Up From Addiction: Portraits of Courage

What would you see if you turned addiction upside down? Being a recovering addict yourself, and a woman, what if you captured images of other women who overcame addiction’s clutching demons? You would hope, by telling their stories, you might reach some of the 200,000 women who may die this year from their addiction and remind them there are those who were able to make it to the “other side.”

Introducing Rocio de Alba

Rocio de Alba

I’d like to introduce you to Rocio de Alba and her photo series on women who have been sober for ten years or more, “There is a Crack in Everything.” From the NYT Lens Blog:

“I celebrated nine years of sobriety Dec. 29, 2016. I nurture my recovery like a newborn child. I attend a 12-step program, therapy, and practice unconventional forms of meditation or prayer. People who survive the claws of addiction are considered miracles, because long-term recoveries are rare and addiction is on the rise.”

“For me, it’s clear the odds are against us. Ten years of recovery is nothing compared to the millions who die. It is the sporadic and humble success of my exemplars that inspires my recovery and this project.”

There’s a Crack in Everything

The photos of women and their stories are from her site and the NYT Lens Blog.

B.C.G. in Long Island, N.Y. She has been sober since 2001.

B.C.G: “I tried desperately to drink myself to oblivion daily because I didn’t want to feel all those painful emotions I tried to ignore all my life. People say that addicts are weak and have no willpower. If it were that easy, I’d have been sober 40 years by now, believe me. The truth is choosing sobriety has been the most empowering change I’ve ever made.”

Rocio wants to show an image of each woman that explodes the typical portrayal of addicts as “haggard, perpetually in angst and destitute.” She saw the project as a collaboration and asked each woman to pick the location for the photo shoot.

Rocio: “Some choose a space that brings them peace and comfort. One subject wanted to be photographed in the last place where she woke up from in a drunken stupor.”

Karen, in Forest Hills Park, Queens. She has been sober since 1997.

Karen: “I’ve walked through a death, moves to various states, childbirth, miscarriage, marriage, changing jobs, losing my husband overnight, illness and more. The gift is that I can face adversity head-on and not duck out. I can be present for myself, family and friends. I take responsibility for my actions today. I don’t steal, lie or cheat. I am dependable, reliable and loyal. I am strong and I am courageous.”

Alanna, in Forest Hills, Queens. She has been sober since 2006.

Alanna: “When I started my sober journey I really thought life was over. This was the lie I told myself again and again, as I agonized over what to do about this problem of mine. Ten years later I can tell you that I have found a freedom and happiness that I was unaware existed.”

“An Independent yet Miraculous Transformation”

From the Lens Blog:

Rocio: “The only criterion was they had to be sober for 10 years or more. It seems an independent yet miraculous transformation occurs within each woman during that time period. Not everyone reaches this milestone, and even if they do, without constant vigilance a relapse is almost inevitable — in fact, some of my subjects experienced repeated relapses and near-death experiences before they found solace in recovery.”

Ms. Bailey, in Massachusetts. She has been sober since 1958.

Ms. Bailey: “I’m grateful for everything that has ever happened to me. I have outlived so many dear friends and family members. I caused so much suffering to my children but Lord knows I’ve worked effortlessly to redeem myself to them and so here I am in Massachusetts with my beautiful daughter and her husband taking care of me. We do a lot of damage as addicts, but it’s like I have always said, from scars make stars.”

from Rocio’s site

Art Saves Lives

On the site Art Saves Lives International, Rocio describes how her journey as an artist became an antidote to the emotional turmoil fueling her addiction:

Rocio de Alba, from her site


“It wasn’t until I studied Claude Cahun and Nan Goldin’s work that I realized I could use art as a way to overcome personal difficulties. Many times during a panic attack, state of deep depression or a moment of anxiety, I can simply pick up my camera, begin photographing, and it’s almost as if I am transported into a mental state of mind that is soothing and authentic to my inner self.”

Alice. Kew Gardens, Queens. She has been sober since 2002.

