The Needle and the Damage Done

Because it is my avocation to get mad and start arguments, when I came upon a photo of a woman sticking a needle in her arm, on tumblr, I wrote to the blogger and politely complained. I said the picture could be a trigger for recovering addicts, and that addiction should not be romanticized. She replied politely that she was against censorhip and couldn’t be responsible for triggers. I wrote to the blogger from whom she’d reblogged the photo. She replied  politely too,   but maintained that the photo was “social commentary.”

Both bloggers pointed out that heroin  addiction  is a part of life and that you can’t just show nice things. Both denied that the artful picture of an attractive woman shooting dope was in any way romanticizing addiction.

But wait! The “part of life” argument is kind of fatuous. Vomit, amputation,   and car accidents are part of life. All kinds of distressing things are part of life but you don’t see many arty picture of them. The image of an addict shooting up is a powerful one that has been  around  for a long time, and it doesn’t show the Part of Life that comes after it: The  abscesses, the arrests, the death, the funeral, the sobbing friends.

I resent these images, because they don’t tell the truth.   They are a siren song to young people, just as cigarette ads once were.

I know it’s too much to ask that everyone stop admiring nice black and white photos of addicts shooting dope. But I’d at least like everyone to admit that  these images are romantic.   They depict a “transgressive” act, nicely lit and composed, that represents  mavericky behavior…even rock and roll behavior, one might say.   OF COURSE it is  romanticizing  an illness that in real life is tragic, sordid, cruel and lamentable on every level!

It’s not art, any more than the images of bottled fetuses used by anti-choice groups is art. It’s the perpetuation of a stupid and dangerous myth.   Or maybe it is art, but it’s political, even if one insists otherwise.

I am not in favor of censorship. But I post images selectively.

What are your thoughts?

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38 Responses to “The Needle and the Damage Done”

  1. Hortense Says:

    Art can be so many things, but effective art has a message or non-message more complicated than “this is nice to look at, isn’t it?” Art of the just nice to look at nature is more aptly termed ‘fashion editorial,’ or even porn. I think these tumblr posters fail to see where you detect the artifice that outweighs the art in these photos.

    As someone who has had drug problems on and off, images that glamourize drug use, especially heroin use, actually do tempt certain people to want to live that lifestyle. It’s an argument many would rather not hear, in an age of “no, violent video games don’t make you violent” and “no, degrading porn doesn’t make young men hate women.” The fact is that both of those examples may not directly cause harm to anyone, but they do answer a primal drive in their users that may desensitize or inform real life actions. Why else is cumming on faces so popular among young people now? They saw it in porn!

  2. Andra Says:

    Isn’t there enough ugly stuff in life without having to deliberately look at more?
    Just getting through the day without too much shit happening should be enough just now.

  3. littlebadwolf Says:

    context is important. if such things as addiction, amputations and mayhem are presented as sunday afternoon fun, that is wrong and foolish.

    but presenting them as a negative part of reality could be helpful to people in understanding life and what not to do with it.

  4. fashion westie Says:

    A “Part Of Life’ could also be an arty black and white photo of me wiping my arse after taking a dump while wearing a beauty pageant dress and sash-but I choose not to do it. Why? Because, though it sounds real interesting, arty and perhaps providing some form of social commentary and it may “help” someone….I’m not an asshole. I have a fair idea only a few would appreciate it on their screens…and that’s just not enough of a driving force for me.

  5. Elaine Says:

    I reported a tumblr with pictures that were obviously pornography and this person running it was following tumblrs all run by young girls.
    Just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done.
    It’s a difficult line to tread on when it comes to drugs and pornography in art. I don’t know whether freedom of expression should allow for all content

    A great number of artists were on some sort of drug when they were creating. Does this mean the drugs were the cause of their genius or what freed their genius? Also under consideration is that some of them died prematurely due to drugs.

  6. Dru Says:

    I’m going to admit, I am a huge fan of Larry Clark, Nan Goldin and Corinne Day….but they at least attempted to humanise their subjects instead of just pretending that being young and addicted was pretty or glamourous. And things look so different when pulled out of context and treated as nothing more than pretty pictures, or worse- “inspiring”.

    I like your tumblr, Sister, and here’s mine http://nonsenseonstilettos.tumblr.com (no needles, I promise) but I find I’m still old-school enough to prefer livejournal as a place to hang out.

