The Photographer Capturing People on Drugs | High Art
Les Baker V's work shows that addiction and dependency are everywhere.
MDMA. Images courtesy of the artist
Les Baker V’s INEBRI-NATION project is a powerful look at drug use and abuse. The New Mexico-based photographer takes portraits of people peaking on different drugs, showcasing just how diverse the effects—and individuals who use mind-alternating substances—are. "The individuals featured in this series showcase the diversity of those who use mind altering substances. They include students, servers, doctors, soldiers, lawyers, politicians, mothers, fathers, artists, teachers, police officers, fire fighters, and judges," Baker writes on his project page, The 5th Photography. The Creators Project spoke to him about his influences, his visions, and why he started the project in the first place.
The Creators Project: Why did you start the project? Did you have an initial vision of what you wanted it to be?
Les Baker V: I initially started to materialise this idea while bartending. I've worked behind all types of bars; nightclubs, hotels, dives, restaurants. They all present a wide variety of guests. As a bartender, you are always watching for the intoxication level of your guest. After a while you learn to pick up on the signs of other substances being used. The eyes of people have always fascinated me. Most people have seen the eyes of an alcohol intoxicated person, they tend to be droopy and doughy. But the eyes of someone on methamphetamine are unmistakable and haunting. I wanted to try to illustrate some of the experiences I had witnessed, and through shooting portraits, highlighting the eyes would be the way to go. I wanted the portraits to be up-close and intimate.
How do you feel about expressing something so subjective as drugs? Did it change your attitude towards them?
I started this project with an unbiased look at drugs. I wanted that to come through in the photos as well. Dealing with people who use different substances on a regular basis; as well as how widely used all of these substances are. Caffeine and methamphetamine aren’t on the same level, but caffeine is still a psychoactive substance used by 90% of adults in the US daily. Millions of people “need“ that cup of coffee in the morning, and while it’s not as destructive as a hit of meth, it’s still a dependency. Substance abuse cannot be limited to a homeless man on the street, or someone in and out of a rehab center. It consumes all walks of life.
Do you have any creative influences?
I am heavily influenced by Martin Schoeller's portrait style. It is simple, usually close up and personal. He uses the subject's face to tell a story. Steve McCurry's "Afghan Girl" has always stuck out in my head ever since I saw it on the National Geographic I found in my grandparents' house. Those eyes. Shocking beautiful.
What were the individuals' reaction to the photos when sober?
Most of them loved their images. Some obviously got uncomfortable. I have a couple of images I didn't end up posting because it made the subject to uncomfortable to look at.
You superimposed images of the drugs themselves on top of the portraits. What's the idea behind this?
The idea behind this was to isolate the eyes and tell more of the story. Most of the images are either the substances themselves or something representing them. The methamphetamine is the crystals. Ketamine is widely used in powder form, but that doesn't translate well as an image to lay over a face. Many people referenced seeing "Lego-like patterns, so I thought using blocks to illustrate that description would be appropriate. Cocaine is also in powder form, I wanted to overlay a picture of someone using it with the obvious hundred dollar bill, showing the light and dark side of using. For the LSD and psilocybin, I disordered the whole image to illustrate mind-bending hallucinations.
What's next for you?
I am currently working on a project which will involve macro shots of people's eyes. Capturing the subject's personality and profession into the portraits. I am also working on images illustrating mental illness. It is another subject that can affect people of any age, race, religion, or socioeconomic status. Hopefully the series will raise some awareness.
Click here to see more of Les Baker V’s work.