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Ethically Representing Drug Use: Photographs and Ethnographic Research with People Who Use Methamphetamine

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Published onOct 01, 2019
Ethically Representing Drug Use: Photographs and Ethnographic Research with People Who Use Methamphetamine


The use of photographs in criminological research can be an important tool for both collecting data and illustrating findings. When used in published research, photographs can aid in viewers connecting with the subject matter and the participants. However, photographs can also reify and reinforce cultural stereotypes. We believe that the potential damage done by including photographs can be mitigated when the photographs are properly contextualized. Our aim here is to argue for the value of contextualized photographs in research with those who engage in crime or deviance. We illustrate how by including the stories of participants and ourselves we can complicate cultural narratives and act as counter-visuals for stigmatized images found in the media.


The expansive use of methamphetamine (meth) across the United States has led to increased cultural anxiety about the drug and those who consume it. The general narrative of meth use, which highlights its destruction on people’s lives, has been heavily influenced by popular television programs and pervasive anti-meth visual campaigns (Linnemann, Hanson, & Williams, 2013; Linnemann & Wall, 2013). Such narratives cast people who use meth as primarily poor Whites who hail from rural areas in the American South and West. Their lives are portrayed to be chaotic and their behavior is assumed to be unpredictably violent. Chronic meth use is thought to have brought about serious changes in users’ personalities (becoming increasingly obsessive and paranoid) and to have damaged irreparably their physical appearance (e.g., excessive weight loss, decaying teeth, and open sores). Undoubtedly, the public’s perceptions of how those who use meth look (i.e., the “faces of meth”) are strongly influenced by the graphic images that are prevalent in media (Linnemann & Wall, 2013).

While there are certainly deleterious effects of meth use and the stereotypes often ring true, existing narratives and imagery fall short of describing the more complex, and contradictory, realities of people’s lives. Indeed, people are complex. Even those who use meth daily are more than the stigmatized monsters portrayed in media (Boeri, 2013; Marsh, Copes, & Linnemann, 2017). They can be caring mothers, dedicated friends, and sympathetic listeners. But these sides to them are easy to ignore or brush aside when confronted with images of them on their worst days (e.g., mugshots). While we do not wish to romanticize those who use meth, we do think it is important to see them as the complex people they are. With this in mind, we engaged in a photo-ethnography of people who use meth in rural Alabama with a larger goal of acting as a counter-narrative and counter-visual to these general perceptions. Our aim was to go beyond presenting mere visuals and instead explicate the meaning of these visuals to produce and present contextualized, representative images of people who use meth. Our aim for the project was to understand how people who use meth in rural Alabama make sense of their lives and navigate their drug use within the context of rural poverty. To depict the worlds of those who use meth, we documented their stories through interviews and observations and illustrate aspects of their lives through photographs (including photographs we took and photographs they contributed)

Although we learned a great deal through using traditional ethnographic methods, we discovered that the photographs were valuable tools for eliciting responses and aiding in relaying participants stories (see Copes et al., 2018). The photographs helped us represent participants in ways text alone could not (Barthes, 1978). We found that the inclusion of photographs in our academic publishing and presentations aided in drawing audiences into the lives of the participants. With the photographs, our work was no longer purely abstract. Indeed, the photographs helped bring to life the multi-layered experiential reality of participants’ lives—in both narrative and visual form. In a field like criminology where researchers may be becoming increasingly detached from their subject matter, we believe that this connection with participants is much needed.1

While we found significant value in using photographs for the project, we were subject to criticism from some academics. People questioned the participants’ abilities to give consent for photographs, which we believe is a paternalistic belief that implies those who use drugs are incapable of having agency. However, some criticisms questioned our larger aim of acting as a counter-visual. Specifically, the inclusion of the images was interpreted by some as being “poverty porn.” At one academic presentation, a member in the audience said he felt like he was watching Jerry Springer. Another accused us of being unsympathetic to our participants. This last comment was most troubling as it was a direct attack on our research aims. Although we were surprised that some responded so negatively to the images, these early criticisms did cause us to think more about how we were representing people and how we should be representing them. We recognize that these criticisms came when we gave a presentation where we only included photographs. While we shared some stories, largely absent was their voices. In short, the photographs were decontextualized.

