John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche
Addiction comes in many varieties. It might be biological, psychological, or, in many cases, a combination of the two. In fact, some researchers argue that the neurochemical activity underlying extremely compulsive behaviors, as in excessive gambling or computer use, resembles that in drug addictions. Despite the debates about how to define addictions and compulsions, their causes, and how to treat these problems, one fact is quite clear: Humans are very susceptible to them.
This image is not pleasant to look at. Many people say they feel sick or disgusted by it. In that sense, it succeeds in its purpose. Addiction indeed is a sickness that can overwhelm not only the people who experience it directly, but also their friends and family members who witness the tragedy.
I discovered this pot filled with cigarette butts outside a college dorm. After shooting it from different angles, I decided a straight down and head on viewpoint worked best. Just like addiction, the scene is "in your face" even though we try to stand above it. In fact, we might imagine that we are about to dive or fall right into the mess. The narrow depth of field, with the floor boards out of focus as well as darkened, enhances the impression that the flood of cigarettes is coming right up at us. Vignetting also keeps our eye from wandering away from the pot that challenges, confronts, even dares us to deal with it. During post-processing I darkened the tones, gave a rich density to the colors, and boosted contrast to increase the sharp, serious, and menacing quality of the shot.
A circular composition worked well for this subject. A circle suggests containment. Psychologically, it also symbolizes the self. So in this image we see a self filled to the brim with addiction - a self attempting to contain its dilemma. Yet the problem overwhelms the self, spilling outside, invading every nook and cranny of the surroundings. Cropping the image placed the pot-self in an off center, unbalanced, cornered, and trapped position, which is how addicted people often feel. I chose a brown frame to emphasize the circular shape of the container, as well as to imply the condition of the smoker's lungs.
We might hypothesize that many students deposited their cigarettes into this container. However, the fact that most of the butts look similar suggests that one person, smoking his or her favorite brand, filled this pot. Just the thought of one person smoking so much indeed feels sickening.
Would you like to read or participate in a discussion about this image in flickr?
Here are some other articles in Photographic Psychology that are related to this photo and essay:
"The follow-up to his groundbreaking volume The Heart of Addiction, Dr. Lance Dodes’s Breaking Addiction is a step-by-step guide to beating addiction of any kind—from drugs and gambling to alcoholism, overeating, and sex addiction. By recognizing and understanding the emotional forces underlying addictive behaviors, Dr. Dodes says any dangerous, life-destroying obsession can be overcome. Including special bonus sections for both families and health-care professionals, Breaking Addiction is the new handbook for those suffering from addiction—a valuable resource that addresses addiction’s root causes and serves as an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous and similar recovery programs." (available on Amazon)