Tony DeJohn has a gravelly voice, which belies his reserved and soft-spoken demeanor. A lifelong Ohioan, he calls himself an "Italian hillbilly" and counts among his hobbies walking, watching sports and "helping people."
And drugs. Specifically, meth.
But DeJohn is more than the drugs he's addicted to. At least, that is what one local photographer is attempting to convince viewers of through a portrait exhibit that's coming to Cincinnati in January 2019.
With his show Faces of Addiction, Eric Hatch aims to humanize addicts through black-and-white portraiture and storytelling. He hopes to reach his goal of profiling 50 addicts—many from the Greater Cincinnati area—before his first show at Christ Church Cathedral on Fourth Street, which runs January 17-February 28. (He's currently at 48. So far, one subject has died from her addiction.) In June, the show moves to the Rhodes Office Tower lobby, across the street from the State Capitol in Columbus. A print book and short documentary are also in the works.
This isn't, of course, the first such project of its kind. But Hatch says his is different in that it is not a collection of "horror shots." He photographs addicts where they are, literally and figuratively, using only available light for the portraits.
That means no crews, no special lighting—only Hatch and his subject at whatever location they happen to be in at the moment, be it a street corner or the front porch of a flophouse in Hamilton, where WVXU met Hatch and DeJohn one morning in July.
"You cannot see this stuff or experience it without realizing that you're looking at a real, individual person with a life—loves, hates and sometimes left ambitions—and all of them are suffering horribly," Hatch says. "You suddenly realize you are dealing with human beings and that makes compassion possible."
DeJohn is one of Hatch's subjects, and is now one of his most diligent recruiters. DeJohn currently is in active recovery, attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings twice a week as ordered by the court. But a few days before WVXU met with him, he relapsed.
"I was just around a bunch of people doing it and they offered it to me," DeJohn says. "I'm 62 and it makes you feel like you’re 32."
Still, he's motivated to change. After being in the room with a friend who overdosed, and watching paramedics unsuccessfully try to revive him with Narcan, he decided to quit. He again decided to quit after his girlfriend got a blood infection from using needles.
His health, he says, is also a factor. He had a heart attack 15 years ago (though doctors do not believe it was related to his drug use). Doctors now think he may have multiple sclerosis, a neurological condition that can affect a person’s mobility and cognitive function.
DeJohn fell into drugs in high school, where he was big into sports. Drugs helped him play better, he says. He even had a few colleges looking at him to play football. "But I unfortunately got a girl pregnant and you had to be really, really good for them to sweep that under the rug," he says with a tentative smile.
Today he is a father to two grown children, a son and a daughter, whom he sees regularly. "(My son is) dead-set against (drugs)," DeJohn says. "I think one of the reasons why is that he's seen me like that. Not very often, but he has seen it."
And now he wants to show current addicts that they, too, can change, or at least try. Participating in Faces of Addiction is one way, but he'll also offer fellow addicts a place to stay when he can, though he doesn't currently have a place of his own. He also invites them to NA meetings. "I had about 12 people say they were going to come and none showed up," he recalls. "It kind of ticked me off."
For Hatch, disappointment is just one part of the story he's trying to tell. "I do want to be able to show that recovery is a possibility for some people," he says. "A disappointingly small possibility for a number of people, but it is possible, and I want to show that too."
Hatch is motivated to tell stories like DeJohn's because he's lived through versions of it. "My father was an alcoholic, my brother was bipolar and schizophrenic and self-medicated with anything under the sun," he shares. "He finally committed suicide."
The end goal of Faces of Addiction may be compassion, but not just within the viewer.
"The people I've interviewed, many of them feel uplifted by the experience," Hatch says. "They feel glad to do something for somebody else, feel that they’ve been listened to. People need to feel listened to and acknowledged for just being human, which is the point of this project."
Visit facesofaddiction.net to learn more and click the photo above to preview some of Hatch's portraits before the January show.