  7. Taylor Says:

    This makes me fucking furious, mostly because my close friend who died a month ago was an on again/off again heroin user. He died of an overdose, and his funeral had easily around 2,000 people. Yet, the few junkies in the room stuck out like sore thumbs, mostly because when you are addicted to heroin you look like complete shit. Drugs like heroin and crystal meth completely warp a person, mentally and physically. I agree with you that I don’t think this is something that needs to be romanticized. When someone is addicted to hard drugs, they (as cliche as this may sound) become a shell that contains nothing other than the need for more dope. Heroin is a terrible drug and I have to say that when I hear about images like that, I really just assume that that person has never experienced the kind of loss that comes from losing a family member or loved one. My friend was only 22 and was one of the most charismatic people I will ever know, he hadn’t even used in (I think) around six months. But the stuff has such a strong hold over a person that once you do it once, you’re going to be afflicted for the rest of your life.

  8. Andra Says:

    I am looking at all this stuff and I feel like a visitor from Mars.
    What the hell is going on in the world?
    Do you people not understand how vile this all is?
    I live in a very small city in far north Queensland, Australia and I thought we had enough violent drunken bums here to fill the whole world, so I pretty much stay home and amuse myself.
    I look at newspapers from other cities around the country and all they are reporting is violence and drugs and murder and mayhem.
    I am not part of this world and I do not want to participate in this world.
    I have just returned from Bali, which is one of the most peaceful places on the planet.
    The children do not cry, are not angry, do not want to hurt anybody and grow up to be decent human beings who respect their country and their planet.
    People, please look at yourselves, see all this dark stuff that is not necessary and will not advance your life, the lives of your loved ones, your community, your country, or your planet.
    Stop the planet…. I want to get off!!!
    With humility and love….

  9. Suzanne Says:

    You are absolutely right, and how refreshing to hear an intelligent comment on that type of pseudo intellectual rubbish about freedom of speech ! As a high-school teacher, I see so many messed-up kids who are dealing with problems usually only encountered by messed-up adults. The Internet, television, etc are watched by all ages, not only responsible adults who can separate right from wrong. All that bull about making people aware is an excuse proffered by irresponsible grown-ups in order to show their own weaknesses, fantasies or perversities.

  10. Anon this time Says:

    I think intention and context are so important when it comes to these sorts of photos, and websites like tumblr tend to strip them of all of that. Another reason I get annoyed at tumblr! Tumblr can of course give photos another context that was not originally intended, so I can understand you getting annoyed at the person who posts it along with aspirational pictures.

    These sorts of pictures are nothing really new though, you just have to look at the Pre-Raphaelites and their fairly frequent glamorisation of suicide (eg Death of Chatterton).

    My dad is an alcoholic so people who think that Mad Men and it’s like are so wonderful and that excessive drinking is cool/in some way glamourous/to be admired drive me insane, and anyone sending me press releases about booze gets a VERY snotty email back. But we all have these things we don’t like I suppose. Someone who watched a loved one die from obesity for example might sit there seething every time they see a mcdonald’s advert. I think I have lost my point somewhere, hope this makes some sense.

  11. Caroline Says:

    Ugh. I feel like the types of people try to romanticize addictions or suicide or similar subjects “as sunday afternoon fun” as littlebadwolf wrote, are just trying to be ~oh so edgy~. They probably do it mostly for the bad attention and edginess but claim artistic freedom/freedom of speech when confronted about it. I feel like depictions of these subjects are more powerful when they show the real effects. Because THAT’s a part of life. Real life is rarely glamorized like that, especially with drugs. Idk. :/

    Re: Anon’s post
    I love Mad Men but I also recognize that the characters are pretty bad people in general (and I feel the smoking and drinking on the show is fairly accurate to the time it’s set in. Perhaps exaggerated a bit.) Either way, I do not think that their excessive smoking/drinking is admirable. I think that Mad Men is wonderful but I would never want to emulate any of the characters. Except maybe how Betty dresses haha.

  12. Althea Says:

    My friend wrote a piece about this that I think you would really enjoy: http://writingwriterwritest.blogspot.com/2010/11/kate-sullivan-jones-heroin-chic.html

  13. Make Do Style Says:

    Have to say photographs of people injecting heroin wearing nice clothes and being well coiffured isn’t art it is indulgence. Also jacking up heroin isn’t part of life it is part of that individuals life – just as me eating a packet of sweets is part of my life and a photograph of me doing so would be incredibly dull. Perhaps if I was eating sweets next to the addict jacking up we might have something philosophical to discuss.

