In an attempt to garner publicity for its services, Rehabs.com published an infographic entitled “The Horror of Methamphetamines.” It is, indeed, a horrifying spectacle, a “sobering depiction of REAL individuals who’ve fallen victim to the temptation of drug use.” We know what we are seeing is “REAL” because all the photos are mugshots. The dispassion of the mugshot, the idea that nothing is staged here, no one is posing or even thinking about an audience, is what lends legitimacy to the project.
The face at the top of the infographic serves an explicitly educational purpose, with information boxes explaining how meth can cause acne, tooth decay, and weight loss. The other photos are just sequenced in chronological order. Explanations are not really necessary; the images clearly show that meth turns young people into zombies.
The images draw my eye, and I can’t help but stare. I look back and forth, searching for what remains and what was lost. The uniformity of the photos, always a head and some bit of shoulders against a nondescript background, helps each image slip into the next. I keep scrolling through, juxtaposing before and after, until the pictures take on the quality of stop motion animation.
There’s one person who doesn’t quite seem to fit the zombification narrative, however. In the first mugshot, she looks young and cocky; in the next mugshot, her face appears to have melted. A little digging gets me a name and a story: her face was burned in an explosion (suspected, but never officially confirmed, to be a meth lab) in 2004. That story turned out not to be completely true, however, as the woman told me when we talked about her experience. She was not cooking meth. In fact, she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and paid a terrible price — not only from the painful burns over 40% of her body, but also in the cruel ways her image has been used and mocked. Strictly speaking, she was disfigured in a possibly meth-related accident (but she was not cooking meth and never has), but this is not the same situation as the other users. Ingesting meth didn’t do this to her; fire did.
In their methodology, Rehabs.com acknowledges that, “some images were selected for inclusion based on inference.” This leads me to wonder about the implication that meth-ingestion is the only factor in the zombification of these people. Historically, anti-drug campaigns have relied on the assumption that a drug itself is the single variable that destroys lives. As researchers have repeatedly shown, however, it is more accurately the criminalization of drug use, the unregulated market, poverty, violence, and social isolation that produce many of the consequences mistakenly attributed to the drug itself.
When I take these three observations – that being burned in a meth lab is not the same thing as using the drug, that Rehabs.com uses a questionable methodology to produce its infographic, and that historically, the social context of drug use is as harmful (if not more harmful) than the drug itself – I wonder if perhaps the rhetoric of this meme is a little quick and dirty. Maybe what we see in this infographic is less REAL than it initially seems.
At first glance, mugshots seem to be pretty hard to argue against as purveyors of the REAL. After all, the image is only documentary and intended for a limited audience. Mugshots are neutral, objective images that aim only to reproduce what is before the camera with no rhetoric, artistry, or nuance. The mugshot is similar to Barthes’s press photograph, which also claims simply to represent reality. By seeming to capture what is REAL, press photographs and mugshots preclude secondary meanings or interpretation because they present “reality” completely. There is no code; these images just are.
Additionally, mugshots are paradoxically similar to glamour shots. In a glamour shot, the model gazes with unfocused eyes over the heads of the photo’s audience. Similarly, the person in a mugshot gazes at no one, gives no thought to audience. In both cases, we are looking at someone who is disinterested in our gaze. According to John Berger, glamour shots are about producing envy because the “happiness of being envied is glamour.” The mugshot has the exact opposite function; the two photographs are inversions. The mugshot substitutes fear and loathing for admiration and envy. Operating as a parody of the glamour shot, the mugshot substitutes social death for success.
When exposed to the public gaze, mugshots are both familiar and alien. We cannot help but feel like we have seen something not intended for our eyes. As an image of reality not even meant for our gaze, we feel even more certain – as peeping Toms must – that we are seeing unguarded, un-self-aware, REAL truth. Additionally, our gaze is directed along the same lines as the law. We look as an officer would look, which grants us a distance from which to judge. The existence of the photo implies criminality; our access implies the privileges of the law-abiding. In these ways, the publication of these mugshots enables them to participate in ideological construction even as they imply an absence of ideology.
It’s not enough to look at these mugshots as individual photos, however, because Rehabs.com is sequencing them in order to make an argument. These images, sequenced in chronological order, act like a highlights reel confirming the presumed course of addiction. They must be read in relation, as a sequence of cause and effect, change over time, and – hence – as history.
As I have argued elsewhere, addiction can never be understood simply as a static concept. Addiction requires change over time, usually from experimentation to regular use to dependence to loss of control. Addiction is the sequence, not simply the endpoint. We see this sequence represented both in the anti-alcohol campaign’s “drunkard’s progress” and in the inverted narrative arc found in visual representations of “Jellinek’s curve.”
By existing together, the mugshots rely on our acceptance of a drug narrative that follows a presumed unidirectional trajectory while obscuring all other moments in a life. Moments that are lost might include violence, hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, disease, sexual abuse, depression, loneliness, poor nutrition, as well as sobriety, love, adventure, humor, community. In the absence of context, we are left to assume that the only significant variable was meth.
When placed in a sequence, these mugshots also begin to resemble a comic strip, with the zombified face as a punchline. According to Scott McCloud, comics function by “stripping down an image to its essential ‘meaning’” in order to “amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.” In other words, cartoon images oversimply in order to highlight one message instead of risking a multiplicity of meaning. Stripped of context or individual experience, the images in Rehabs.com’s infographic also obscure alternative interpretations, investing meth with the same magical power as was previously invested in marijuana, gin, opium, heroin, cocaine, and crack.
A significant part of the strength of an intervention like this is that we “read” mugshots as uncoded, not rhetorical, and it is this presumed lack of rhetoric that, paradoxically, lends the infographic its power. More precisely, shock tactics like these use claims of transparent reality and their resemblance to images we have been socialized to understand as arguments (usually to buy a product; in this case, not to buy a product) to lull us into thinking that we know all there is to know about meth and the people who use meth. By looking and nodding our heads knowingly, we are reinforcing the primacy of a single narrative about drug use and addiction. Each repetition of the narrative only serves to reinforce its naturalness, closing off the possibility of more complex lived experiences.
All of this would be ok, I think, if the infographic “worked.” It would be nice if it was successful because otherwise, it is just spectacle at the expense of individual privacy, functioning as a cyber stockade or a scarlet A (for addiction). These images have produced plenty of light, making appearances in the media as well as circulating around the internet. But have they produced any heat? Has anyone about to try meth decided not to because they remember the infographic? I doubt it. There has been plenty of evidence that scare tactics don’t prevent people from trying drugs. Young people, after all, are immune to negative consequences – at least, in their minds.
That’s one way to measure success. Here’s another: Rehabs.com is a startup company hoping to create the go-to website for people seeking treatment. For their purposes, then, “success” is most accurately measured by shares, site visits, “likes” on facebook and, later, in market share. By this measure, the campaign worked; heck, I’ve even contributed to its success by writing about it. After all, no publicity is bad publicity — unless you are one of the people whose lowest moments were captured with an unflattering camera for all to see and judge.