Photographer Profile - Graham MacIndoe: "My life had just gone down the drain, but I still had this compulsion to make this imagery"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday July 5, 2016

During the years he was addicted to heroin, Graham MacIndoe  took pictures of himself. He used a cheap digital point and shoot, placed on a table or shelf and set to snap at intervals. Then he would shoot up in front of the camera.

In one of his self-portraits, he’s lying on his side, crashed out, eyes tight shut and a smear of blood leaking from a hole in his arm. In another, he is cooking heroin in a spoon, flame casting a red glow over his face, which is upturned as if in supplication.

At one time, MacIndoe had been a successful commercial photographer; now all he could do was document his descent into drug use. One day, he told himself, he would be sober, and he would look at the pictures and remember exactly what had happened to him.

“My life had just gone down the drain and I wasn’t working, but I still had this compulsion to make this imagery,” he says.

Later, Susan Stellin stumbled upon the photographs, 342 of them. A reporter and writer who had worked at the New York Times’s website, Stellin met MacIndoe in 2002 at a summer gathering in Montauk, Long Island, and eventually they began a relationship. She knew that he had had addiction problems, but he told her that he’d cleaned up. It turned out he hadn’t. It was after they broke up that she found the self-portraits.

“In some way, this is exactly what I’d been curious to see,” she wrote at the time. “All those close-ups of the needle going into a vein, his expression during and after, the rooms and stairwells I never saw … Maybe the point is, ‘So you wanted to see? Here it all is.’”

MacIndoe and Stellin are observers, by profession and by nature. That predilection led him to record his drug use in pictures and her to document their lives together in words. It has also led them to tell their stories, with fierce candor, in a book called Chancers: Addiction, Prison, Recover love — One Couple’s Memoir.

Both of them use the word “trajectory” when they talk about the path of their lives: MacIndoe’s proceeded through four months of jail time at New York City’s Rikers Island, after which he was detained for five months by US Immigration and Custom Enforcement in a facility in Pennsylvania. A native of Scotland living in the US with a green card, he faced deportation. While held there, he got clean and has remained sober for seven years.

Stellin’s trajectory led her back to MacIndoe after his addiction landed him in prison. She had grown concerned when she saw that his website was down, and when he didn’t answer her phone calls she started looking for him. She found him at his most vulnerable moment, incarcerated and alone except for the guilt he lived with. She helped get him released and they both began looking back. “In terms of being honest, you have to just go all the way,” she says.

White Knuckling

Growing up in Edinburgh, MacIndoe studied drawing and painting; in the 1980s he came to New York as a student, taking pictures with a point and shoot, and he fell in love with photography. He went on to study photography at the Royal College of Art in London, then returned to New York, “on a whim,” he says. By that time, he had a wife and son, he and began working for art galleries, including the Bonni Benrubi Gallery. Finally he made the jump into commercial photography, shooting author portraits and advertising for IBM and other companies.

Drinking became a problem, and he began using cocaine. Then he was offered heroin. “It just seemed like a natural place to go,” he said in a recent radio interview. He smoked it at first but was soon injecting it, and using cocaine to balance out the highs.

MacIndoe’s marriage ended, and he went through several attempts to quit drugs by himself — “white knuckling,” he calls it. After meeting Stellin, he kept the drug use from her because, he says, “I was scared to admit it; it felt like a weakness.”

The new book alternates between his story and hers, Stellin writing in the past tense, MacIndoe in the present, one reflective and the other visceral. His chapters are infused with a haze of shame.

While in immigration detention he received therapy, which he says helped him start his recovery. Since then he and Stellin have been looking back, and forward. They published the self-portraits he had made when he was using. MacIndoe also shot a series of images showing glassine heroin bags he had collected during those years. Each featured a brand name and logo indicating the product inside.

“When you went out to the Bronx to buy heroin, you’d never specifically ask for heroin,” he says. “You’d say, ‘I’m looking for Bazooka or Killa or whatever.” The artist in him appreciated the aesthetics of the business.

“I had them stuck in old magazines and books and went and got them when I started to pick up the pieces of my discarded life,” he says. “Then I pulled them together and photographed them.” The result was a book, All In: Buying into the Drug Trade.

A Solid Place

MacIndoe has also been teaching photography at Parsons School of Design in New York for the past five years. “I love teaching, it’s been really inspiring. It’s given me the opportunity to be around young creative people,” he says.

In the meantime, he and Stellin collaborated on a documentary project called “American Exile,” featuring portraits and interviews with immigrants who had been ordered deported from the US (below). The work, made possible by a 2014 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship, was inspired by MacIndoe’s own brush with deportation.

“The thing that was interesting for me was that it drew me back into that world of photography I’d been in in the past,” MacIndoe says. “I was working with art directors and graphic designers who knew how to use image and text in really smart ways.”

That project, he says, also opened the door for his collaboration with Stellin on the new book. “Before we decided to do it, we felt like we had to be in a solid place, because it exposes a lot, and the process of writing it was intense,” Stellin says. “It had to be in that moment when Graham was back on his feet and was comfortable. But if we had waited much longer, some of those emotions wouldn’t have been as fresh.”

This book about love and drugs is also about the process of cognition, of looking hard and understanding what is being seen. Stellin opens it with a quote from the journalist Edward R. Murrow: “The obscure we see eventually, the completely apparent takes longer.”