Decontextualized photographs can reinforce negative cultural stereotypes (Becker, 2007). When people are presented photos without context, they bring their own narratives and assumptions into interpreting them (Barthes, 1972). As such, it is not always possible to control how others interpret photographs, especially when the images depict politically and morally charged topics (Ferrell and Van de Voorde, 2010). Including photographs in research has the potential to harm participants in predictable and unpredictable ways; therefore, we must take care when doing so. We believe that by contextualizing the photographs with the stories and words of participants as well as our own analysis we can reduce the chances of misrepresenting them. Our aim with the current paper is to illustrate the value of photographs for representing those we study and to show how, by properly contextualizing the photographs, we can avoid reifying or validating stigma. Our focus is on how to represent people in a way that is true to their experiences, as well as our own, and to do so in a way that is neither overly romantic nor unduly critical. We believe this can be done by providing context (through our own stories and those of the participants) to photographs included in the final products.

Contextualizing our photographs and data

The photo-ethnography began in the summer of 2015 and lasted for approximately 18 months. All researcher-driven photographs were taken by documentary photographer Jared Ragland.2 Data collection consisted of formal interviews (with 52 participants), informal observations, and photography (of 29 participants). All participants were actively using meth and were living in rural, north Alabama at the time of the interviews; however, some did stop using over of the course of the project. To locate participants, we relied on a primary recruiter and on snowball sampling. The interviews took place at the recruiter’s home, participants’ homes, public parks, or other private areas (participants decided where they would like to meet for the interview). The researchers also relied on snowball sampling to extend the sample beyond the initial recruiter’s social networks. After the initial interview with a participant, the researchers asked if they could refer others to move beyond the initial recruiter’s network. We took photographs of participants (with their consent) and asked some participants to send photographs that they themselves had taken. Twenty-nine participants agreed to being photographed. Only five chose to send photographs.

While we draw on insights gained from our experiences from the project as a whole, here we focus on the photographs taken of and by one participant—Alice3—to illustrate the value of using contextualized photographs for representing participants. When we first met Alice, she was a 21-year-old woman who was daily using meth intravenously. Alice was a part of the project for over one year. During this time we visited her two or three days a week for four months and had monthly visits and consistent, regular contact through texting and social media for the other months.

In the time that we have known her, Alice’s drug use, relationships, employment, and housing changed regularly. During this period she has lived at several locations, including an isolated trailer with an older man named Chico, a trailer park known for chronic drug use and sales, a “dope house” where she helped to take care of the house, Bruce’s (her boyfriend) house where she made a home and helped care for his two children and younger brother, and finally to her own place that she rented with Bruce. She has gone from being alienated from most of her family and separated from her daughter to spending time with them regularly and having weekend visitation rights with her daughter. We have seen Alice’s meth use patterns change from daily use to not using for months at a time. At the time of this writing Alice has abstained from using meth for eighteen months and has passed several voluntary drug tests, including random ones for a new job.

We conducted fifteen formal interviews with Alice (six were photo-elicitation interviews) and had dozens of informal interactions and conversations with her.4 We audio-recorded all of the formal interviews with her. These interviews were semi-structured and focused on themes such as her background, relationships with her family, losing custody of her daughter, and her future aspirations. The photo-elicitation interviews focused on her reflections and interpretations of the photographs we took of her and of those she provided to us. For each of these interviews we prepared a photo interview kit (Cappello, 2005; Epstein et al., 2006), which included a series of pre-selected photographs. We showed the photographs to Alice on an iPad for convenience and portability.

We asked Alice to send us images. We began by giving her loosely defined requests, such as: “take photographs of things that make you happy or sad,” “of triggers to use as they arise,” and “of things that make it hard to quit.” Eventually, she began sending images that were not related to requests (photographs and screenshots of Facebook or text messaging from people in her life). Some of these images were of emotional times (pregnancy and fertility concerns, online verbal abuse from men, or unexpected positive messages from family members), while others seemed more mundane (food she cooked, closets she cleaned, and places she worked). Most of the images she sent to us were unrelated to the requests and instead detailed things that Alice thought significant to send us. These images included naturally occurring situations (e.g., an image of precursor ingredients to cook meth that she found in her mother’s washing machine) and posed photographs (e.g., self-portraits that reflected her current mood). These images were sent to either the lead author or the second author through texts, Snapchat, or Facebook messages (often to both via a group message). In addition, she would frequently show us photographs during our visits. When this happened, we would talk to her about what they meant to her and, if important to her, asked if she would electronically send them to us later. Sometimes she would send photos through text and we would ask questions about them through texting. In summary, the manner and frequency with which images were sent developed organically as we became more familiar with each other and the project progressed. Over the course of the project Alice sent us over 100 photographs or images. 

