HELLBENDER - PhMuseum

HELLBENDER

Jared Ragland

2015 - 2019

In April 1862 – just a year into the American Civil War – The New York Times reported on a dispatch from Union troops titled, “Advance into Alabama.” It read:

An hour before sundown we reached another barren region inhabited by poor white trash. Their houses were of the worst imaginable description, and how they managed to obtain a living upon such as soil, was a problem to us. Yet hither the pitiless monopoly of the slaveholding class had driven them, and, by some means were other, they managed to wring sufficient food to keep themselves and their children from starving, out of these inhospitable rocks.[i]

Impressions of Alabama have changed little in 150 years, particularly as the roots of deep poverty have perpetuated class division and precipitated widespread drug addiction.

Southern Gothic literature has described the American South as a deeply flawed place, where the lives of eccentric characters are shaped by poverty, alienation, crime, and violence as they struggle through morally questionable actions to make sense of the world around them. Characters in stories by Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Harry Crews both embody the madness, despair, and decay found in the social realities that surround them and offer critique of conventional cultural understandings.

Similarly, HELLBENDER tells the complex, often contradictory stories of more than two dozen people from Sand Mountain, a sandstone plateau in northeast Alabama infamous for extreme poverty, poultry processing plants, Pentecostal snake-handlers, and meth production. In the project we meet Chico, an ex-convict, meth dealer, and self-proclaimed member of the Aryan Brotherhood; Ryan and Alice, a young runaway couple on the brink of a lifetime of addiction; LaShay, a young mother subjected to routine domestic violence; Willow, a transient, chronic binge user; and Fred, a long-time user who lost everything he owned in a house fire.

Through the combination of first person accounts, ethnographic interview texts, research analysis, and documentary photographs, HELLBENDER seeks to engage with the current conversation concerned with the pivotal political role and cultural identity of the rural American South and reveal how people who use methamphetamine navigate social and economic marginalization.

[i] “Gen. Mitchell’s March Into Alabama,” originally published by The New York Times, April 14, 1862 and reprinted in Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington, Addison-Wesley, 1995.

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  • Sand Mountain, Alabama.

  • Chico, 48. Chico, wearing a Dia de los Muertos mask, sits in his living room under a swastika, the US Constitution, and a Confederate flag. Chico has used meth nearly every day since the late nineties and lives in a mobile home on family property. A self-proclaimed member of the Aryan Brotherhood, Chico (who is of Mexican heritage) often paints large swastikas, anarchy symbols, and threatening words on the interior and exterior walls of his trailer to project a menacing persona.

  • Michael, 8. Michael is the son of meth users. The first time Michael’s mother, Misty, used meth she went on a five day binge. On the fifth day she woke up to find her oldest son drowning in the bathtub. The boy was resuscitated, but soon after he and two other children were taken from Misty’s care. Michael is the only child who remained in her custody.

  • Billy, 48.

  • Chico, high on meth.

  • Legal, 22. Legal is a target for the local police and is arrested regularly.

  • Jennifer and her boyfriend Jason with a neighbor's child.

  • Willow, 37. Willow tries to inject but struggles to find a vein, sticking herself half a dozen times before blaming me for making her nervous with the camera. Willow is a chronic binge user who lived in more than six homes in less than nine months.

  • Ryan, 22. Upon his release from jail Ryan walked more than 20 miles from the sheriff’s office to his parent’s house in a neighboring county. He had served three months for stealing from friends, family and strangers to support his meth habit. While in jail he found Jesus, became a born again Christian and swore off meth, but he was turned away by his father when he arrived back home. After reuniting with his ex-girlfriend, Alice, he moved into a trailer with her and began using again, this time with needles.

  • Michael, 8.

  • Legal's prison tattoos.

  • Pat, 49. Pat recently suffered a heart attack but continues to smoke meth.

  • Sand Mountain, Alabama.

  • Jennifer, 38. Jennifer was coming down from a meth binge and had not eaten in more than three days. In addition to finding a frozen pizza in the cooler, she also found a bottle of what she suspected was frozen urine, kept to pass drug tests.

  • Chelsea, 48. A preacher’s daughter and college graduate, Chelsea struggles to justify her ongoing meth use and sexuality with her conservative, Pentecostal upbringing. She currently lives in a small tool shed where she and her friends used to meet to get high.

  • Legal’s mother, known locally as “Mama,” takes a late-night walk through her neighborhood. Mama looks after people in her trailer park and can often be found cooking or comforting her neighbors.

  • Meth Monster drawing on a wall inside a trailer.

  • Mono, 40. Mono arranges clothes for a garage sale. Together with a friend, Mono sold just enough to buy a quarter gram of meth, hardly enough to split and both get high. “Meth makes me forget about my problems, it makes me not think about them. Look, I might use and all that, but… I’m one of the good bad people. I’m a good, bad person. That’s what I tell everybody.”

  • Fred, 53. Fred lived in a house he inherited from his mother, sharing the spare bedrooms with fellow meth users. He spends $500-600 a month on his habit. The house burned down after a housemate got high and set a fire in the living room. Fred lost his three dogs along with everything he owned. Because he had nowhere else to go he remained in the soot-filled charred remains with three other users for months. “I gave him food and clothes and a place to sleep,” said Fred, “and he took the only thing my parents left me. I don’t know what to do.”


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