Laura Foster is a social documentary photographer based in Bristol. Her recent work Serenity is a reflection on the plague of addiction and substance abuse in the UK. Here, Foster documents an all male Christian run rehabilitation centre Yeldall Manor to engage in a dialogue with those on the path to recovery.
Victoria spoke with Laura about her experience of bearing witness to addiction, and the emotional vulnerability of the men attending the rehabilitation centre.
How did you first become interested in this subject matter?
Early 2015, a very close family member of mine went to rehab as the start of their recovery from an alcohol addiction. After an incredibly difficult first two weeks of no contact, I was allowed to go and visit. At first, I was hesitant. I had gotten myself worked up with all these horrible preconceptions of rehab centres in my head, imagining them like a mental hospital or even a prison.
However, when I got there, it was nothing like I had pictured. It was a converted old manor house, so immediately felt homely. They had a beautiful garden, lovely large bedrooms with views of the grounds, an arts shed, and different living areas where I met and spoke to some of the other residents. Everyone we met there was so kind to me and my family, staff and residents alike. It gave me such comfort in one of the scariest times in my life, and I knew it was a place that would do such good for someone I cared so much about.
This experience had a real impact on me. Years on, I knew I wanted to focus on the subject matter in my work. I realised so many people would never have the experience I did, to see behind closed doors what rehabilitation centres are really like and witness the work they do. This came hand in hand with wanting to educate more people about addiction itself, and battle the incredibly harsh stereotypes connected to it. After witnessing what addiction and substance abuse can do to a person first hand, I knew it was something that more people desperately needed to understand. I wanted to use this work to communicate not only what rehab is like, but show the real people behind this illness.
How were you met when you first started documenting at Yendall Manor?
The reaction I had from the staff and the residents at Yeldall was better than I could have imagined. I immediately felt welcome and a part of a community.
Before I started shooting, we agreed it would be a good idea for me to spend a day there – get to know the grounds and the residents first. I was incredibly nervous to start the project, because I had no idea how the residents would react. At the start of my first full day shooting, I spoke in one of their morning briefings. I explained who I was and why I was there, telling them my family’s history with rehab and addiction and how this had made me want to make a difference. I wanted to emphasise that I understood and had seen first hand what they were going through, so at no point they felt like I was some outsider who was coming in to exploit them and gain something from them.
Some residents immediately, but respectfully, made it very clear they didn’t want to be photographed, identifiable or not (which is entirely understandable). But apart from this, the reaction was incredible. Some of the residents would get on with their day to day life as if I was not there. Some wanted to learn more about what I was doing and be a part of it. I had so many residents come to me and say they were grateful for the project and what I was doing, and how they wanted to do anything to help.
Your work portrays men in a state of vulnerability. This is particularly relevant to the current debate on masculinity and the attempt to break the outdated definition of “manliness”. Can you talk about how you decided to approach subjects in such a delicate state?
In the early days of the work and the planning for it, I had considered visiting a multitude of different centres (if I was able to) and combining them into one book/project. But after visiting Yeldall and meeting all the men there, I knew it was too much of a special place to bring in anything else. I had in the back of my mind that although the project’s focus was addiction and rehabilitation, the portrayal of men being vulnerable with their stories and their emotions was incredibly important.
Ever since records have existed, male suicide rates have been significantly higher than women’s. Yet, this idea of needing to be ‘manly’ and ‘men don’t cry’ is still ever-present even today. Male mental illness is such a taboo subject and is often shied away from. I knew it was going to be incredibly important for me to bring attention to it in this work.
I was lucky to be able to experience day to day life at Yeldall: meeting the residents and being allowed into what felt like their sanctuary. I was with them at their most vulnerable. I knew I had to be delicate with how I approached my being there, and never pushed anyone to speak to me or be part of the project. I would always make sure to ask permission to be with them in the activities, and they would come to me if they wanted to share something. I spent a long time with them – on average two days a week for over six weeks. They began to feel more and more comfortable with me. We would sit outside together on their coffee breaks. I would not get my camera out, because I knew them being comfortable with me and me getting to know them was much more important to the work. Without that trust, relationship and vulnerability I don’t think any of the residents would have connected to me and the work I was doing. Once the relationship was built, that was a turning point for me and when the work began to develop into what it is today.