Alice: “Whenever I feel overwhelmed in life and I feel like giving up or using, I go for a jog or a walk — rain or shine. All the world’s troubles just seem to melt away.”

“Always a Good Reason…”

I’ve had some experience with addiction; I was a dedicated cigarette smoker for many years of my life. Back then, there was always a good reason to light up. Cigarettes were tightly wrapped around my sense of myself and what I was about. You could even say cigarettes defined me, as any random thought or feeling would call up the desire to reach for the next smoke.

It took years and many, many failed efforts to finally quit. I’m not trying to equate my experience with Rocio or the women she honors in her photographs. I’m just mentioning it here because addiction in one form or another plagues so many people and the ones fortunate to come out the other side have struggled mightily to get there. That’s one reason I find her portraits so rewarding.

Rocio’s Other Art Projects

Rocio has other conceptual photo projects on her site that are worth exploring. Some projects remind me of other photographers who explore identity and stereotype,  Cindy Sherman and Nikki S. Lee, as she inserts herself into her emotionally tinged imagery.

“Falling to Pieces” from her project Girl Anachronism

“Sinking” from Girl Anachronism

Rocio de Alba, from her site


“To choose a career as an artist means you are willing to let go of all those fantasies and work from the heart to create work you are proud of and hope that it somehow connects to an audience and maybe even touches someone.”



More than anything, we humans are a crazy stew of emotions, sometimes pain and all those turbulent feelings, sometimes joy and that lightness of being. That’s why I wanted to end with that photo of Rocio. To remind us that so much is possible if you are “willing to work from the heart to create work you are proud of…”


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Summer’s Choice: Chasing the Ghost of the American Dream

When we meet Summer Jordan in the short video, Summer’s Choice, she’s a high school senior facing a terrible dilemma.


Summer Jordan, from “Summer’s Choice”

Her father’s dead, mother lost to drugs, so Summer lives with her ailing grandmother in a small California desert town. She’s a talented artist but her grandmother’s health and finances are failing and Summer feels guilty about leaving to pursue her dream of attending art school.


Summer Jordan, from “Summer’s Choice”

It’s often said that education can offer a path out of poverty, but poverty pushes kids to drop out even before they finish high school. That dilemma is at the core of the video Summer’s Choice, created by two talented filmmakers, Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe.


Lou Pepe and Keith Fulton, from the Toronto Film Scene site

From the Toronto Film Scene site:

Keith Fulton: It’s almost impossible for these kids to change their situation. They don’t have any money. They don’t have any emotional support. They don’t have stable places to live and places to get a meal. These problems make it hard to make school a priority for them.

Lou Pepe: There’s a strong sense with these kids that by the time they turned 18, they’ve witnessed and dealt with problems most Americans will never experience.


Summer’s hands, from “Summer’s Choice”

The filmmakers, writing on the NYT Op-Docs site:

We take kids who can’t seem to stay on track and write them off, dismissing them with summary labels. It’s simpler that way — if we know what they are, we don’t really have to think about why. So more often than not, the roots of a “bad kid’s” difficulties are left unexplored, as they would most likely force us to look at histories of abuse, neglect, abandonment, addiction or possibly even that huge unspoken problem that plagues our public education system: intractable, generational poverty.

The Video

If the video does not appear, click here.

Summer’s Choice was part of a larger documentary project by Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe.

The Bad Kids


from “The Bad Kids”

Their feature documentary, The Bad Kids, is an intimate portrait of several students from Summer’s high school and the adults who try to help them turn their lives around. I haven’t seen The Bad Kids, but given the strength of Summer’s Choice, it’s bound to be an emotionally powerful documentary.


from the ion cinema site

Here’s what the filmmakers have to say about how they collaborated on location, from an interview in Filmmakers Magazine

Pepe: Keith picked up the boom and mixer and did all of the sound recording, so we worked as a two-person camera/sound team. The advantage of this was that while I would be in-the-moment with the drama unfolding in front of the camera, Keith was always able to tip me off to the action happening behind me. Keith has a strong editorial eye, so he’s always whispering to me to grab the shot that he knows I haven’t noticed yet but that we’ll need in the editing room.

