2015–

GOOD BAD PEOPLE

In-progress collaboration with Heith Copes, Ph.D, University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Criminology.
(select works)

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In April 1862 – just a year into the American Civil War – the New York Times reported on a dispatch from Union troops titled, “Advance into Alabama.” It read:

An hour before sundown we reached another barren region inhabited by poor white trash. Their houses were of the worst imaginable description, and how they managed to obtain a living upon such as soil, was a problem to us. Yet hither the pitiless monopoly of the slaveholding class had driven them, and, by some means were other, they managed to wring sufficient food to keep themselves and their children from starving, out of these inhospitable rocks.[i]

Impressions of Alabama have changed little in 150 years, particularly as the roots of deep poverty have perpetuated class division and precipitated widespread drug addiction. The rise in use of methamphetamine across the American South over the last decade has led to increased cultural anxiety about the drug and those who use it, while the general perception of the meth-head is perpetuated by popular television programs and pervasive anti-meth campaigns. These limited representations typically paint one-dimensional, demonized characters whose chronic drug use is epitomized by obsessiveness, paranoia, and monstrous physical side effects. But while there are certainly deleterious consequences to meth use and stereotypes often ring too true, existing cultural narratives too often fall short of individually considered realities.

Photographed over two years in collaboration with sociologist Heith Copes, Ph.D., GOOD BAD PEOPLE uses traditional ethnographic and documentary methods to simultaneously reinforce and undermine assumptions of what it means to be a methamphetamine user and present an empathetic, intimate look into the complicated lives of those who struggle amidst drug use and diminished social status.

Southern authors have long employed irony and the grotesque to reflect social realities and critique the cultural character of the American South. Traditionally, Southern Gothic literature has described the South as a deeply flawed place, where the lives of eccentric characters are shaped by poverty, alienation, crime, and violence as they struggle through morally questionable actions to make sense of the world around them. The broken, often sinister, characters in stories by Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Harry Crews embody madness, despair, and decay to upend conventional cultural understandings.

Similarly, GOOD BAD PEOPLE tells the complex, often contradictory stories of more than 30 meth users from Sand Mountain, a sandstone plateau in northeast Alabama infamous for extreme poverty, poultry processing plants, Pentecostal snake-handlers, and meth production. The project includes the stories of Chico, a 48-year-old ex-convict, meth dealer, and self-proclaimed member of the Aryan Brotherhood; Ryan and Alice, a young runaway couple on the brink of a lifetime of addiction; Mono, a former member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang; Willow, a chronic binge user who lived in more than six homes in less than nine months; and Fred, a long-time addict who lost everything he owned in a house fire.

Undoubtedly, each viewer will interpret the stories told by the images differently. Although these interpretations can be stigmatizing, they may also humanize those who use meth and thereby facilitate more complex, implicit narratives, focus attention to an often derided and misunderstood population, and engage with the current conversation concerned with the pivotal political role and cultural identity of the marginalized rural American South.

[i] “Gen. Mitchell’s March Into Alabama”. The New York Times. April 14, 1862.



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GOOD BAD PEOPLE press and bibliography:

David Alm, This Controversial Project Spotlights Meth And The People Who Use It, Forbes

Lucy Frisch, Caught Being Stupid, Before the Abstract podcast

Ann Jastrab, Good Bad People, All About Photo

Copes, Heith, Whitney Marsh, Fiona Brookman, Jared Ragland. “Photo-elicitation Interviews with Vulnerable Populations: Practical and Ethical Considerations.” Deviant Behavior, in press.

Copes, Heith, Whitney Marsh, Jennifer Kim, Jared Ragland. “Symbolic Perceptions of Methamphetamine: Differentiating between Ice and Shake.” International Journal of Drug Policy, January 2018, Volume 51.

Copes, Heith, Jared Ragland. “Considering the Implicit Meanings in Photographs in Narrative Criminology.” Crime Media Culture, 12: 271, August 2016. DOI: 10.1177/1741659015623599

Copes, Heith. “Caught Being Stupid: The Emotional Labor of Doing Fieldwork with People Who Use Methamphetamine.” In R. Shukla and M. Boeri (Eds.). Ethnography Uncut: Narratives of Research among Hidden Populations. University of California Press, in press.

Payne, Brian K., Willard M. Oliver, Nancy E. Marion. Introduction to Criminal Justice: A Balanced Approach, 2nd Edition. SAGE Publications, Inc., in press.

Copes, Heith. “Hvordan jeg blev taget i at vaer dum: Mit feltarbejde på Sand Mountain, Alabama” (“Caught Being Stupid: My Fieldwork on Sand Mountain, Alabama”). STOF, 28, Summer 2017. Translated into Danish by Sebastien Tutenges.

