Coming Clean: Graham MacIndoe interview

New York-based Scottish photographer Graham MacIndoe speaks candidly about addiction and recovery ahead of a major show of self-portraits in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 05 Apr 2017

From 8 Apr, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery will display the work of New York-based Graham MacIndoe. Through the series of self-portraits that form the show, MacIndoe elegantly documents his years as a heroin addict. MacIndoe describes being neither “ashamed” nor “proud” of the segment of his life represented in SNPG. “I don’t think anyone sets out to be an addict. Some people say it’s like a full-time job [being addicted to heroin] but it’s even worse, because it’s 24/7 every day. You’re all in, every minute. When you don’t like your job, you can sit down and do a resume, work out where you’re gonna go and set steps. Getting out of addiction might be like that, but you’re also chemically imbalanced.

"When the casual use turns into dependency and [then] addiction, and the addiction becomes uncontrollable, there’s so much denial and your self-esteem is destroyed. By that point you’ve usually lied to people, maybe hurt a few people on the way down. I didn’t want to admit how weak I was.”

Each of the images included is atmospheric, moody and formally considered. “People have often said to me, how could you take pictures when you were an addict? To me, that’s not really a question that I ever thought about. It was natural instinct.”

Even during the periods of his most serious substance abuse, he describes the persistence of an “innate, built-in thing that you have to record stuff and see stuff, I still saw and visualised like a photographer or artist. I saw light, environment, what I was going through in the abstract, sometimes in the third person. A lot of the pictures involve looking through mirrors or me in a non-direct manner. To me, it was totally instinctive. I was looking through things on computer screens, and really looking at myself. There’s a picture in the National Portrait Gallery, that’s actually a desk with an old, crummy laptop on it. So I’ve taken a picture of me on an old laptop in the apartment I was staying in."

Nevertheless, presenting these images years later, the editing process didn’t come without some difficulty, not least “because there was so many of them.” Macindoe says: “It was hard for me to detach them from the experience. Some of them meant more to me than they should... some didn’t mean anything to me that were much more quiet but resonated a lot with other people. The whole process of editing with Annie Lydon at the National Portrait Gallery was really interesting because it’s a somewhat different selection than what I would have done.

"There’s a few, there’s a crossover of about 50% [between what Lydon and MacIndoe each selected] but she pulled out [certain pictures] and her reasoning behind why she chose images was really interesting. She chose some really smart pictures.”

For MacIndoe, the decision to exhibit exclusively self-portraiture when working with the theme of drug-taking was an important choice. “My initial motivation for being in [drugtaking spaces] was to take photos of the people around. I started using photography as an excuse to go back to the neighbourhoods where the drugs were. Really I was going to buy drugs. Then I had this conflict in my mind as I was getting deeper in and realising I was photographing myself and my environment more. I felt it was unfair on the other addicts to take pictures of them. Even though they’d let me do it, I knew they weren’t aware of what they were doing.”

He describes a trend in New York for photographers to post images of drug-takers on Twitter and Flickr. “They have a lot of followers but it’s real voyeurism. It was my decision to put up my pictures of me, it was my life and that’s what I went through and I have to live with that.

"But for me to take pictures (which I had) of other people and a lot of those people have subsequently got clean, they’ve got their lives back, kids back and jobs, for me to put those pictures there, and just say you let me take the pictures I’m putting up there, I think that’s totally unfair. It’s not informed consent, it’s clouded by drugs. I said a lot of things and did a lot of things that I wouldn’t have done now. Everything was clouded.”

Encountering these images of a precarious and lethal lifestyle, it’s hard not to be amazed they survived at all. “A lot of these pictures were on little cards you stick into cameras, they were on my laptop computer. When I was sent to jail, the computer was sent to police custody and they usually ditch it after six months if you don’t claim. The rest of it was left in the projects of Brooklyn, where a friend of mine had a lot of my stuff, but I could never get to it again.

"Susan [Stellin, MacIndoe’s partner] actually, when she was trying to find me, followed up on a lot of [these leads]. She writes about it in the book, trying to get the computer back then wondering if there were incriminating things on it. She got back a lot of the film that had a lot of my pictures, so there was something collaborative there. If she hadn't retrieved those things I wouldn’t have that body of work in front of me. I might have had a few pieces. There were certain things that got lost along the way, pieces I remember taking and having that I can’t find anywhere. The fact that I managed to retain that many images is quite amazing."

A more explicitly collaborative project by the couple came in the form of the aforementioned book, their co-written memoir of the period of MacIndoe’s recovery, Chancers. It’s something MacIndoe’s keen to discuss as “it’s really important to talk about how to find recovery, we all have this general idea that people don’t recover… A lot of people do recover, but the people that relapse are the ones that stick in our mind.”

Though the story of Chancers begins in 2002 and ends with a postscript from last year, MacIndoe contextualises many of the photos that are on the display in the SNPG. His own imprisonment and time in a detention centre came at a time when the USA was deporting more immigrants than ever before in the wake of 9/11. It was after fighting for a place on a rehabilitation programme and lengthy legal proceedings that MacIndoe was able to remain in the US, and take up his position as adjunct professor in the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York.

Describing one important part of his success, MacIndoe thinks of the conversations started through exhibiting and sharing his years of addiction and then recovery. “It’s amazing the number of people that have seen the pictures or read the book that have come up to either Susan or me, and have revealed something about themselves or someone they know, or a family member that’s an addict.

"People have asked me to reach out to family members, ‘Will you talk to me son, he’s been struggling for ages.’ Susan receives a lot of emails with people that are in her position, in relationships with someone who's an addict, and she gets emails every week saying ‘this is exactly what I went through, reading the book has made me realise I’m not alone.’” Crucially, for MacIndoe “that’s as rewarding as anything else.”

From 8 Apr - 5 Nov, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh