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Faces of Tragedy

May 1, 2008
by Douglas J. Edwards, Editor-in-Chief
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Life isn't easy for people addicted to drugs. Relationships fail. Jobs are lost. Desperation settles in. Bodies change. The Faces of Meth project (http://www.facesofmeth.us) captures the latter, showing how the appearances of people on meth have changed over time by using their mug shots from the Multnomah County, Oregon, jail. Some of the photos used in the prevention campaign aimed at teens are discomforting and serve as a warning to kids of how using meth can lead to serious consequences.

Yet I am concerned about how this prevention message is delivered. People addicted to substances have a serious, chronic health problem. They are not freaks to be put on display, even if the intent is to warn others about the dangers of drugs. A representative of the Faces of Meth program told me that they do not seek the offenders' permission to use their mug shots as they are public records, but because the program is focusing on people with a specific disease (i.e., addiction), it seems like an invasion of privacy. No matter how well-intentioned, this type of imagery—putting “oddballs on display—helps to promote a stigma surrounding substance use disorders that has prevented them from receiving widespread support—and dollars—for treatment.

There are ways to show how drugs can destroy the body without exploiting people. For example, Faces of Meth could use black bars to block the eyes of the people in the photos. This is a common practice in the medical/scientific literature that allows viewers to see the results of a disease without compromising a person's identity. In addition, images could focus on specific features (such as the skin or mouth) of a person who has a substance use problem. Google “meth mouth” and you'll see revolting images of how meth can wipe a smile off a face. In fact, these images may be more powerful than Faces of Meth's photos, some of which reflect little more than hair and beard growth.

Many who advocate a “get tough on drug users” approach certainly will disagree with me, and they will have no reservations about using photos of lawbreakers to warn others about the dangers of drugs. Knowing people who have struggled with addiction, I suppose I've become more sensitive about how people with this disease and these problems are portrayed. There are some good ideas behind the Faces of Meth project, but I'd prefer a different approach.

Douglas J. Edwards, Editor-in-Chief