    It is the contextualisation of an act of life that makes it art and gives it meaning. The Victorians had a great series of paintings depicting fallen women mainly on bridges in torn clothes or being spurned, or their bodies being dragged out of the river they had thrown themselves in to due to despair or disgust. The art reflected a time and a moral view of the temptation of women/drink/the flesh.

    Now we have women fetishised in photography with drugs, drink and sex and I’m just talking glossies. They don’t show the drugs but there is often an undercurrent of hint of subversion to suggest someone is out of it in designer clobber.

    So yes those tumble pics are not art they are degrading to humankind

  14. Lara Says:

    Having had a really close friend die of a heroine overdose when I was a teen, those images just make me angry because I know the truth behind it. I still regret not being able to find him in time to tell him I found a rehab place that would take him on the spot. He died in an abandoned building.

    Someone mentioned the whole “being edgy” angle and it’s true. I think it’s why people start using in the first place… to be cool. It’s hard to explain what it feels like to become physically addicted to something after the first try. When I was younger and clubbing, I tried meth once. I thought speed would be different than dope. One line and I was up for 48 hours and wanted to die. I hung out with the same people again later and a girl had some. She wasn’t sharing and I caught myself getting angry. That wasn’t like me at all. I knew right then and there that I needed to get the hell away from those people. I never hung around people on hard drugs again. A lot of kids don’t have their wits about them to know the bullshit from the reality. To veil it as “artistic” is a sad load of crap, obviously done by someone who’s in deep denial of what they’ve gotten themselves into, thinking they’re totally in control. It doesn’t work that way. The drugs control you.

  15. firefly Says:

    I agree partially with you. I don’t agree with censorship either, but some things that are a part of real life are romanticized. On a discussion on the fbomb.org, it was said that censoring Kanye West’s “Monster” video was censorship, because it depicted violence against women (like being chained up, killed and made into a doll, etc.), and it was “free expression” and not necessarily endorsing it because it was “art”. However, would a picture of a person beating a child be treated the same way? That’s a part of real life too, but nobody glorifies that. Some food for thought.

  16. Cricket9 Says:

    I have a degree in History of Art and I’m sick of despicable crap being presented as Art – with a capital A. Artists should tackle difficult issues; I’m not asking only for “pretty” pictures of rainbows, kittens and big-eyed cute children, but too often so called “art” is done only for the shock value. Francis Bacon is not pretty (not to hang over your sofa) but his pictures speak, at least – to me, about human condition. Artistic pictures of people shooting heroin may be pretty, but I’ll pass. I also don’t understand the point of the famous spread in the French Vogue, with pre-teens in sexy poses. Good photos, to what end? A “collector edition” for pedophiles?

  17. Juli Says:

    When I see a picture or a movie or someone sticking a needle anywhere, it makes me want to vomit. I don’t see anything romantic about it. I think it should be on everyone to take responsibility for their actions. You see a lot of sexy images out there because “sex sells” but you also don’t see the negative side of sex either. The teen pregnancies, STI’s, rape, etc. It’s a fine line that everyone seems to be walking…

  18. kellie Says:

    Whenever something must be explained as”art”, you know it is a load of crap and they are having us on.
    Needles in arms is pathetic and attention seeking.
    Idiots.

  19. Erika Says:

    I don’t look at that stuff. So faux nihilism is still trendy ?
    Good for you speaking up to those twits.

  20. Sister Wolf Says:

    I am astonished that you all agree with me! My husband did not agree, and said that no one can tell anyone else what’s offensive or what might have a dangerous consequence. Then, when I said, They should at least admit to romanticizing the needle, he said: “You can’t make people admit anything!”

    So I reminded him that I am The Truth Police. A name he himself bestowed upon me! I am always going around demanding “Just admit it!”

  21. Aja Says:

    I don’t necessarily agree but I’m sick of being predictable.
    We’re always shouting off about freedom of speech on here. I was a little surprised when you wrote this. However I do think that the glorifying of the druggie lifestyle is pretty lame. I don’t think that people shouldn’t post these images if it is truly what interests them, even if it has me rolling my eyes.

  22. Devin Says:

    Have you seen Jessica Dimmock’s photos?

  23. Sarah Says:

    I think on Tumblr or any kind of personal blog, people can post whatever they like. Doesn’t mean I can’t think they’re pretentious unthinking knobends for doing so, however.