Every day in the course of 120 shooting days, for at least a few minutes, I would set off alone in search of “poetry.” A lot of times, I would come back empty-handed, but on some occasions, I would capture precious moments that gave a really intimate view of our subjects’ lives: a student trying his best to stay awake but falling asleep during class… a couple making out in a corner of the hallway… a boy staring at himself in the hallway mirror… a silent hug of comfort between two friends.

My thoughts on Summer’s Choice


photo from NYT site

Summer’s Choice is beautifully realized, with quiet insights and great photography. The filmmakers’ compassionate, watchful eye makes Summer’s dilemma all the more immediate. The cinema verite style helps create an intimate portrait of a young person on the edge, yet with her inner strength and resilience, it has a hopeful, positive sensibility. Youth is often optimistic, but as adults, we can see how the cards are stacked against kids like Summer. You want her to beat the odds, but will she?

If nothing else, documentaries like this show how the American Dream has become more of a phantom for many of our fellow Americans. What are your thoughts? Leave a comment.




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Prowling the Dupont Underground

I recently had a chance to explore an abandoned site under Washington, DC’s Dupont Circle. Dupont Underground is promoting the site as a performing space for “cutting-edge arts, architecture, design and creative endeavors.” They made it available to our group of  urban explorers and about 12 of us went down to check it out and take some photos.


urban explorers photo by Liz Roll

I probably took about 200 photos down there and spent some time later editing them down to just a handful. I wanted the photos to express a feeling about the space, rather than just document it. I ended up with a mix and here are some of my favorites:



This was part of a sculpture that was abandoned there.



Inside the sculpture.


The underground station opened in 1942 and was originally designed for street cars. They would discharge their passengers here, below Dupont Circle. Walkways led to the mix of streets above. Everything is closed off now and, except for a few months here and there, has been shuttered since 1962. You can read a Washington Post story about the history of the space here.


This is what remains of a fanciful installation by a team of architects.


One of the tunnels to nowhere.


When the underground streetcar station was in operation. Washington Post photo


I love how the light plays on the tile and rusted ironwork.



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This fanciful composition I discovered at the entrance is just part of a rusted iron grating.

As you can imagine, it takes creativity, vision and persistence to transform a Dupont Underground into something we can all use and enjoy. Still, it was not too long ago that the Highline in New York was an abandoned, rusting hulk. Now it’s a major attraction for visitors and residents of the city. I hope The Dupont Underground can do something similar here in DC and wish them well in their effort to create a haven for makers and creatives. They have events there from time to time, so if you’re interested, check out their site.

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Intriguing Mystery+CrowdSourced Journalism = ?

I ran across a fascinating NYT video I’d like to share with you. The video centers on the mystery of “a life, or a fragment of a life” explored via social media and reported by New York Times journalist Deborah Acosta. What makes it unusual? Aside from the mystery, which was fascinating on its own, it was Deborah’s approach in presenting the story that caught my eye. She’s pushing forward a new form of crowdsourced journalism – first person and highly interactive – that I think we’ll see a lot more of.

It reminds me of video blogging, but more focused on content. But first, let me give you a little background.

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Deborah Acosta, from the NYT video

Deborah’s job title for the Times reads “Staff Editor, Social Video.” She previously worked at the Miami Herald and taught social media at the University of Miami. As she notes on her LinkedIn page: “Crowdsourcing is the name of my game,” and she’s been at the NYT since 2012.

On Sunday, May 15th, Deborah encountered her mystery in a New York neighborhood called Hells Kitchen. Previously, like an old fashioned street photographer, Deborah would stop to capture telling moments on video, using her cellphone and Facebook to share what she encountered. These posts were usually little slices of reality and served as self-contained pieces, perhaps more observations than investigations. This time would be different.

