Recovery exhibit receives award

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BRATTLEBORO — Each year the Vermont Association for Mental Health and Addiction Recovery gives out the Jack Barry Communications Award to an individual or group who has moved the needle of conversation about the value of recovery from addiction and mental health conditions - part of its day's affairs in February's Recovery Day at the statehouse in Montpelier. Photographer Michael Poster and Brattleboro Museum & Art Center's director Danny Lichtenfeld were invited to present a slideshow about the exhibit and events, "If she has a pulse, she has a chance" on addiction and recovery and the importance of never giving up that was hosted at the museum last fall. The day before they were headed to Montpelier they were informed that because of the impact that their exhibit had on the community, Poster and BMAC would be honored with this year's award.

And it was all born out of a serendipitous meeting.

BMAC's director Danny Lichtenfeld said that after addressing gun violence in the exhibit "Up in Arms: Taking Stock of Guns" in the fall of 2016 using the museum as a platform to open that conversation, the staff wanted to reach out to other organizations in the community to find ways to start their conversation. While considering how to address the opioid crisis affecting this community, the museum's curator Mara Williams happened upon a former exhibiter at the museum, Poster, who told her about his series of photos that he had been working on as a volunteer at Turning Point of Windham County, a resource for those recovering from addiction.

Lichtenfeld was thrilled that Williams had discovered this project. "When thinking about addiction, it is often dire and dark. What was awesome about Michael's exhibit was the hopefulness of recovery," he said. Along with Poster's stories and photographs, BMAC hosted five well-attended events during the exhibit, coordinating events with Turning Point, The Brattleboro Retreat, Groundworks Collaborative, and Poster on the topics of the difficulties of addiction and recovery while inspiring hope. This timely event spoke to people.

For Poster, the stories are personal.

His photography is exclusively about people on subjects as diverse as natural gas fracking to roller derby but usually about things he didn't know much about but wanted to learn, thinking his viewers would like to learn also. As a recovering addict he has been a volunteer at Turning Point since 2000 to help others struggling with addiction. He began to bring his camera, thinking that because it was in his past it could be helpful, maintaining a focus on recovery.

"As a culture, we tend to focus on pieces of things. Like focusing on addiction but the story of recovery is left untold," Poster said, "We need to know how brave these people are, I wanted to bring those to light." He continued, "I think the people in the pictures were pleased to be included and are also proud of them, to show what recovery looks like and that it can be done."

ROAD TO RECOVERY

Poster's story began in Philadelphia where his college plans were sidelined by his addiction. In recovery, he moved to Derby, Vt., where he knew some people in a commune. He said living in the woods was a big part of his recovery, the grit needed to live in northern Vermont helped him toughen.

Back in Philadelphia, he met his wife, began a professional woodworking business, raised children, picked up photography again, and remained in recovery. When fracking in Pennsylvania pushed them out, the family unilaterally agreed to settle in Vermont.

He said a lot has changed since the time he was an addict- there was no fentanyl and there was not much understanding about addiction and its urgency. But what lingers is the stigma. The title of the exhibit "If she has a pulse, she has a chance," came from interviewing a young woman named Ella, a recovering addict who is now a Pathways Guide who made the comment "If she has a pulse, she has a chance," making the point that it is worth it to revive overdoses. Recovery is not a straight line. It may take three times, it may take 10 times before it sticks, but there is always the chance for recovery. Poster wants people to know that recovery works, it takes bravery, and we should do the best to help them.

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"If she has a pulse, she has a chance" spanned two years of photographs including three essays written by Poster as stories told to him, and 13 stories of featured people created from their own stories. The essays are about very familiar faces in Brattleboro that are doing well.

Williams, said, "In 'If she has a pulse, she has a chance,' Poster introduces us to our neighbors — their struggles, bravery, and determination. His photographs are accompanied by 'as told to' narratives, expanding our understanding of how the demanding work of recovery requires hope, empathy, compassion, and the support of a robust community."

Poster said, "I was hoping to start a conversation. The result went beyond my expectations. The events, the panel talks, etc., did start the conversation thanks to the power of venues like BMAC t to start conversations. Hats off to BMAC."

Lichtenfeld said he personally learned a lot from reading the collective stories. "I have been fortunate in having not been touched by this (addiction). I was blissfully unaware of what many people suffer, what recovery is like and what it takes, and what it means to support people who are in recovery."

He would like to think that this was a learning experience for the viewers also. People who may have come in with views had their perception changed. "If you read the stories, see the pictures, you couldn't leave without realizing that those people had a hard time. Not of their own doing. They really deserve our help," he said.

Poster was lucky it only took once for his recovery, something that happens very rarely.

"I always use to call myself recovered until I listened to others' stories and the struggles they had and I realized I have been very lucky to not have suffered any trauma to put me into relapse," he said.

He now refers to himself as in recovery.

Lichtenfeld has tentative plans to tour the exhibit, sponsored by the Retreat, at other venues around the state. In the meantime, the photographs and stories may still be viewed at michaelposter.com.

"If she has a pulse, she has a chance" was supported in part by the Thomas Thompson Trust, the Vermont Arts Council, and National Endowment for the Arts.

Lichtenfeld said about receiving the award, "I am really proud, I had no idea that that was going to happen until the day before. It is nice to get that plaque."


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