Portraits of Recovery

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Portraits of Recovery

By Regina Walker 02/19/15

Photographer Jill Bauer tells The Fix about The Rooms Project, and her effort to show the inspiration and dignity of recovery.

Image: 
Jill Bauer
Jill Bauer Jill Bauer

“Each person I meet tells part of my own story. I have yet to find someone to which I cannot relate through my own experience.” - Jill Bauer

His name is Scott, and  in his picture he looks like a perfect stereotype of an all-American boy: square jawed, clean cut and clean-shaven, with smile lines around his eyes. He looks younger than his age—late 40s—but his boyish air is belied by the story he tells under the photograph. Scott says that he stopped drinking nine years ago, at the age of 39, but before then, drinking was the defining element in his life. His father, a World War II veteran, began his day with a cup of coffee and a can of beer—"Piels," recalls Scott, "the good stuff." Scott followed in his father's footsteps. He managed to get as far as a first year at Rutgers, before things started to fall apart; by the time he decided to stop drinking he'd managed to burn down his mother's house by accident ("thank God she wasn't there," he says) and ended up living out of a 1995 Buick Regal.

It's my hope that anyone who visits the site will find someone like them.

Today, though, Scott's been sober for nine years, and he managed to get back to Rutgers to finish his degree—"I did find out something about college," he says, "it's a lot easier if you buy books and go to class."  

Scott

Scott’s story is just one of many that have been collected on The Rooms Project—a combination of portrait photographs and first-person stories (both written and audio) about addiction and recovery. 

The Rooms Project is the creation of Jill Bauer. Ms. Bauer has been in recovery for over a year and was inspired to quit using drugs and alcohol through meeting someone on social media. By photographing people in recovery, and encouraging them to tell their stories from a place of pride in their accomplishments in recovery, Bauer hopes to give others the same sense of inspiration, hope and identification. 

Bauer tells The Fix, “I've been in recovery for about two years now, but it took me a really long time to get where I am today. I spent a solid 12 years of my life a slave to drugs and alcohol. It wasn't until I had a series of crises that I truly was ready for help. I ended up reaching out to a Facebook friend, who I knew peripherally in real life, but who I knew was clean and sober through their status updates. This was a person that dressed like me, listened to the same music as me, had the same sense of humor as me—and I related to them. I thought, "Well if this person is in recovery, then maybe I could be, too."

"They essentially carried me into a 12-step recovery program, where I unexpectedly found so many more people like myself. For my one-year anniversary, I decided to start this project in an attempt to bring people into the light. It's really my attempt to help people identify with individuals living in recovery from addiction and alcoholism, just like I identified with the person I identified with through social media. Had they not been open about their recovery, I'm not sure I'd be where I am today. For this reason, the individuals are photographed in their own environments, to call attention to the variety of people living in recovery today. My other goal is to capture them in a dignified manner, in a place where they're proud to be. It's my hope that anyone who visits the site—whether they are in recovery, not in recovery, or questioning their drug and alcohol use—they will find someone like them.”

Beth—one of the many people in recovery that Bauer profiles—has a long history of substance abuse. Her story is complicated by trauma and mental illness. Beth has lost some of her children to “the system” but is now over two years sober. Beth was raised by alcoholics, and was abused by her father, but came to terms with her need for treatment and sobriety instead of the self-medicating she was doing with alcohol. Said Beth, “If I go too long without working any kind of a program, I can’t survive. It has saved my life, this fellowship. The people I’ve met are amazing. I have a friend in Florida. I get to go down and visit her every few months. I never was able to do that before.”

Beth

For Bauer, The Rooms Project is a way of projecting hope. She says the goal of this project is "to give recovery a voice through the stories of experience, strength, and hope often heard in 'the rooms' of recovery support groups and meetings. It is my hope that through this site—whether visitors are in recovery, not in recovery, or questioning their drug and alcohol use—they will find someone like them.”

“I'm focused on anyone who is abstinent from drugs and alcohol, though the people on the site are generally in some sort of recovery support group, either 12-step or non 12-step," says Bauer. "The idea behind the project is to provide the stories of experience, strength and hope that one might hear in a 12 step or other recovery group meeting, but the individuals featured on the site aren't required to be part of a 12-step organization.”

The road of recovery can be a rocky one, which can, for some, include detours back to old behaviors and coping mechanisms. When I asked Bauer about her plans to follow up with her subjects over time, she stated, “Since I've formed personal relationships with the people featured, I do keep in touch. As the project progresses, I plan to touch base with everyone on the site every few months or so in case any updates might be needed.”

How is her project unique from several other similar series? Bauer says, "For one, the individuals on the site are featured in their own environment, as opposed to in a studio setting. I feel like placing people in their natural settings adds a layer of authenticity to the individuals featured and makes them more relatable to a general audience."

"Betty Ford taught us all that individuals living in recovery deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, so my goal with the photographs is to show the audience that these are dignified individuals who are proud of the settings in which they're featured. I think it also helps connect for the audience that these are everyday people like their mom, their brother, their boss or their friend, who just happen to be living in recovery. Secondly, I think the depth of the content sets this apart from other projects. Here you have a face, a voice, text to read and context for why the individual is featured where they are featured.”

The Rooms Project is a beautiful, honest tapestry of the day-to-day struggle and triumphs of those dealing with addiction. The photographs and stories invite us into the personal worlds of those trekking the road to a different future.

For Bauer, it's a labor of love, and one she intends to pursue long term. “My short-term goal for this project is to feature 100 individuals on the site by December 2015. Once that goal is met, I plan to work on this as a long-term documentary project, meeting with people wherever I go. Currently, I'm raising money through February 21st for three recovery road trips. One is from Philadelphia to Chicago, one is from Philadelphia to Portland, ME, and one is from Philadelphia to Miami. I'll be stopping in more than 20 cities along the way to feature people on the site.”

The Rooms Project is currently raising money to enhance the project to include a greater range of subjects in different states throughout the USA. Please visit their Kickstarter project page if you are interested in learning more.

“When I was drinking I was getting insanely, bat-shit drunk, absolutely bat-shit drunk, and resembled no part of my actual self while I was intoxicated.” - Jill Bauer

Regina Walker is a regular contributor to The Fix. She recently wrote about the life and suicide of Audrey Kishline, the founder of Moderation Management, as well as an appreciation of the life of Ernie Kurtz.

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