I heard of Jeff Bierk just over a year ago through some friends who were obsessed with his photos. We met through chance, and he invited me to hang out with him to follow him around as he worked. I also met with his homeless, drug addicted friends. I’d soon find out that it hadn’t been long since he’d kicked addiction himself, having gone through almost twenty years of pills, death and struggle for sobriety that informed the bulk of the photos he takes. Jeff’s photos are haunting, beautiful, and arguably disgusting. His work is based on his own experience growing up with addiction, relapsing, detoxing, and finally coming to terms with sobriety. On the one year anniversary of his sobriety, Jeff agreed to sit down with me and tell me about almost twenty years of being fucked up, the photos he takes, his secret life with junkies, and the moral lines he treads.
VICE: You’ve been sober for a year now. How old were you when you started using?
Jeff Bierk: I was ten when I first got drunk and it sparked from there. A couple years later I met these older guys who would party all the time and they loved me because they didn’t give a fuck, they just wanted to drink and skateboard and have fun so we were getting hammered every night. I’d hang out with these weird, sketchy dudes that, in grade seven and eight, were snorting lines of PCP. I kind of gave up on caring about normal things and just always wanted to party. Alcohol and weed were an escape for me and nothing else mattered, it was the one thing I craved to do.
Is there a moment that you can pinpoint wherein you moved from using drugs recreationally, into becoming an addict?
First of all I’m still an addict. I’ll always be an addict. But when I was a kid I got to a habit where I was doing like, twenty to thirty oxycontins a day. Opiates, you build up a tolerance to them. Then my Dad died and that just like…my world fucking collapsed. It was devastating. It was my first experience of loss and he was my hero. It was just terrible.
I think at that point I’d always had these boundaries in my head, of what I would do and what I wouldn’t do, and to me the pills didn’t seem like a big deal. It was just like taking a Tylenol. It didn’t have any depth and weight to it. I remember a lot of my buddies were doing coke when I was sixteen and I was always like, “Fuck that, I’ll never put anything up my nose.” When my Dad died, that all went out the window.
Shit. What happened then?
I just went for it. I started to get a lot of connections. I met this guy that would come in my van with a kitchen knife tucked in his pants, tweakin’ out. He would give me one or two pills, and would always rip me off. I remember there was this one guy who looked like a walking skeleton, he was dying of AIDS, and he was the most hardcore junkie I’d ever met in my life. I saw him O.D. twice. He lived in a disgusting flophouse we’d hang out at that was being watched by the cops. Near the end of my time using, I was taking way too many oxys every day and they weren’t even getting me high, they were just making me normal.
How long was it before you got sober?
Well, my Mom died unexpectedly in the midst of all this and it just crushed me. After my Dad’s death I really took my Mom’s life for granted. I thought she would always be around. It was one of the darkest parts of my life. My sister, who had been sober for a while, basically told me I had to go to rehab, I didn’t have a choice. She set everything up. I went to a medical detox, and then to rehab. That was the first time I got sober. But it wasn’t long before I got the taste again. It took me another five years to really kick it.
Do you think your experiences as an addict have laid the foundation for your photography?
Definitely. My goal is always to tell a story. I go out thinking I want to tell someone else’s story, but when I come back and sit with the images and really look at them, it’s always my own story that I’m trying to tell. When I was a kid and first getting into drugs, and dealing with junkies and dealers, it was just this crazy world that I knew nothing about. I wanted to learn to be a part of it, and I eventually did become a part of it. I’m trying to get in touch with those feelings.
Is it difficult to be around people who are constantly using?
No, not at all. If anything I feel a connection to them. I have a deep understanding of what they’re going through. I think they’re beautiful.
Sometimes you photograph people sleeping. Why are you drawn to do that?
I remember one day thinking about my past, and being overwhelmed by all those feelings and I thought about death and how I could represent that. Sleep is an allegory of death, it’s a visual representation of death. So I decided to go out and shoot that. I find these people sleeping in public all the time.
Do you think that’s exploitative?
Completely. But I’m more concerned with honesty, and it’s honest. I don’t think I could achieve what I want in any other way. I’ll take that criticism. It is exploitative, but on the other side of that I’m pushing the laws around photography. I can photograph anything in a public place the same way that paparazzi can photograph people, the same way police can put up cameras on any corner. If you’re in a public place, you’re open to being photographed. Granted, if they wake up I always ask them if I can photograph them.
Well some of these people are friends of yours too, right?
Yeah, it’s a mixture. I mean, they’re actually friends, I see these people on a regular basis, I talk to them every day. Sometimes I talk to my homeless friends more often than my friends who aren’t homeless. There’s this one guy named Andrew that I’ve been photographing for five years and I see him all the time.
Why do you think they’re so willing to be photographed?
I don’t know. They seem really vulnerable but open to being photographed. I think they’re just open to regular interactions. They get passed by all the time and someone willing to take the time to get to know them, they open up, you know? I’m open with everyone I talk to about what I do with the images.