Representing Alice through photographs

A strength of using photographs in research is that they allow for multi-dimensional visual representations of participants, typically absent from the public’s reach. Photographs are valuable tools for collecting data, but they can also be used in published products to show aspects of people’s everyday lives not possible with just written words (see Agee & Evans, 1941). These representations can be chosen by the researchers or by the participants (Collier & Collier, 1986). A danger of introducing photographs into the final products of research is that we can represent participants in ways they may not like or ways that reproduce stigma. For example, few of the photographs Jared took included smiling faces and self-aware poses: The types of photographs people want to post on Facebook or Instagram or hang on their walls. Rather, the photographs captured the daily lives of participants and those around them, including times of stress and fatigue as well as the mundanity of daily life. Therefore, it would be easy to only include decontextualized photographs that reify the stigma of meth use (Becker, 2007). Image 1 easily fits the stereotype of the dysfunctional meth user who has succumbed to the drug that is found in many anti-meth campaigns (Marsh et al., 2017). In fact, this is an image Alice does not like for this reason. However, if contextualized adequately, this photograph acts as a form of “visual resistance” (David, 2007, p.251) to the stereotypes because it rejects a one-dimensional depiction and instead illustrates her sadness and struggles with overcoming the drug, but also her resilience. It illustrates her low point from which she rose. The accompanying story also highlights the despair and feelings of abandonment she felt, which provides more context to her representation.

Image 1. Alice feeling blurry

Note: Photo by Jared Ragland.

The night the photograph was taken Alice had agreed to meet us, but when we arrived she stopped replying to texts and was not where she asked us to meet her. As we were about to leave, she replied and told us she was nearby and that she still wanted to meet. When we met her she looked upset. She said she was worried about meeting us because she thought we would be disappointed by her recent relapse. She was wearing a long sleeve flannel shirt despite it being late July in Alabama and quite warm even at night. During an interview several months after the photograph was taken we showed her the image and asked, “Does this picture reflect who you are?” She said:

Alice: Yeah, actually [that night] was kind of blurry, it was kind of how my brain was.

Heith: Who are you here in this picture?

Alice: Lost, not sure what to do, where to go, who to turn to, who to trust, what’s real and what’s not. … You can obviously tell when I am high, I’m sure. I knew that y’all would know, so I felt bad for getting high because I knew y’all wanted to see me get better.

Heith: Of course we do.

Alice: But nobody else did, I didn’t even really care. I just wanted my daughter and couldn’t have her then, couldn’t have her tomorrow, or next week even probably, so just do something to make me feel a little bit better until I get there. Then I realized I’m lost, how am I gonna get there if I keep doing this?

This image captures a difficult moment in Alice’s life. Just the week before her boyfriend at the time, Ryan, was arrested, she was forced to move, she had relapsed, and she felt detached and alienated from her family. This led to her staying with a group of people who she did not fully trust. This photo represents the struggle she was experiencing with drug use. Alice, like many of those who use meth, struggled with the desire to quit but also the fear of doing so. Meth was both a cause of her loneliness and a means of coping with it. Feelings of being alone and without help were common among those with whom we spoke. They believed they had no help from those around them or from the state. Indeed, government resources for treatment were indeed scarce where our participants lived.

Much photojournalistic research on those who use drugs in rural areas highlights the poverty of their lives. It is common to see trailers, tattered clothes, and other symbols of economic distress in these collections. This has led to the criticism that photojournalism may be responsible for the publics’ perceptions of those who use drugs vis-à-vis poverty porn. Image 2 fits the trope of the rural, White meth user living in squalor. The trailer was owned by Chico, and Alice lived there for several months after she and Ryan were on the run from their families and the law. Ryan was eventually arrested for passing counterfeit money and, with nowhere else to go, Alice stayed with Chico. To antagonize local police, Chico had painted the outside of the trailer with anarchy symbols and swastikas. He flew a confederate flag above a tattered, upside down American flag. The inside of the trailer was messy and in a constant need of repair. The room Alice is sitting in was a bedroom that she claimed for herself. It was messy and over-packed with belongings making it hard to navigate.