It was a blustery day that Sunday in New York. As Deborah strolled along a busy sidewalk she noticed the wind had scattered Kodachrome slides in her path. She picked up one, then another and another, following them like a bread crumb trail to discover thousands more stuffed into a black garbage bag abandoned on the corner. She opened the bag and took a look. She could see the slides were very high quality, obviously taken by a professional. What were they doing there? Who was the photographer? Who threw them in the garbage? As a journalist, Deborah saw a story in the making.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 5.31.24 PM

from the NYT video

Now here’s where it gets interesting:  she used Facebook Live to record and transmit her activities as she encountered the mysterious slides, examined her discovery and searched for answers – as a way of sharing and telling the story and bringing others into the process, all in the style of crowdsourced journalism.

In this relatively new form of reporting, everything plays out in bits of real time as she responds to viewer comments, researches her story, asks her viewers/readers for leads and suggestions, makes phone calls, tries to identify the mysterious photographer and discover why the work was thrown in the trash. You are not only there aside Deborah as she launches into her quest for answers, you can also add a comment and become part of the story.

I found it at once engaging and off-putting. Engaging because it was such a fresh take on a traditional, well-established process and off-putting because, on Facebook, she left in all the boring parts and not all people make comments that are insightful, useful or even interesting. But she selects the best bits for the video, which works very well, as you’ll see.

You can go to Deborah’s Facebook page and scroll down to May 15th and May 18th to see her posts (the equivalent of raw, unedited footage). I suggest you just watch the video below, which gathers highlights of those moments, to see how she corrals social media to help the story unfold. Take a look and see what you think.

If the video doesn’t display well, you can find it here.

After watching the video I wanted to know a little more about its subject, Mariana Gosnell, and found these few lines from her obit:

Mariana Gosnell

Mariana Gosnell, from her obit


Mariana Gosnell, 79, of New York City and Treaty Island, died suddenly on March 23, 2012. She had been ill the past few months… She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University as a Phi Beta Kappa, worked for the foreign service in Norway, for the Museum of Modern Art, and for over 25 years at Newsweek, primarily as their medicine and science reporter. She then wrote two well-reviewed books, Zero Three Bravo, about traveling cross-country in her small plane and later ICE, which led her north of the Arctic Circle and to the South Pole.

Here are links to her two books, Ice and Zero3Bravo

I applaud Deborah Acosta for how she used crowdsourcing on social media to help report the story – Deborah’s approach and the content complement each other perfectly. She has an appealing, low-key style that works very well on camera, plus she knows how to make you feel welcome as part of the story. It’s easy to see that this style of crowdsourced reporting fits her personality very well. I do have a few comments, though.

I wish Deborah would have plunged more deeply into Mariana’s life, character and accomplishments to give us a greater appreciation of who Mariana was and the life she led. Just from the photo below I see a vibrant, engaged person who wasn’t well captured in Deborah’s video.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 6.49.36 PM

Mariana Gosnell, from the NYT video

We exist in such an of-the-moment and disposable time, it would have been nice for Deborah to offer us a little more perspective. Given the circumstances, I would have appreciated a more meditative piece on impermanence and memory. Perhaps this reflects more on the differences in our ages, as I get older, these things matter more to me.

I think Deborah gave too much screen time to Mariana’s life companion Jamie Fenwick, who, despite their decades together, just tossed her work in the garbage. Many of the comments he made were self-centered, which served to turn the focus more on him and less on Mariana, especially given how the video ends. Jamie appears to be such a lifeless character even as Mariana seemed so spirited, curious and alive.

I don’t know why Deborah decided to go in that direction. Perhaps if the piece ended instead with a focus on Mariana’s imagery, it would have been more satisfying. After all, Mariana captured all these telling moments in her slides, it would be nice to be able to honor that and allow us to reflect on her images and her life’s work, and perhaps on the impermanence of all we behold.

Those are my thoughts. So, what’s your take? Did you like Deborah’s piece? Is this the future path for journalism and storytelling? Leave a comment and let me know.



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