Interview: Photographer Graham MacIndoe

When Graham MacIndoe's life fell apart through drug addiction, he charted his decline on film. Now clean and with a Scottish National Portrait Gallery show, the photographer tells Susan Mansfield about the long road to recovery

Self-portrait of Graham MacIndoe
© Graham MacIndoe
Self-portrait of Graham MacIndoe © Graham MacIndoe

Curled up in pain on the floor of a prison cell in Riker’s Island jail, New York, was the moment Graham MacIndoe hit rock bottom. In ten years, the Scots-born photographer had seen his life disintegrate, from being a professional at the top of his game, flying around the world on photographic assignments, to a penniless addict, convulsed with the agony of heroin withdrawal in New York’s infamous prison.

“That was my rock bottom, but it was also the start of rebuilding my life,” he says, looking back. “It was a moment of clarity for me when I realised the state I was in. It took a long time for me to realise how much I’d messed up and how much work I had to do to make it better again.”

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It took longer still to be able to look at the photographs, stored on old memory cards and pen drives; the photographs he took as his life descended into chaos, a close-up view of addiction from the inside, a set of self-portraits unlike any other.

An image from Coming Clean by Graham MacIndoe at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

A series of 25 of these images is now in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, where they will be exhibited for this first time this month. Coming Clean is raw, vulnerable and uncompromising. MacIndoe the addict, gaunt and heavy-eyed, squints at himself in a bathroom mirror, prepares his next fix on a dirty table-top, drops into unconsciousness, a track of blood running down his arm from the vein he has just injected. “I didn’t gloss it over or romanticise it or make it voyeuristic, it’s pretty much what you see is what you get, that’s how I wanted to show it.”

Now 53, he has been clear of drugs for over six years and is working as a photographer and teacher of photography. “For a while it was hard for me to look at the pictures. Early on in my recovery, I wasn’t really in a place to do that. It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to put them out there.”

It was a body of work consciously assembled, even as MacIndoe’s life spiralled out of control. “I was taking them for a reason. To be honest, there was probably an inclination in the back of my mind that if I don’t make it out of this, maybe somebody will find these. I never would have thought that they would end up in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, that’s humbling, it’s a massive thing.”

MacIndoe grew up in Broxburn, West Lothian, and studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art before falling in love with photography. After a Masters at the Royal College of Art in London, he moved with his then wife and their one-year-old son to New York, where he gradually established himself as a name to watch, working for top newspapers and magazines. By the time he was in his thirties, he was in demand, flying to China, Japan and South Africa on assignments, photographing celebrities including Michael Jackson and Gary Oldman.

An image from Coming Clean by Graham MacIndoe at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

But the demands of the job, and pressures in his personal life meant than he sought relief, first in drinking heavily, then in cocaine, which led on to crack and finally heroin. Were the drugs just another aspect of the fast-paced world in which he moved? “They were around a bit more than in the world I was in before, but I’m not afraid to take full responsibility. I don’t think it was the world or the people I was with, I think it was me. I have a very compulsive nature. I went from being a casual drug-user to being somebody who became more dependent, then got an addiction, and then that addiction became totally uncontrollable, but it’s a slow process, it’s insidious. There’s a lot of denial. You always think you’re going to be able to pop out of it whenever you want.”

Eventually, the addiction swallowed his career, his relationships, even his home. Living in the projects with other addicts, he dropped off the radar. Even his parents didn’t know if he was alive or dead. But he was still taking photographs. His top-flight equipment long gone, he bought cheap digital cameras in pawn shops and photographed himself using basic self-timer mechanisms, his photographer’s eye as clear and unflinching as ever.

“Even in that haziness of addiction I was thinking like a photographer. I was acutely aware of the environment I was in, and that this was something very far removed from what my life had been before. It just seemed very instinctive for me to start recording that. Initially, I had thought I could take pictures of other people taking drugs, but I felt like a voyeur. Gradually, I had this notion: I’m doing the same as they are, if I start taking pictures of me that’s less exploitative.”

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In 2010, his world came crashing down when he was arrested for drug possession and sent to Riker’s Island. “I was just blown away, I kept thinking ‘you’ve got this wrong, I’m this white guy from Scotland, you can’t be doing this to me!’” The other prisoners nicknamed him “Braveheart”. Detoxing was punishing, physically and psychologically, as he began to see clearly for the first time the impact his addiction had had on his family and friends.

When he was released, he was ready for a fresh start, but instead found himself in the midst of a new nightmare: he was picked up and detained by the immigration department. Although he was a permanent resident of the United States, his criminal conviction made him eligible for deportation. “That was so bad it made Riker’s Island look good. I had gone through Riker’s keeping clean, and was positive about trying to pull my life together, but was then pulled into this even darker, more painful world. Being deported meant being separated from my son and taken back to a country I hadn’t lived in for years, leaving everything I had done behind.”

It was then that Susan Stellin, a journalist with whom he’d had a relationship in 2006, managed to track him down. With her help, he was able to assemble the documents necessary to make a case for staying in the US. She is now his partner, and they have written a book together, Chancers: Addiction, Prison, Recovery, Love – One Couple’s Memoir. He also managed to get a place on an innovative recovery programme in the prison. “It was for prisoners, not immigration detainees, but I managed to talk my way on to it, being Scottish and that,” he grins. He describes it as “the real building block of my recovery”, giving him the tools to rebuild bridges with the people he had let down.

As he and Stellin travel to Scotland for the opening of Coming Clean, he is aware that, powerful as the photographs are, the most important exhibit is, in a sense, himself: after the destructiveness of addiction portrayed in the pictures, he is living proof that recovery is possible. I ask him how he feels about the fact this body of work will represent him in the national collection for posterity.

“I think it’s really important for me that it’s this body of work. The pictures always resonate with people, and people always come away changed in some way. I think that’s what art and image-making is really about. It’s been a long, long time in the making, and there’s been a lot of water under the bridge.”

Graham MacIndoe: Coming Clean is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, from 8 April until 5 November