    And IVDU are about the most unglamourous group of people you could ever meet. In the tissue viability clinic (that’s ulcers to you and me), I saw the most horrific leg I’ve ever seen. Huge ulcers which could have easily fit several golf-balls inside them surrounded by foul-smelling gangrenous tissue. The guy it belonged to was only 40 and that was because of injecting heroin into his legs. He got admitted immediately and odds are, he’ll lose the leg. This is the kind of thing that people should think of when they think of IV drug use rather than artfully-lit black-and-white photos of Byronic antiheroes injecting into a pristine arm in a bohemian bedsit surrounded by electric guitars and expensive clothing. Blergh.

  24. Cricket9 Says:

    I watched “Requiem for dream”. The image of the suppurating, gangrenous arm will stay with me for ever – as well as the movie ending. How romantic was that.

  25. Sister Wolf Says:

    Devin – No, and now I’m afraid to.

    Cricket9 – Requiem for a Dream is one of my most hated movies of all time. But yes, the arm freaked me out, too!

  26. Jaimi Says:

    I agree with you. I don’t care if it’s well reasoned or not. I hate hate HATE artistic representations of it because people tend to portray IV drug use in a romantic way. Like, oh it’s so COOL or makes your person pain edgy and interesting or some shit — I don’t know, I haven’t really thought it through, but my gut reaction is that it’s so exploitative and fucking disgusting. (Yet I don’t have as much trouble with music. “Golden brown” by The Stranglers is my favorite song of all time and it’s pretty much all about heroin. That one is a beautiful kind of sad though, more of a sense of loss of a beautiful thing. Anyway.)

    I’ve had family members (aunts, uncles) and friends’ partners and families ruined by it, no one so close though so I can’t understand the full extent of what you’re going through.

  27. kate Says:

    i couldn’t deal with requiem either. none of that guy’s movies appeal to me, and i doubt i’ll like black swan just because the imagery what’s-his-name uses turns my stomach. it has nothing to do with the fact that heroin ruined my father’s life. in fact, my family issues have nothing to do with my reaction to needles or art about drug use. if it’s good (thoughtful) then i can appreciate it. i don’t have to like something to know it’s good, like requiem for a dream. i guess it’s a good movie because i had a strong reaction to it, not a bad one because i didn’t like it. so it’s the same thing with tumblr pictures or magazine spreads. if it (and the artist) is thoughtful and poignant, then it’s art. the reaction of the audience is personal and not under the artist’s control. if it and the artist are basically sensationalist, then it’s a product for sale and not art. but both are protected under free speech.
    but then, what if the person who took the photos you don’t like- what if they really do think drug use is romantic? what if they are speaking through their art with just as much soul as someone with a different message? that makes me more worried about this crazy world than it does about some asshole trying to get a reaction by exploiting our feelings about addiction.
    but i don’t know because i didn’t see the pictures.

  28. aine Says:

    ive only read the first comment, hortense’s, because im really tired but id just like to add that i read about a recent study in the papers that said that smoking in films really does affect smokers. they monitored the viewer’s brain and found that certain regions kicked into gear as the smoker planned to smoke later. so yeah images reinforce behaviour. anyway good for you for telling them what you thought, maybe you made them think a little harder about their taste in art.

  29. Sister Wolf Says:

    kate – I hate his movies too! What a cunt. Just a terrible filmmaker. Ugh. I enjoyed his first movie, “Pi” but it’s been pure hate since then. Darren something.

  30. Marla Says:

    I hate the glamorization of drugs, just like that heroin chic trend in models a few years back. Go ahead honey, fix that shit and lets see how you look in a few years. A strawberry, or a crook of some kind, with lots of mug shots. Lets see those photos.
    Just because one are against censorship doesn’t mean one should show an endless loop of Daniel Pearls beheading just because you can. There is a thing called human decency, taste, dignity and concern for mankind. Try thinking about others for a change instead of what you want and your bullshit vision of art.

  31. Constance Says:

    I think people have the right to post these images and sorry Sister but i do not think at all those images are romantic. You are presuming that the effect everyone wants to achieve when they post pictures is pleasure, and that is not always the case. The same way i do not think a movie like Trainspotting for example glamourises drug addiction(It was heavily criticised for doing so), I was a teen when it was release and seeing it would have been enough to put me off drugs.And yes I did love the characters.
    I can’t conceive someone shooting drugs as something positive, although I can understand how someone can turn shooting drugs into something artistic. It’s always up to the individual how they will perceive things.

