Photo Exhibition Hides Humanity of Drug Users in Shadows

Gaunt and hollow-eyed, her face veiled in a swirl of smoke, the woman stares away from the camera, a glimpse of a dingy room in Phnom Penh behind her.

The image, described only as “a prostitute smoking ice,” offers few clues of her life beyond drug use.

A woman smokes crystal meth in Phnom Penh last year. Photo credit: Benjamin Haselberger

In “Into the Dark: Human Costs of Southeast Asia’s Ice Epidemic,” a photography exhibition now on display in the city, the subjects are nameless and without context—left almost entirely in the dark despite their faces being bathed in light.

At his show’s opening on Tuesday, German photographer Benjamin Haselberger, 43, said his work was more photojournalism than art. He chose to group 60-by-90 cm portraits with smaller scale, A4-sized images of scenes and reportage in order to emphasize his subjects.

“I wanted to show the individuals beyond the drugs,” he said.

But the photos—individually and as a series, from Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Manila, Vientiane and Tachilek, Burma—emphasize style over storytelling.

Mr. Haselberger has produced 53 intimate, affecting photos, yet his work leaves many unanswered questions about the lives of the crystal methamphetamine users he documents: Where do they live? Whom do they love? What do they do when they aren’t smoking meth?

Some photos show drug users in groups, or with children. These offer a fuller picture, depicting users as human beings with families and friends rather than stereotypical addicts disconnected from society.

Mostly, however, Mr. Haselberger’s subjects are referred to in captions only as “addicts” or “prostitutes.”

The result is an overdramatized, simplistic representation, rather than a nuanced story about people who use drugs that goes beyond the cliche.

“I really focused on the photos,” said Mr. Haselberger, who has been based in Bangkok since 2010. “I don’t think you need the whole story. A lot of them, I don’t even know their names.”

What: ‘Into the Dark’ photography exhibition

Where: Meta House, #37 Sothearos Blvd., Phnom Penh

When: Through February 25

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