It is easy to view this image as representing rural poverty. However, Alice spoke fondly of this room. It was a place for her to escape the hectic and chaotic world of those who came in and out of the trailer to buy, sell, and use meth. When asked her thoughts about this photo, Alice had positive things to say. For her it did not reflect the poverty she was living in or the stereotype of the rural user. Rather, it reminded her of sitting in front of a large bay window reading a book. As she said, “I loved that window. I’ve always wanted a bay window, where I could sit and read in it—kinda like I was in a movie or something. … It would be the escape to get outta the dark.” It was a place she could read, write, or simply be alone. It was a place of solitude where she could retain a sense of self. In a home that was often characterized by chaos, this was a place she created for herself. It was a place where she could escape the din of people tweaking, televisions running in the background, and the frequent chatter of people coming and going from the home.

Image 2. Alice’s window

Note: Photo by Jared Ragland.

Choosing photographs to represent participants can be difficult, perhaps even more difficult than selecting appropriate quotes from interviews (Copes et al., 2018). As researchers it is our job to synthesize the totality of the findings, analyze them, and interpret them. At times this means including photographs that the participants may not like because of the way they look or the symbols present in them. If we do not include such photographs when appropriate, we risk romanticizing those we study by only including the positive aspects of their lives. Accordingly, it is reasonable for researchers to have different views on the ways to represent participants. Image 3 is an image that we believe represents Alice, but one that she does not like. We believe this image represents a key component to Alice’s identity, and one that she often overlooked—her resiliency and good-natured spirit.

Image 3 was taken while Alice was staying with Ryan and several other friends in a trailer park known for widespread meth use. At the time she and Ryan had no place to live and moved into the trailer to help get back on their feet, even though they recognized the risk of living so close to people selling meth while they attempted to stop using. At this same time Chico was determined to use violence to get back at Alice for leaving him and Ryan for calling the police on him. Alice also believed she may have been pregnant (she was not) and knew that Ryan (the potential father) was being unfaithful. Despite the turmoil going on around her, she was able to find and create joy throughout her daily life. This remained true throughout our time with Alice. When we showed her this picture her initial response was that she did not like it because she was not wearing makeup. She said she usually wears makeup but at that time she did not have any because “it was all burnt by Chico.” She went on to say, “I’ve never really thought of all the bad stuff that’s going on around me. I know it’s been chaotic. I wouldn’t really call any of it bad because I did it to myself … so it’s my own fault that I have to deal with it.”  Like image 2, this photograph could be seen as highlighting rural poverty at the expense of the humanity of the participants. But we believe the story that goes with it highlights a positive trait of Alice and others in her situation—the ability to find joy despite the harsh conditions of her surroundings.

Image 3. Alice happy in trailer

Note: Photo by Jared Ragland

When we take and use photographs in research with those who use drugs, we have significant power in shaping how people “see” participants. It is important to be aware of this power so that we minimize the replication of stereotypes and direct audiences into a preferred reading that seeks to unravel cultural assumptions embedded in the image (Barthes, 1972; Campbell, 2010). One way to disrupt the power imbalances inherent in research and to empower those we study is to allow participants to choose photographs that they believe represent them. Rather than relying on how others perceive them (in this case researchers), participants can actively engage in their own representation by “directing our gaze” towards photographs of their choosing (Frohmann, 2005). With this in mind, we asked Alice to send photographs that she believed represented aspects of her experiences. One photograph she sent during her most active using period was a self-portrait of her looking down at a mirror. On the mirror was a line of methamphetamine (mixed with Adderall), a razor, and the words, “I love you” written on it (see image 4). When we asked her later, during a period when she was not using meth, why this reflected her she replied:

Because that was really all I was interested in and I had a thing with razor blades and mirrors to put on my make-up and I’d written “I love you,” because in the back of my mind—which it’s under everything in the back of my mind you know—I still love Dinah [my daughter].

Image 4. Alice self-portrait with daughter on her mind

Alice took this self-portrait when she was using meth intravenously daily—a period she described as her worst in terms of the amount and frequency with which she used. At the time, the image reflected the aspects of her life that took precedent over all other things—drugs and self-injury. While she was using meth to blunt the emotional pain of losing custody of her daughter and from being alienated from her family, she focused on the love of her daughter to hold onto the goodness in her life. She said that her love for her daughter (and herself) was hidden symbolically by the drugs on the mirror and in real life. Thus, she saw herself as someone who was doing the wrong thing but was still a good person and a loving mother. Again, without this accompanying narrative the photograph could be further reinforcement that the lives of those who use meth are consumed solely by the drug. The message “I love you” could be interpreted as referencing the drug and not herself or her daughter. Instead, her discussion of the photograph reinforces the idea that, while drugs were currently taking precedence in her life, she still believed that she had not fully lost herself or her love for others to the drug. For her, it was a reminder that she was not a dysfunctional user (Copes et al., 2016).

