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Spotlight: Geoffrey Hiller Stokes The Art of Recovery in Portland

By David Schonauer   Thursday July 25, 2019


What does recovery look like?

That is the question at the center of a project recently organized by Portland, Oregon-based documentary photographer Geoffrey Hiller.

Hiller, who has photographed extensively in Myanmar and elsewhere around the world, is also the founder of the Verve photojournalism website. In April of 2018 he was invited to attend a conference sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs focusing on the opioid crisis in America.

“It took place in Cleveland, Ohio, a state that has been wracked by the crisis, and it was a real eye-opener,” says Hiller. “I was the only photographer there; mostly it was people specializing in public health who are in the front lines of this battle.”

Through the conference, Hiller attained a small grant to work on a project about the opioid crisis. “Instead of me going out to photograph in Portland, I though it would be more interesting to do a photography workshop with people in recovery there,” he says.

He partnered with a local camera store, Pro Photo Supply, which outfitted Hiller with Panasonic Lumix cameras for the project, and then contacted Central City Concern, Portland non-profit organization that works to aid homeless people and people in recovery from addictions. “They agreed to set aside time to have me come in and do this workshop,” Hiller says.

Hiller was particularly delighted that the space set aside for the project was in Portland’s fashionable Pearl District. “I thought it would be interesting to get the workshop participants out of their world and into this other neighborhood,” says Hiller.

Hiller worked with two different groups for six weeks each, guiding the workshop participants as they went into the Pearl District to photograph people on the street, along with other scenes. “I encouraged them to just talk to people,” he says. “That could be pretty intimidating for someone who is on the edge, who was recently suffering from addiction and might have been homeless. But I would be by their side telling them, ‘it’s okay.’"

The results, Hiller says, were astonishing. “At the beginning,” he says, “I was a little bit skeptical; I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. But the participants really developed a lot of self-confidence by the end of the workshops. Photography can do that. It can get you out of yourself and be very therapeutic. Having a camera is kind of like having a license to interact with other people.”

Later, Hiller and the workshop participants edited their images and he put together collages of the work, together with quotes from the participants. One likened the workshop to classes he’d taken on the value of mindfulness. “You need to be in the moment to capture the moment. It’s not necessarily about being happy — it’s about being mindful,” he said.

“Whether I feel good or not I have to try and create something, otherwise I’ll miss my chance to live,” said another.

“We had one older women who was extremely shy, and she just blossomed,” says Hiller. “She took a lot of pictures of flowers, but she also got in close with people.”

Hiller is now looking for ways “to get this work out there.”

“My goal from the beginning was to do an exhibition,” he says. “What I’d really love to do is have it displayed on public spaces in the Pearl District — to put prints on the walls of buildings.”

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