The world of drug addiction, often foreign and distant to us, is closer than imagined. Many stories told throughout the years show that addiction makes no distinction of social-economic status, race, cultural background, or country of origin because it is a problem rooted in the human condition. Ulla Deventer (@ulladeventer) documented moments in the life of people fighting to liberate themselves from drugs in Gorod bez narkotikov (City Without Drugs).
While Deventer was completing a different assignment in Russia, she had the opportunity to document the life of the women and men who were living in the NGO City Without Drugs, there she found something special and returned to discover a deeper and stronger story, she witnessed the lives of the people who lived in these rehabilitation centers as family, the centers were run by rehabilitated members, therefore, generating an indefinite time for them to live in the houses to recover and help others.
Through City Without Drugs, Deventer is exploring the themes of status quo, belonging and how the norm affects life choices, the pictures are portraits of marginalized people who were having a difficult time conforming with the norm because drug addicts are often excluded from society, the members of the NGO were constantly judged by the neighbors in town.
Regarding the approach of the project, Deventer said - “I wanted to tell a different perspective on the so-called drug-addicted, I wanted to just show them as human beings, my aim is to make people feel close and connected to those people, not to show them as someone different to judge or look down on”. It is also important to the interpretation of the series to avoid the perception of the subjects as victims.
During her first days in the house, Ulla started as a common observer, but she felt uncomfortable and distant from the members of the house. After putting down the camera she started creating a stronger bond with the women and afterward with the men, in this process she was able to tell the story about the humans who suffer from drug addiction instead of the story of drug addiction. Through the staged photoshoots, the subjects expressed their voice because they had control of the styling, makeup and chose the pictures they liked the most.
Deventer remarks that City Without Drugs as a documentary project intends to narrate beyond the common image of drug addiction, she says -“we constantly entertain ourselves with the marginalized, we enjoy looking down on them to feel superior” as a documentalist she enforces the responsibility of being truthful to the people in the pictures and in doing so defying the preconceived perspective and prejudices the audience has of the ones who are addicted to a drug. The author expresses that the approach she took in this series, more personal and collaborative, was a turning point in her later works, she started thinking critically about the power a photographer holds in their position as documentalists.
For different reasons and problems that the NGO faced, the rehabilitation centers no longer exist like they did when Deventer was there, mostly due to the lack of support and non-compliance with national regulations because of their self-organized nature. After these, the Russian government started opening its centers.
Almost ten years after the creation of the series the message the author wishes to convey is important to the present - “Start looking more critically at what we consider to be normal because violence starts in the taboos and unspoken truths hidden within the norm” this violence later translates into stigmatization and dehumanization of the ones who do not fit in.
Ulla Deventer is a German photographer and visual artist, currently based in Ghana, she acquired her degree in Master of fine arts in photography at the Koninklijke Academie Voor Schone Kunsten Antwerp in Belgium and is currently studying her Ph.D. at the Kwame Nkrumah University for Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. She has worked on several international projects and has been in exhibitions across the world. As an artist, she uses different media such as text, video, and textile. She describes her focus is on themes about “sexuality, taboos, longing, and isolation” and she is particularly interested in issues that affect women’s lives, identity, and expectations. Deventer is a member of the TIME-LABS: Cuba Photography Mission, supported by VLIR-UOS Belgium.