Faces of recovery

At BMAC, ‘If She Has A Pulse, She Has A Chance’ looks at the struggle to rise above drug addiction

BRATTLEBORO — Danny Lichtenfeld, Director of the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, thinks the museum's new photography exhibit is something special.

“Of course, I feel in one way or another that all the shows at BMAC are special, but “If She Has A Pulse, She Has A Chance” is engaging the community in a way that is rare for the museum,” Lichtenfeld says.

In the Center Gallery of BMAC, “If She Has A Pulse, She Has A Chance” is a series of 32 photographic portraits of Vermonters recovering from addiction and 13 printed text panels containing gripping first-person narratives by people in recovery.

“This photography exhibit sheds light on what it takes to recover from addiction, a daunting challenge facing individuals, families, and communities throughout the United States,” Lichtenfeld says.

Supported in part by the Vermont Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, and sponsored by The Brattleboro Retreat, “If She Has A Pulse, She Has A Chance” consists of photographs taken and narratives collected by documentary photographer Michael Poster at Turning Point of Windham County, a downtown Brattleboro community center for those whose lives have been affected by addiction.

BMAC, in partnership with The Brattleboro Retreat, Turning Point, and Groundworks Collaborative, will present four free public events aimed at galvanizing constructive conversation about addiction and recovery.

“BMAC has had the gratifying experience in the past few years of exhibits that touch on important social issues,” Lichtenfeld says. “We did a show on guns that resulted in really valuable discussion. Another was on the forestry industry that, if not as controversial, educated people on the topic. We feel at BMAC that engaging important social issues has proven to be a valuable use of our time and resources.”

Alongside the exhibition of photographs and narratives, one wall of the gallery contains a large graphic representation of ideas and resources about recovery that are available in the area.

“This infographic addresses what the community needs,” Lichtenfeld says. “It was created with the assistance of a design firm as well as Michael and representatives from the other organizations in town dealing with addiction.”

Art first

However engagingly this exhibition deals with a social concern, first and foremost Lichtenfeld believes the artwork in the show must be museum quality.

“Michael Poster's work is certainly that,” he says. “We have an established relationship with Michael, and already exhibited his photographs of the Bellows Falls Messianic Community in another exhibition at BMAC several years ago.”

Poster is a documentary photographer who creates portraits of communities, often spending years getting to know his subjects and developing the trust required to take their pictures and record their stories.

His previous projects have included documenting life in Montrose, Pennsylvania, a town thrown into upheaval by gas fracking, and women in the profession of Roller Derby.

However, unlike those, Poster's connection to his newest body of work, “If She Has A Pulse, She Has A Chance,” is a deeply personal one. Poster himself is in recovery from addiction, and he regularly volunteers at Turning Point of Windham County.

“I often get close to the people I photograph, but it's unusual for me to become involved in a subject connected to my own life,” Poster says in a press release for this show. “As a young man, I was addicted to heroin. In 1970, I left everything and everyone I knew in Philadelphia and moved to Derby, Vermont.

“With the help of methadone and new friends, I began the long process of recovery and personal reinvention. Now, 47 years later, I volunteer at Turning Point. When I'm not facilitating group recovery meetings, I make photographs of the people I meet and listen to their stories.”

Poster moved back to Vermont seven years ago. He had recently retired after many years as a professional in the wood industry, and he thought it would be a good idea to use his new free time giving back to the community by volunteering. Poster chose Turning Point, because from his own experience he felt he knew a bit about the realities of addiction that might turn out to be useful.

After a while volunteering at Turning Point, Poster decided to do what he normally does as a documentary photographer: tell people's stories with pictures.

“I did not volunteer at Turning Point with this idea in mind,” he says, “but it soon became apparent that this would be a fine subject to pursue.”

Poster wants to make clear that his subject in “If She Has A Pulse, She Has A Chance,” is not addiction, but recovery from addiction.

“Addiction is a very different story,” he says. “That is a tale of hardship and grief, while recovering is a triumphant journey for those with the courage to make it.”

A source of pride

Unlike the classic vision of AA with its anonymity, Poster found that most people in recovery actually like to be photographed. “They're proud of the fact that they are overcoming their addiction,” he explains.

Poster has done quite a few projects where he would spend a long time with a group of people and get to know them so he could photograph them in their day-to-day life.

“The shortest time I ever spend on such a project has been one year and the longest has been six,” he says. “The project is more about getting to know the people I meet, and becoming part of the process of their lives. I have done projects with women's roller derby and the Messianic Community in Bellows Falls.

“In the end, the photos seem almost extra. My intention is to show often misunderstood groups of people beyond prejudiced preconceptions people may have of them.”

All of Poster's work is an attempt to open up for people a world they may not have experienced first-hand.

“People may have an idea about roller derby, for instance, but the reality turns out to be a little different than what most thought,” he says. “Similarly, I hoped to introduce the Basin Farm Messianic Community of Bellows Falls to the broader community of Vermont.”

Nonetheless. the work Poster had done on recovery is different from anything he has ever done - in part because it is so personal.

“I still consider myself in recovery,” he explains. “Although my heroin addiction may have occurred in Philadelphia in the 1970s, you never really stop being in recovery. You might say that I have been for 48 years a recovering addict.”

Poster notes that recovery is a very difficult, life-long process.

“I thought it a good topic to tackle because I certainly know the issue, and it seemed a good fit for a photography project,” he says. “I could understand what was going on with these folks from a very personal perspective.”

Poster thinks that Brattleboro is the best town in the best state to deal with addiction, but in the end that isn't saying all that much.

“There are so many agencies and people here trying to help those in recovery, but it's still horrible trying to face up to your addiction problems,” he says. “Even here, there remain the formidable problems with insurance, as well as the sheer difficulty, however much assistance there may be, in overcoming addiction. The problems that cause addiction are so personal that no broad-based solution really can work for everyone.”

'You can't give up on people'

Poster feels that the title of his show, “If She Has A Pulse, She Has A Chance,” says it all.

“You can't give up on people,” he says. “By and large the Brattleboro community is good at keeping the faith, and they are able to value each and anyone's worth. Even though relapses and other troubles disrupt the path, there is still hope for all addicts.”

Poster also wants this show to address stigma.

“There is always hope while we're still breathing,” he says. “You never know what will happen tomorrow that will turn one's life around.”

Four discussion events will be presented as part of the exhibit.

• On Thursday, Oct. 11, Dr. Maria Gallo of Clean Slate Centers for Addiction Treatment in Greenfield, Mass., discusses the effects of drug addiction on the brain and central nervous system.

• On Wednesday, Oct. 17, participants in the writing group Writers for Recovery read their work.

• On Thursday, Nov. 29, Poster will discuss his life and work with BMAC Chief Curator Mara Williams.

• On Thursday, Dec. 13, BMAC will host a panel discussion on addiction and recovery in the community, moderated by Geoff Kane, M.D., Chief of Addiction Services at The Brattleboro Retreat.

Susan Avery, Lt. Adam Petlock of the Brattleboro Police Department, Suzie Walker of Turning Point of Windham County, and Kurt White of The Brattleboro Retreat will share their perspectives on addiction and recovery resources in the Brattleboro area.

Lichtenfeld says he's “very proud of Michael's show, and our collaborative project with other agencies in the area addressing addiction. I hope the community will find time to come see the exhibit or attend one of the related events.”

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