It is easy to portray Alice as a sympathetic character. Her initiation into meth was largely due to tragic events in her life, including sexual abuse that was ignored by her mother, who was also a chronic user of meth. But this is not her whole story, and if our goal is to show the complexity of participants it is equally important to show their conflicting realities. This includes those aspects of their lives that do resemble stigmatizing cultural narratives. Alice occasionally engaged in relationships with men as a means to get access to meth. During our interactions with her, Alice had several short-term, volatile relationships. These relationships were typically fraught with jealously and violence. Through Ragland’s photographs and those Alice sent to us, these toxic relationship dynamics were portrayed repeatedly. It would be easy to include these photographs, demonstrating the stereotypical meth-fueled relationships that are depicted in anti-meth advertisements. But other less stereotypical photographs show a different version of this same story.

Image 5. Alice and Ryan hand in hand

Note: Photo by Jared Ragland

Image 5 shows Alice and Ryan walking hand in hand, each carrying a bag of items from a discount store. Ryan had been released from jail and had nothing—no clothing apart from the ones on his back, no personal hygiene products, and no personal identifying cards. We went with them to the store as they shopped to replace some of these items. Later, when we asked Alice about this photo, she reflected on how meth changed their relationship:

Alice: We are together, carrying the same amount of weight. It’s not one more than the other because he’s a guy and I’m a girl, we’re equal.

Heith: Ah, I hadn’t thought of that. Is that something that would be ideal?

Alice: That’s all I have ever wanted, equality.

Heith: Does that mean you usually don’t have equality?

Alice: Nope.

Heith: How does it go?

Alice: Well before this picture, before he went to jail, before all that. When we first got together, I had a job and then he had a job, so we both had a job, then he lost his job and I got a second job. He smoked spice and helped take care of Dinah, so I worked two jobs, and he helped take care of her. He finally realized, ‘Hey, I need to step up.’ He got on at a BBQ Place, and then the drugs came in. Then he goes get the drugs, I couldn’t ask anybody for it. Even when he couldn’t find it and we wanted to go get some, I couldn’t look around for it or nothing like that.

Heith: So once the drugs came in, he became more controlling and it was no longer equal, it was about him?

Alice: Pretty much. Every now and then he would make sure to take me out to eat or something, but that stopped pretty quick. Then it became about what he had to do, what he could do, what needed to be done for him to get more drugs whenever we ran out or whenever he ran out.

Eventually Alice and Ryan separated largely due to infidelity and emotional abuse. By choosing to include a photograph that shows apparent relationship harmony, we could risk overly sympathizing with the participants and ignoring the toxicity and violence present in many of her relationships. However, by contextualizing the photograph with the background of what was happening, along with Alice’s narrative, we do not ignore the realities of her situation or Ryan’s actions.

One way to ensure that participants are represented properly is by showing them the final products, including the photographs and the written manuscripts. Accordingly, we showed Alice the manuscripts that included photographs of her, including this one. We asked her if there were any photographs we included that she did not like. She commented that many of the photographs seemed to show her at her worst and many of the photographs were taken while she was high.

She said, “I don’t want people to think of me like that. I want them to know me as I am now, but for them to know who I am then they would have to see the other [photographs].” To Alice, many of these photographs were of a woman she no longer was, but she added that she understood why we included them and asked that we note that she has grown since then. In response to this we asked her to send another photo that she thought represented her now (at the time of this writing and over a year from the last interview). She picked an image that she originally posted on Facebook, holding her daughter during a supervised visitation. The caption read:

I live for moments like this. Yes, she may be asleep, but I'm getting to hold her. No fussing because she's a "big girl now". No running around with all the energy she took from me. No showing me how much she has grown, and how independent she is. I'm holding my baby again, and giving her all the love in the world!

This image and description reflected what Alice calls her singular purpose in life: to be a mother. We like it because it shows that not all images of those who use meth need to be gritty and sad. Recovery is possible.

As we have shown, the photographs of Alice that we include here (like others we have of participants) are polysemic and can therefore be interpreted in numerous ways (Barthes, 1972). The photographs can easily tell a story of people who are victims of circumstance, who have limited agency, and who are being pushed and pulled to drug use by structural factors beyond their control. We can include photographs that portray Alice as a lost, sad young woman deserving of compassion. The photographs can also be used to tell a story of people who have succumbed to drug use due to their own bad decisions and who are undeserving of sympathy.

