her honest, in a way.

For nine months, my life was crazy, but for the last month of that it was over the top. I don’t mind drama, but I’ve never, ever experienced anything like this in my life. I’m married, too. So when we talk about bringing your work home with you, I told Cindy, you know, “By the way–”

After three weeks, she moved back to Nova Scotia and enrolled in a methadone got her own apartment. In fact, on Monday, I’m going up to visit her again. I haven’t seen her a year, and she’s had some ups and downs in that year. I talked to her a couple of days ago and she seemed pretty good. I hope I can find her. She relapsed, and also she has hepatitis C. The last time she talked to me, she was in tears phoning me from a hospital bed. Her kidneys or her liver were failing. Then she signed herself out of the hospital because they weren’t giving her any methadone and she was going through a bit of withdrawal from not having methadone.

I’m not exactly sure what state she’s in. Like I said, I talked to her a couple days ago and she sounded really, really good, and I think I know where she’s staying. So I’m going to go to Nova Scotia and try to find her. So that might be another picture I don’t take, is “Where’s Stephanie.”

That’s like a million other pictures I’m not taking. She’s there, 1,000 miles away, and I’m here, and there’s all this stuff going on in her life, and there’s just no way I can be there all the time. Not that I’d even want to be.

When she moved in with us, the first thing was I did was I gave her a key and I looked at her–I said, “I’m not the boss of you. You come and you go when you please. I’m not your father, I’m your friend.” And we sort of worked it out like that, which is sort of funny, giving a junkie the key to your house, when you’re a photographer and there’s $20,000 worth of gear sitting by my desk.

We shot videos of each other while this was going on, and we would ask each other questions. I gave her the video camera one day, and the question she asked was, “Are you doing this to help me, or are you doing this to help yourself?” And I said, “I think I’m doing it for both those reasons, and I’m also probably doing it for 10 or 12 other reasons that are a little more subtle than that.”

I don’t really believe in anyone being 100 percent altruistic. My phrase is: I believe that Mother Teresa saved the lepers for herself. I think that anyone who helps people–yeah, they help people, but I think they’re also fulfilling some need in themselves as well.

Tony Fouhse is a Ottawa-based photographer behind the series User and Live Through This. I Should Have Shot That! series is illustrated by James Noel Smith.

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