With this work, you aim to shift the stereotypes attached to addiction. How did your perception change throughout the project?
Due to my family history with rehabilitation and addiction, my perceptions had already changed drastically after witnessing it first hand. The time at Yeldall only emphasised how much it meant to me, and how I needed to try and do everything in my power to help make a change in how addicts and rehab are viewed in society.
I wanted to create a piece of work that had the same effect on other people. Something that could change someone’s negative connotations and misunderstanding about addiction – so many still see it as a lifestyle choice. You may see just ‘another drug addict’ and brush it off as their fault for continuing to use. You may see a homeless person and say ‘they’ll just buy drugs if I give them any money’. It has become the norm to completely dismiss addiction and what it can do to a person, but these individuals have been through so much that none of us will ever know. They are battling an all-consuming illness that many still do not understand. This is what hit home to me throughout my time with the residents – how these negative stereotypes may be how so many in the outside world see them, but in those four walls, they were able to simply be themselves. They had been through some of the most horrible things imaginable, but they just wanted to be free. To me, they weren’t addicts, they were just people.
On a more personal note regarding how my time at Yeldall affected me, I found the project incredibly healing. Being able to talk openly about recovery, witnessing what these men were going through first hand and seeing them come out the other side stronger meant a lot to me. My family member who went to rehab said they were glad to see me doing the work. They could see me using it as a form of my own recovery, but also using something incredibly difficult we all went through and turning it into something good. And for that, I am especially grateful.
Your subjects’ anonymity needed to be safeguarded throughout the project. Even though we do not see their faces, we get a sense of them as individual. How did you first approach this limitation when shooting? Looking back, how do you think this constraint affected the final work?
At first, it was a matter of quickly capturing moments where the residents’ faces were covered. It could be where they turned their head, rubbed their eyes, had their helmet on while working in the garden, or when their face was in shadow. The residents’ tattoos became a prominent image in the project. I felt these were a powerful visual representation of the individual and their story. Then, as the residents became more comfortable with me and the idea of the project, I asked them to be a part of creating images – the photograph of one of the guys blowing smoke in front of his face while we were outside is an example. By the end of my time there, the process became a collaboration between the residents and me.
The lack of portraiture began to represent something else entirely. Although the initial reason was that of safety and privacy, the limitation gave the project a feeling of calm and respect. As if you are brought into these men’s lives without objectifying them or their recovery for an image. It represents the peacefulness of Yeldall, the safety of this place away from the view of the outside world.
I think the need to have ambiguity within the work made it stronger as a whole. The need to find other ways of representing the residents, forced me to create a much wider range of images. It made me stop and think about what I was creating each day, and gave the work a complexity I don’t think it would have otherwise had. The drawings, writings, objects, close up images, all of which are so intimate and show a vulnerable and real representation of the individuals at Yeldall. With all of these elements, a straight-on portrait wasn’t necessary for the work in the end.
You also included several personal writings and drawings in the final series. These further help representing the residents without compromising their anonymity. How did you come across these items? Why did you think it was relevant to include them?
Although the work began with my family, the more time I spent at Yeldall and with the residents, I knew it wasn’t about me anymore. These men were opening up to me and I knew this work had to be about them. Not about them in a way of documenting their lives from my point of view, I wanted the work to give them a voice, to finally have the chance to tell their own stories.
The drawings and collages were from different residents, some were made in an arts group session where they had been asked to make a piece that they felt represented themselves. I only wanted to show personal stories and items if they felt comfortable. I could not show the residents’ faces as they had to be unidentifiable, so I had to find other ways to represent them in the work. I spoke in a morning briefing one day and said that if anyone wanted to talk to me about their experience, write something, draw something, anything they wanted then they could come to me. James, who features a lot throughout the work, came to me and said he wanted me to use his bursary letter. This was the handwritten letter he had sent to the bursary panel, with his application to come to Yeldall. The letter was one of the most heartbreaking and gut-wrenching things I have ever read, and I knew it would impact so many other people in the same way. Although James had said I could use whatever I wanted, I only used a small extract from it. This was because it was incredibly personal, and I thought these details weren’t necessary for people to understand what James was going through when he wrote it.