Catherine Wilkins. “Foreign Domestic: Identification and Differentiation as Pedagogical Strategy in Good Bad People.” Focal Plane, July 2016.


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JC, 26. “I’ve been inside mental institutions and juvenile units, prisons, and jail. This blocks my memories and emotions out, so I feel no pain, I feel no fear. That’s why I do it. And it also keeps me awake 24-48 hours, depending on how I go, how long I smoke. I have been up for 3 days and I have had 2 hours of sleep.” A longtime user, JC has a list of prior manufacturing and distribution convictions, including a 2015 arrest in which two pounds of methamphetamine with an estimated street value of more than $77,000 was seized.


Alice, 21. Alice first started smoking meth with her ex-boyfriend, Ryan, last year. The two committed a string of robberies and after Ryan was arrested, Alice moved in with meth dealer named Chico and began using with needles. Alice claims that Chico held her against her will and injected her with meth while she slept. Weeks after this picture was made local police raided Chico’s trailer and took Alice to her grandmother’s house.


Legal, 22. Legal is a petty drug dealer and easy target for the local police; he is arrested regularly and often exchanges information for early release. Legal justifies his dealing by never physically handing drugs to anyone; instead, he places the drugs on a table for his buyer to pick up themselves.


Legal’s mother, known locally as “Mama,” walks to her mailbox at 1:00 a.m. Mama is a meth and synthetic marijuana user with chronic health issues. She looks after people in the trailer park and can often be found cooking or comforting her neighbors.


Mono, 40. Mono arranges clothes for a garage sale. Together with another user, he sold just enough to buy a quarter gram of meth, hardly enough to split and both get high. “Meth makes me forget about my problems, it makes me not think about them. Look, I might use and all that, but… I’m one of the good bad people. I’m a good, bad person. That’s what I tell everybody.”


Michael, 8. Michael is the son of meth users. The first time Michael’s mother, used meth she went on a five day binge. On the fifth day she woke up to find her oldest son drowning in the bathtub. The boy was resuscitated, but he and the woman’s other children were taken from her care. Michael is the only child who remained in her custody.


Chico, 48. Chico, wearing a Dia de los Muertos mask, sits in his living room under a swastika, the US Constitution, and a Confederate flag. Chico has used meth nearly every day since the late nineties. He lives in a mobile home on family property, refuses to receive treatment for Hepatitis C, and uses his disability checks to fund his habit. A self-proclaimed member of the Aryan Brotherhood, Chico (who is of Mexican heritage) often paints large swastikas, anarchy symbols, and threatening words on the interior and exterior walls of his trailer to project a menacing persona. But after police took Alice away, Chico spent weeks reading and rereading a letter she had left for him. He even bought a new smartphone so he could try and reach her through Facebook. During one visit to his home he sought consolation, embracing me as he cried into my shoulder, brokenhearted.


Jean, 46. Jean uses and sells meth and is known for her violent temper. She is currently in a custody battle for her niece with her sister, Lee, who is also a meth user.


Jennifer, 38. Jennifer was coming down from a meth binge and had not eaten in more than three days. In addition to finding a frozen pizza in the cooler, she also found a bottle of what she suspected was frozen urine, kept to pass drug tests.


Willow, 37. Willow tries to inject but struggles to find a vein, sticking herself half a dozen times before blaming me for making her nervous with the camera. Willow is a chronic binge user who lived in more than six homes in less than nine months.


Chelsea, 48. A preacher’s daughter and college graduate, Chelsea struggles to justify her ongoing meth use and homosexuality with her conservative, Pentecostal upbringing. She currently lives in a small tool shed where she and her friends used to meet to get high.


Pat, 49. Pat recently suffered a heart attack but continues to smoke meth.


Billy, Chico’s housemate. Billy and Chico spent weeks together evading local police and feeding off each other’s heightened, meth-induced sense of paranoia. They had abandoned their trailer and moved from place to place in hopes of avoiding arrest. Only hours after this photograph was made both were jailed on a variety of charges, including possession of illegal substances.




Ryan, 22. Upon his release from jail Ryan walked more than 20 miles from the sheriff’s office to his parent’s house in a neighboring county. He had served three months for stealing from friends, family and strangers to support his meth habit. While in jail he found Jesus, became a born again Christian and swore off meth, but he was turned away by his father when he arrived back home. After reuniting with his ex-girlfriend, Alice, he moved into a trailer with her and began using again, this time with needles.


Fred, 53. Fred lived in a house he inherited from his mother, sharing the spare bedrooms with fellow meth users. He spends $500-600 a month on his habit. The house burned down after a housemate got high and set a fire in the living room. Fred lost his three dogs along with everything he owned. Because he had nowhere else to go he remained in the soot-filled charred remains with three other users for months. “I gave him food and clothes and a place to sleep,” said Fred, “and he took the only thing my parents left me. I don’t know what to do.


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