By Paul Crespel © 2021

Published 26 October 2021


I’ve been photographing drug addicts, pushers and prostitutes, up close and personal, for the last five years, creating a photographic documentary for the future of how life was in most cities around the world in this period.

In the Italian city where I live, I know nearly all of the addicts, and many of their parents, too.

To get photographs I have to appear to be totally impartial and non-judgmental.  Any demonstration on my part of fear, revulsion or disgust means I would not be able to return to continue my work.  I would lose their trust and their respect.  In the beginning I was threatened, both with weapons and used syringes, by the addicts, the pushers, and people higher up in the supply chain, but I persisted. 

To be successful, as in other professions, a documentary or news photographer has to be able to psychologically detach him/herself from the subject, at least while doing the job.  The memories can be harder to detach but over the years, sadly, one can almost become indifferent to suffering.

Most people show revulsion and intolerance for drug addicts.  They do cause serious social problems, and they do steal, beg and prostitute themselves to have the money for their next fix, and they do demonstrate seriously antisocial behavior.  Most people also assume they chose to become addicts, but this is not so.

Ninety percent of the prostitutes and petty thieves I have come across have a drug addiction.  They do the work to pay for their habit.

Most drug addicts come from broken, violent or abusive homes, and nearly all of them share a common denominator – their father.  In nearly all cases the father is violent, abusive, alcoholic, is a drug addict, or is in prison, or has simply walked out of their lives or died.

A huge percentage of the addicts suffer from mental health issues before they start taking drugs.  Many are bipolar, some are schizophrenic, and only stay fairly “normal” because of medication.  Others are manic-depressives, serious self-harmers, suicide risks, or even violently paranoid.  These illnesses weren’t a result of their drug addiction; rather the drug addiction came partly as a result of pre-existing conditions, because society tends to marginalize mental health sufferers, and they become easy prey for pushers, or they find some temporary escape from their mental confusion by taking drugs.

Mental illness, combined with a low self-esteem caused by problems at home, make these people very vulnerable to exploitation by others who want to make money selling their drugs.  Many are homeless, because sleeping rough is better than returning to a violent household, or because they have been kicked out of their homes.

Most health services around the world don’t have the budget to give these (usually) young people the medical or psychiatric help they need.  There are charitable institutions that do their best, but even their budgets are limited, and all they can really do is provide “first aid”; supply blankets, clean syringes, food and hot drinks, maybe a bed for the night.  They cannot provide a cure.  Drug addiction is often closely related to mental health issues.

Police around the world often target the addicts and the street dealers, demonizing them, when their resources would, in my opinion, be better used going for the importers and manufacturers of the substances.  The authorities know who they are, but those people are very rich and very powerful.

Four years ago I took a photo of the dirty, scarred feet of two young, homeless addicts in a town park.  They liked it, and they suggested I had them printed as postcards that they could sell, instead of begging and stealing, to get the money they needed.  I had them printed and handed them out, but within days the police had fined many of them for unlicensed street hawking.  No consideration was given to the fact that by selling postcards they would steal and prostitute themselves less.  Dura Lex, Sed Lex.

There are threads in these forums that discuss how to deal with problem addicts.  I have found that by accepting they have a problem and treating them with respect, as fellow human beings, albeit with a problem, they will show respect in return, but takes a real effort because it goes against our natural human prejudices.

Drug addiction has existed for millennia; it was documented in ancient Egyptian times and even earlier in various early civilizations.  A percentage of every population falls into the trap.  In ancient times it was less of a problem, but now that big criminal organisations have realized there is a huge amount of profit to be made by selling misery, the problem has increased.  Drug addiction causes the addict to do anything to get their next fix.  They will steal and prostitute themselves, spreading hepatitis and worse (every drug addict I know has hepatitis) by sexual contact with men who then take it home to their wives.  This is a further extra burden for the health authorities.

The problem of drug addiction has a serious consequential impact on policing, health services and home insurance premiums.

The presence of drug addicts indicates a flawed political and social system.

I don’t think there’s a magic cure, but after five years of speaking to addicts, their parents and local councilors it’s obvious that social, government and policing attitudes need to change drastically before we see any reduction in drug addicts and associated crime.  The worse we treat the addicts, the worse they will get, as they will feel they have nothing to gain.  If, on the other hand, we can de-marginalize them, show them that if they respect others they will be respected in return, and find a way of stopping them from being antisocial, stealing and prostituting themselves, both they and the general public might find a better life.

In my view, the only solution that might work would be for the government to decriminalize all drugs, and to supply good quality drugs directly to the addicts, free of charge, together with syringes, sterile water, and antiseptic wipes.  The cost would be minimal, as drugs are cheap to produce, but the consequential effects of such a measure would be far-reaching; theft and prostitution, the load on the health and police services would be reduced, as would the number of beggars on the street, and the people who supply, from the top of the pyramid down to the pushers would be out of business.

The big question is, would those people at the top of the supply pyramid allow the authorities to put them out of business?  I have been present when somebody has said, “we know where your children go to school”.  For governments this is, indeed, a poisoned chalice.