The portrayal of nature and outdoor spaces play a strong contrast with the rehabilitation centre’s interiors. Can you talk about why you decided to take this approach?
When you visit Yeldall, you first drive down a huge driveway, with these gorgeous two lines of trees towering above either side of you. Then around the house itself, the grounds are beautiful. It’s almost euphoric in how it suddenly feels as though you are so far away from the outside world. I’m not a spiritual person myself, but you do feel something when you go there. Walking through the gardens and the woodlands was so peaceful it’s hard to put into words. This is why I wanted to try my best to portray this feeling through the images. Not only this, but the outdoors and the gardens were a crucial part of the residents recovery process. Each week they would have workdays in different areas – cutting down trees, gardening, working in the greenhouse. Not only did it keep the residents productive and active, but it was giving them vital skills for when they left Yeldall and began to make way for themselves in society. Therefore I knew the grounds were as important part of Yeldall as the house itself.
How did you perceive the role faith played in the recovery of the men you portrayed?
For those who did believe, it became apparent that it was a large factor in their recovery. Many of the men I spoke to regarded discovering faith as one of the turning points in their recovery. Faith allowed them to reconstruct their view of the world. It gave them something to believe in that was much bigger than them and their illness, something to strive for and to make them feel of value. Most importantly, I found, was the teaching of forgiveness. Forgiving those around you and most importantly forgiving yourself. It allowed the residents to begin to heal.
I also found that faith gave a strong sense of community. It made you feel a part of something, in a higher sense or simply within Yeldall itself. I think the groups and exploring faith in meetings helped those who were not of faith as well. It allowed them to see things from a different perspective, hear different teaching and be a part of something.
This being said, Yeldall was not strictly for individuals who were of faith. Many of the residents were of different religions or not religious at all. One of Yeldall’s teachings was the aim to reach freedom from addiction, and believed this was possible through a connection to God. But, they knew this was not exclusive to religion. You could find freedom from addiction through other ways, which is why religion was only a small aspect of the recovery program and men of all faiths were welcome at Yeldall.
Do you consider Serenity a finished work, or do you see it as an ongoing and evolving project?
I do see Serenity as a completed work. I will still support Yeldall and visit as much as I can, helping out at open days and charity events or attending their celebration evenings, but I know I won’t shoot there anymore. I feel the time I spent at Yeldall was so emotional and so intense, that it wouldn’t feel right to add to the work after this period of me being there so frequently and feeling a part of the community. Also, the men I photographed will have moved into later stages of the programme, out of the main house, or left. I do feel it may become something more. Whether that be creating work in other areas of mental health or other rehab centres, I’m not sure yet. These may become extended parts of Serenity, or separate parts altogether, but I think I’ll work that out over time.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a personal project with multidisciplinary artist Natasha Parker Edwards, titled ‘These Four Walls’. I would describe it as a visual response to the pressure felt as young women moving into adulthood.
We both focus on similar themes within our own work, such as mental health, and wanted to create something together. Post uni and navigating ‘adult’ life, this project became almost like a form of therapy for us both, being able to make such a personal and artistic project while just working other jobs to pay the bills. The work investigates themes of gender, mental illness, childhood and isolation. Using a multitude of techniques within photography and printing, we wanted to create a complex and emotive series that is as powerful as it is vulnerable.
The project is still very much a work in progress, as any time in the experimenting and printing in studio or shooting stopped when the whole world did because of Covid-19. Thankfully, we were able to start shooting again recently, and I am excited to see how it progresses.
In this issue we feature photography and writing that explores belief through worship, mourning, loss of faith, superstitions and the possibility of other worlds.
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