  32. MG Says:

    I mean, I guess this is America and they can post whatever they want but I think everything should be done in good taste. That is not good taste and it is somewhat offensive. Drug addictions aren’t a joke, nor should they be taken lightly. I don’t think that it’s art, I think it’s egregious. If you can’t find something better to post and a better way to express yourself then get off the internet. Drug use should never be romanticized.

  33. Carrie Says:

    This is a very complex and fascinating subject, so thank you as always SW for providing an intelligent post that makes us employ some fo-real critical thinking skills!! (Not that I don’t also enjoy the ease of thinking through the ugly shoe posts – for the 10 seconds it takes to nod my head and ‘yep, fucking ugly’ at ‘em.)

    My opinion here is difficult to articulate but I do want to try. The crowd I grew up with during the 90s, my teen years, was extremely diverse in terms of age, gender, sexual identity, personal style, and political leanings. What almost everyone had in common was drug use. Basically, my hometown was just small enough that the entire counter-cultural scene was an extended community where everyone knew everyone else and co-existed rather peacefully. It was also just big enough (and located on a drug-running trajectory between Florida and the northeast) to be saturated with inexpensive drugs of pretty much every sort imaginable. Some of us stuck with the classic booze and pot preferences, with lighter experimentation into other categories. Many, many, many others fell prey to much heavier habits and quickly the story of addiction – with its entourage of violence (from domestic abuse to outright drug-related murder), sickness, and death not far behind. These drugs, particularly heroin, became a part of the narrative of our lives at an age when most kids are worrying about prom dresses and the SATs.

    I can specifically remember one friend discussing his reasons for trying heroin the first time (by this point he was several years an addict, and around 19 years old). He was a talented musician, and welcomed that first syringe as the missing link of authenticity he needed to fully give himself over to the rocknroll lifestyle. Were glamorous images of heroin use (whether in the form of a photograph or otherwise) at play in drawing that once-handsome, once-talented, once-potentially-relevant young musician to drug abuse? Was ‘good judgement’ or ‘freedom of expression’ around to keep him from hungrily embracing that needle and becoming the now-pathetic, now-stunted, now-entirely-hopeless addict I recently bumped into on a visit back home? 100 fucking percent.

    This is just one of dozens of examples I could give to illustrate my point here. At least Kevin is still alive, which is more than I can say for many others. You know what isn’t sexy at all? Fucking dying.

    My thoughts on censorship don’t even enter into this. Those images DO romanticize drug use, and some who see them WILL receive the message this way. Those are the facts, and folks who choose to take these photos or post them on an ‘edgy’ tumblr ARE participants in a heroin-positive sphere of influence whether they want to admit it or not.

    I’m not sure if my argument has made much sense here…I’ve ended up frustrated and in tears as I write this because to me the consequences of all this are way too real. This is something I’ve been confounded and scarred by for two decades, but rarely tried to put into words. Hope it makes sense at least a little bit…

  34. Carrie Says:

    Oops! typo in my rant above! The end of paragraph 3 should read “100 fucking percent NOT.”

    Sorry, like I said, got a little emotional there and didn’t proofread before posting!

  35. Constance Says:

    Carrie, I’m sorry but you can’t simply decide to censor images because some people will perceive them the wrong way.

    I do not believe in free speech the american way, that regardless how many people you will offend or hurt directly, your right to express yourself is above all, but people simply cannot be made responsible for the way some people will perceive things in general. An image that for someone can be edgy for other can be disgusting.

  36. b Says:

    http://thesartorialist.blogspot.com/2011/03/on-streetangelika-milan.html

    This makes me mad, at least some commenters think so too

  37. Dru Says:

    Not surprised that that came from a man who is his current girlfriend’s “weight loss coach”.

    “Sturdy but beautiful”, yeeesh.

  38. Hallie Says:

    THANK YOU. This is what pisses me off about shows like, say, Intervention. Why do they never, ever show THE WORST. WORST. addicts? Why do they never show festering abscesses, amputees, or someone digging shit balls out of their ass because they are so constipated from heroin? Addicts are depicted in two ways in the media: 1) beautifully tragic 2) terribly sick, but still family-friendly enough to induce nothing more than a “tsk tsk” from Granny. Ineffective.

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