Photographer Matt Slaby on his new exhibit documenting those affected by heroin overdoses
A photography exhibit opens today inside the State Capitol's Rotunda that challenges viewers to examine their perceptions of those affected by injection drug use. It was created by photographer Matt Slaby and the nonprofit Harm Reduction Action Center.
Slaby, who started out documenting this stigmatized population, eventually became a board member of the nonprofit, which serves and advocates for opiate users. He sat down with Westword to talk about the exhibit, his work with HRAC and why it is important to advocate for people who are so often stereotyped instead of helped.
Westword: Can you talk a little about the exhibition opening at the Capitol today?
Matt Slaby: The simple answer is the photographs are meant to humanize a subject that is really hard to humanize. Injection drug use is something that is shrouded in quite a bit of stigma, so much so that we don't really talk about some of the ground-level realities that people face -- people who inject drugs, people who used to inject drugs, their friends, family and by proxy, all of us. For example, in Denver, one out of two injection drug users are Hepatitis C positive and more than one out of ten have HIV, and a significant if not overwhelming majority of long-term injectors have experienced a near-fatal overdose.
All three of those things are one hundred percent preventable with basic changes to how we administer public health. The biggest roadblock preventing some of those changes is public perception that is built around stigma. So the photographs were designed to humanize the issue. They are diptychs -- the left side is a user, recovering user or family of deceased user and the image on the right is the place where they experienced something significant in their healthcare narrative. So, where they overdosed, where they died or where they learned to inject.
When you look at them in sequence, you start to realize that this isn't something that happened somewhere else -- this is something very close to home. It is the people you know and the places you go.
How did you approach your subjects? How did they respond when you wanted to photograph them in that way?
Just like you, I have made my living for the last eight years or so as a journalist, a photojournalist. One of the things I get paid to do is be curious about things that I don't necessarily understand or things that challenge me. This was an issue that was particularly challenging to me. Long ago, in a past life, I worked through an undergrad working with a major metropolitan ambulance company. The population of folks that are highlighted in the series are people that we would see on a fairly regular basis.
During that portion of my life and that job, I felt like the relationship was fairly antagonistic. If you fast-forward about a decade for me, I was again confronted with the same issues. I had had some friends that were involved in the underground needle exchange here in Denver and brought me in to learn a little bit more about the issue. I found that a lot of my stereotypes and a lot of the things that I assumed in my previous line of work didn't necessarily hold true. The things in my current line of work -- the assumptions about how we treat our subjects and how we work with the people we want to learn more about -- did really prove true.