“It Gave Me Hope”: Gene Smirnov Gives a Face to Recovering Addicts

Aug 5, 2019
Photographer Spotlight

Warm. Positive. Inspirational.

These are some of the words Gene Smirnov used to describe a recent project centered around people in the throes of addiction recovery. The Philly resident spent a week getting to know men and women in the area who have struggled with opioid addiction and are working to get their lives back. The project was part of a PSA that the health department of the City of Philadelphia developed to raise awareness of one of the tools available to help addicts.

BUPE people

I've always known that we had problems in the city, but never have I realized that most of these people are regular folks who just got into a bind. Often times, people who get addicted first get a prescription from a doctor to deal with pain from an injury. Later, they find themselves falling into it [and] can't stop taking the pills. Things go downhill real fast.

What unites these individuals is the way they’re handling their recoveries: each person takes a drug called BUPE (Buprenorphine), which helps people manage their addiction to heroin and/or prescription pain medications.  

Example of BUPE billboard

Generally, these programs are about awareness and clearing the stigma around substance abuse. ... [and] meeting these people opened my own eyes to the problem. Being present and empathetic is a must as you hear stories that break your heart, and, from that, you realize the gravity of their situation.

Mother of two

What I liked is seeing real people who have gotten their lives back. It gave me hope.

Hope is a word Gene uses quite a bit when discussing this project, one enmeshed in a “very serious topic” that the photographer wanted to imbue with a “warm, positive feeling.” Ask about his interactions with the subjects, and Gene will discuss them with an unmistakable air of optimism.   

Something I clearly remember is that spark in their eye. Everybody I met had a pep to their step, another chance at life. Granted, most of these people will still have to deal with their addiction for the rest of their lives, but at least now they have the tools and support to stay afloat.

Spanish version of the billboard

The person whose story most struck a chord with Gene was a mother of two adorable young children. Her struggles and subsequent recovery hit close to home.

Momma and children

I think that was a truly inspirational part of my project. I'm a parent myself, and it hurts for me to be away from my family, even for a day. So, when I've imagined myself not being able to be there for my daughter — or worse, not having my daughter in my life — I’ve felt for that woman, and I was tremendously happy for her and the future of her kids.

Momma and kiddos

The fact that BUPE worked for her gave me even more confidence and hope for the people who are suffering from opioid addiction. 

Gene’s work is all over Philadelphia, on highway and subway billboards as well as buses. Due to the personal nature of this project, when Gene sees his photos around the city, he reflects less on the work itself and more on the subjects.

BUPE Billboards

I see one billboard every time I drive downtown, and it feels strange. Not so much because these are my photos, but actually because these are the familiar faces I'm wholeheartedly happy for.

Philly billboard which Gene drives by often

Many of these people have an extreme focus on what they love, be it their kids, family, hobbies, or life aspirations. I think [their stories] can be very inspirational.

Check out more of Gene's work at genesmirnov.com.

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