"The Hidden South" Gives a Voice to Marginalized People Living with Addiction

By Dorri Olds 05/25/16

Brent Walker tells The Fix about his photojournalism project about addiction and recovery, and how his own personal story of recovery inspired him.

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"The Hidden South" Gives a Voice to Marginalized People Living with Addiction
Jaydee

The Hidden South is an in-depth photojournalism project about addiction and recovery that culminated in a book which was released earlier this year. Author, photographer—and recovering addict—Brent Walker came up with the idea in September 2014. By 2015, he had enough followers to fund his book via Kickstarter.

The Hidden South—Come Home gives a voice to marginalized addicts, many of whom live in dire circumstances. He interviewed a wide spectrum: those still using, others struggling to get and stay clean, and those who are in recovery trying to rebuild their lives. 

The Fix was fascinated by the project and wanted to hear Walker’s personal story of recovery and what inspired him to document the lives of the downtrodden.

Tory

“I was 17 when I went to my first AA meeting,” Walker said. “I don’t think I was an alcoholic or an addict yet. I was just a screwed up teenager and didn’t know what to do about it. Nobody else knew either. AA was really the only support group available. I think that’s why I gravitated towards it. I was in and out of AA throughout my 20s. In my early 30s, I finally told my mom about being molested when I was a kid. Getting that secret off my shoulders didn’t heal everything, but it helped and certainly gave me a place to start healing.”

Walker shared that he was 12 when “an old man in the park approached me. He had a porn magazine in his back pocket and showed it to me. He took me into the [park] bathroom. A week later, the guy got busted doing it to somebody else.”

Dennis

Walker said he had always hated the AA saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” When I asked why, he said, “I would have taken a bullet rather than divulge that information.” But after years of trying to get sober his way, he was tired of failing.

“In my early 30s, I called my mom on a lunch break at work and told her about it. She cried and said she was sorry. She wished she could have done something, but I didn’t tell anybody, so she couldn’t have. We’d lived right across the street from the park, and at the time it was thought to be safe for kids to go there by themselves. I was born in ’71, so that would’ve been like 1983.”

That secret’s crushing load had held power over him—but not anymore, he said. “I really don’t have any problem talking about it now. The more you talk about it, the easier it gets.”

Jaydee

Walker lives in Newnan, a conservative suburb outside of Atlanta, Georgia. “If you look at the numbers of the way we vote, it’s super conservative,” said Walker, “I’ve lived here for eight-and-a-half years and you find your people after a while… 

“I've had debates with super-conservatives who ask, ‘Why can't these people just pull themselves up?’ [They] give me examples of how they pulled themselves up out of bad times. But their stories almost always involve family or somebody else helping them.”

Nearly all of Walker’s subjects have scant options. I commented that it did not sound like he’d be voting for Trump. He replied, “I would sooner die.”

I asked if conservative attitudes found their way into local AA meetings. He said, “I’m not Christian. I’m not any religion. I believe in something, and I’m perfectly okay with not knowing what that something is right now, but I do have a problem with the Christian sound of some AA meetings here in the South. I intentionally stay away from anything religious, but there are some [meetings] that are very much about Jesus and that bothers me to no end. It’s wrong because it’s not inclusive and not welcoming for people who don’t believe that way. A lot of people are just like me. They come in with a lot of religious baggage. The second they hear that BS, they hit the door. AA is a last stop. It’s doing a tremendous disservice by hitting them over the head with Jesus when they walk in the door.”

Timothy

Walker made it clear that he is not on a mission to rope anyone into the program. Despite the candor in The Hidden South stories, he steers clear of preaching to anyone but says that if they are ever in need of a ride to a meeting, or if they want help, he’ll make himself available. He hands them a business card and says they can call.

“There’s 103 people in the book,” Walker said. “I don’t have a way to contact a lot of them, but there are people I bump into. Tory, for example, is one of the people smoking crack and I see her a lot. Her story was about me taking her to the treatment center, and I’m working on another story about her now. It’ll be a multimedia piece. I showed her a copy of the book, and she said she wanted her own copy. I told her if she got into treatment, after a week I’d give her a copy.”

Tory

Book excerpt of Tory’s story:

[Heroin] destroys your mind and you have to work ten times harder to get your mind back. You play yourself the whole time, thinking that your mind’s still the same. But you’re really in a delusion. It’s very selfish, when you do drugs.

Next, Walker spoke about Jerome, whose photo is displayed on the back cover. “He became very successful and was having a normal, successful life. Then he chose to go back into the depths of addiction. He and his wife were making over $300,000 a year and had a really fruitful life, but when I met him he was begging for $5 to buy his next hit of crack.”

Jerome

Book excerpt of Jerome’s story:

For the first four or five years [of our marriage] we were really focused on business. We ran two different businesses. We had a property management company and a residential remodeling company. We focused on that and maintaining our own rental properties. It [a lack of intimacy in the marriage] bothered me but it wasn’t as bad because we were busy… [but due to] the crash of the housing market, you go from making in the $300s [thousands] for about four or five years… we had the company doing 1.8 million at its peak and then it all goes down the tubes.

I wouldn’t wish this [addiction] on nobody… It’s formed a wedge between myself and everybody else. You don’t let nobody get close to you. Me personally, I’m shame based and I have a lot of guilt associated with it. It’s a perpetual cycle. Just knowing that you’re really out of character and that you can’t be free.

Ela

"Ela is towards the end of the book," Walker said. "Ela became a friend. She would show me parts of town and we’d hang out. But Ela was a heroin addict and she died from an overdose."

Book excerpt of Ela's story

I usually sleep in a stairwell because it’s like half-closed and kind of warm. One night it was so cold that I had to start a little fire with a magazine. It was just that cold. I couldn’t get warm…

[The best day of my life] was when my son was born… He lives with my parents ’cause I’m so fucked up… It’s been seven years since I’ve had a drink or any of the hard stuff [but] I probably won’t get sober ’til he’s grown and the damage is done.

I asked Walker if he finds himself too deeply intertwined with those he interviews. “I think I put up a protective wall,” he said. “I’m not a trained psychologist but I do what psychologists must have to learn to do. I put a separation between me and the subject.”

He explained that the difficulty for him isn’t during an interview because he is focused on getting the story and photographs. "But when I go back and I listen to it later," he said, "that’s when it sucker-punches me. But this is the way that I give back. A lot [of AAs] sponsor folks, or they take meetings into prisons. This is my service work."

These days, in between speaking engagements and teaching, Walker is now working on Part 2 of The Hidden South. You can contact him via thehiddensouth.com.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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