We can include photographs of Alice that portray her as a selfish user who chose to engage in self-destructive behavior, including prioritizing meth use and romantic relationships over maintaining custody of her daughter. Both are a real part of her story. It is because of the complexity of those who use drugs that it is easy to choose a narrative that fits one’s political agenda. By properly contextualizing the photographs included in our research, we hope to minimize the ability to misrepresent these images and to depict the “truth” as revealed by our data and analysis. However, we recognize that, despite these attempts, even the most “truthful” images are still only representations and not reproductions of reality (Sontag, 1977).

Image 6. Alice and Dinah reunited.


Much of what the public knows about those who use meth come from the visually striking anti-meth campaigns that stigmatize and demonize those who use the drug (Linnemann & Wall, 2013). One of the main goals of our photo-ethnography was to counter this one-dimensional image of people who use meth, to instead show the complexity and humanity of them. Using photographs gathered during our ethnographic research, we sought to portray more realistic and nuanced visualizations of people who use meth and their lives that could act as a counter-visual to the various anti-meth campaigns (Brown, 2014; Copes & Lunsford, 2017; Schept, 2014). Our hope is that people will interpret the photographs with a humanistic lens and see the humanity in those who use methamphetamine, which may ultimately aid in getting them resources to overcome their drug use.

The inclusion of photographs brings specific ethical issues that researchers must confront. Despite our larger aim of acting as a counter-visual to cultural narratives of those who use methamphetamine, we faced criticism from other criminologists. In early presentations of our work viewers raised numerous issues and levied harsh criticisms. Their complaints helped us see that we needed to take more care in contextualizing the photographs. We knew what we intended, but it was clear that not all had the same interpretations of the photographs as we did. Accordingly, we now contextualize the photographs in academic writings and presentations more thoroughly. We not only include the social and personal backgrounds of those under study to make sense of the photographs, but we also discuss our intentions and emotional reasoning for including them. Additionally, when possible, we also provide the participant’s reaction to the images we have chosen.

Photographs are useful tools for social science research because they evoke emotion. Not only do they bring out more visceral responses from participants (Harper, 2002) but they can jolt viewers and force them to confront their own biases and presumptions (Barthes, 1972). Viewers who experience discomfort from seeing the images may assume this means that we the researchers must be doing something wrong by showing the lived experiences of people who use meth. We argue that this is not the case. It is important to remember that, as with other fieldworkers, the role of the photographer in the field is to “illuminate the subject’s view and to interpret the world as it appears to him” (Matza, 1969, p. 25). The presence of discomfort when viewing these images may force the viewer to confront his or her implicit biases. We ask the viewers who are concerned about the inclusion of photographs to think about why they feel this way.

Our experiences with people who used methamphetamine had profound impacts on our lives and worldviews (Copes, 2019). Our time in the field led us to form connections to people and to want to provide resources to them. While empowering participants is an important facet of the research process, it can also lead to researchers presenting participants in an overly positive light; to ignore faults and bad behaviors in favor of emphasizing the good. But, it is also possible to present them in ways that reinforce stereotypes and reify stigma. This is especially true when including photographs in the final products. Images have a way evoking emotion in ways that words cannot. Despite the additional ethical and practical considerations that visual methods entail, we believe that, with the right participants, photography can greatly enhance ethnographic work. While we were initially put off by the accusations of our presentation being similar to Jerry Springer, it did make us delve deeper into the ways we are representing our participants and to be more sensitive to how others may interpret the photographs. However, we recognize that it is not possible to control how others perceive the images we include. We can only be sincere in our representation of the people we study and hope that viewers interpret the images through the context we provide.


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Heith Copes is a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His primary interest is in understanding the decision-making process and identity construction of people who engage in crime and drug use. 

Whitney Tchoula is a Ph.D. student in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University—Newark. Her research interests include drug use and abuse, visual criminology, and qualitative methodology. She has published in highly regarded journals in the field, including the International Journal of Drug Policy and Deviant Behavior

Jared Ragland is the 2019 Visiting Distinguished Professor at the University of South Florida’s Judy Genshaft Honors College. He served as a White House Photo Editor under the Bush and Obama Administrations, has published with National Geographic Books, and has exhibited his fine art and documentary work internationally.

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