Published: June 26, 2019

The Life Course Centre recently hosted a visit by Professor Heith Copes of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama who provided valuable insights into a unique photo-based research study that challenges the stigmatised view of drug users.

Professor Copes, who specialises in qualitative research methods to examine criminal decision-making and narrative identity, collaborated with photo-journalist Jared Ragland on an 18-month project depicting rural poverty and addiction to methamphetamine (meth).

Jared Ragland, from the series GOOD BAD PEOPLE, 2017

A total of 52 people living in Sand Mountain in rural Alabama participated in the study, with 29 also consenting to be photographed. The photos were complemented by semi-structured interviews and observations as well as photos, social media posts and text messages provided by participants. Photo-elicitation was also used as an interview technique and stimuli to solicit further participant responses and reactions. The result of this innovative, collaborative research project is Good Bad People, a photo-ethnography that shows drug users through the lens of their own personal stories.

In his Life Course Centre-supported visit to The University of Queensland, Professor Copes delivered two seminars: one, an overview of the project; and a second, on the methods behind the project’s field research. He also hosted a mentoring session with Life Course Centre students interested in his work and methods. Professor Copes said the Sand Mountain study aimed to provide a more considered, contextualised portrait of meth users beyond what is typically shown in the media or anti-meth campaigns. This “more nuanced look” included a focus on the women at the centre of controlling relationships around drugs, sex and violence. “There is probably no more stigmatised group than drug mothers or ‘crack mums’. While it seems like they are simply victims, there is more to it than that. They do have a sense of autonomy and agency,” he said.

Jared Ragland, from the series GOOD BAD PEOPLE, 2017

Professor Copes explained this sense of autonomy, agency and self-worth was achieved through the creation of “symbolic boundaries” that enabled the women to distinguish themselves as ‘good’ and other drug users as ‘bad’ and also put distance between the men who controlled them. He said there were four things these women did to establish boundaries and make sense of their own level of drug use:

  • Emphasise their motherhood – they define themselves as good mothers by never using drugs in the house or in front of their kids and keeping their house clean. If they do not have custody of their kids, they adopt a motherhood role for others.
  • Manage their drug use – how they obtain drugs is important to them and they seek to do so in respectable ways by not prostituting themselves or stealing.
  • Maintain a healthy mental state – by managing erratic and paranoid thinking.
  • Maintain their appearance – by trying to look after skin, sores and teeth, not losing too much weight and trying to always do their make-up.

While the 18-month field study behind the Good Bad People project was emotional and tiring, Professor Copes said the photo-ethnography was a powerful method to bring to life the personal stories of those living in poverty and struggling with drug addiction. He said criminology and other social sciences can often become detached from its subject matter, but “it is hard to be detached when you see these images”.

All photos by Jared Ragland.

To view more photos from Good Bad People, visit here