When Indianapolis-based photojournalist Bill Foley asked people living in his hometown who had used opioids why they chose to enter recovery treatment, he said they all gave him the same answer.
“I interviewed and photographed roughly 44 people,” Foley said. “I asked everybody at the end of my interviews, ‘What was the catalyst for you to go into recovery?’ … The answer was, ‘I didn’t want to die.’”
Foley said he used his connections with recovery coaches in the Indianapolis area to ask some patients if they would be comfortable being interviewed and photographed. Each subject also signed releases. He said he approached the portraits similar to his work for The Associated Press and Time Magazine and was grateful people were open to sharing their stories with him.
Foley said he spent six or seven months on this assignment for the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites to be displayed in the exhibit "FIX: Heartbreak and Hope Inside Our Opioid Crisis." Now, 10 of Foley’s subjects can be seen in the FIX exhibit at Minnetrista on display through May 2022 before it returns to the state museum.
The Ball Brothers Foundation and George and Frances Ball Foundation are two of the sponsors of the exhibit, and Ashley Mann, associate director of experience and education at Minnetrista, said foundation leadership wanted the exhibit displayed locally in Muncie.
“We brought it here because we felt like the opioid crisis or substance use disorder is a major issue everywhere, but especially in this area right now,” Mann said. “We could use as many resources as we can get, and it's a public health problem that needs to be brought out and worked out.”
Jessica Jenkins, vice president of collections and storytelling at Minnetrista, said about 12 people helped move the FIX exhibit from the state museum to Minnetrista’s Cultural Center.
“Our team and the state museum’s team worked very closely on figuring out how to not just get it here literally on the road and get it to Minnetrista, but also how to make the exhibit that they designed to fit their gallery spaces then work in our galleries,” Jenkins said. “So, we worked very closely with them to kind of adjust the design to make it work in our space.”
Jenkins said each piece in the exhibit had to be broken down before traveling to Muncie to be reconstructed in the Minnetrista gallery space with help from Indianapolis exhibit technicians.
“It's always wonderful to see an exhibit get installed because you go from bits and pieces to this full beautiful, built-together thing that's telling a story [and] sharing a message,” she said. “That was really wonderful to see happen in our space.”
Mann said she appreciates how the FIX exhibit emphasizes a personal connection to the opioid epidemic through displaying statistics of how many people have been affected by opioid use in Indiana and also bringing in other addictions including alcohol, tobacco, shopping and social media.
“[The exhibit] brings the substance use disorder into the light and makes it less of a taboo subject — it destigmatizes it a lot,” she said. “That was the goal — to make people understand that this isn't just whatever sort of derogatory term you want to use, the person on the street or whatever. This is people who live next door to you, and it's a disease — it is no choice. It's something that changes your brain function.”
Minnetrista staff set up a resource center that greets visitors after they’ve traveled through the exhibit with pamphlets on health and emotional support systems available in Muncie and Indiana. Mann said the resource center isn’t just for people who use opioids but those worried about their family members or neighbors as well.
“It really brings it to people so they don't have to seek it out,” she said.
Mann said she worked with an advisory committee made up of local Muncie organizations with expertise in substance use recovery to help her organize programming around FIX and offer support in the resource center. Local exhibit partners including Meridian Health Services, Open Door Health Services and other treatment facilities are promoted in the resource center.
Both the resource center and overall exhibit aim to help people affected by opioids and to inform visitors of the epidemic, Mann said.
“I think the main thing is to destigmatize the substance use disorder, and to understand it and to not be as derogatory because sometimes people don't even know that they are being derogatory,” she said. “I think destigmatizing the disease, understanding it as a disease and not just a choice that people make — I think those things are pretty important.”
Brian Mancuso, chief officer of engagement for the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites, said he started developing the idea for the FIX exhibit in 2018 with other team members as a way to support Gov. Eric Holcomb’s NextLevel Recovery plan, which aims to prevent drug dependence through marketing campaigns and legislation like allowing people to accept less than the prescribed dose of opioids and piloting mobile treatment facilities.
Mancuso said the state museum’s creative teams wanted to create a “safe space for people to go in and explore this topic that has a lot of unknowns.”
Through interactive exhibits and close consultation with recovery experts, Mancuso said the exhibit is different from other ways people probably interact with the opioid epidemic, such as news articles, movies or lectures.
“The different ways that you consume something or the different ways that you experience something really speaks to different learners,” he said. “We tried to tap into many different kinds of learners in FIX.”
Mancuso said before the exhibit was created, state museum staff talked with employees from the Family and Social Services Administration to determine how the museum could help people recovering from substance use.
“We can’t offer recovery beds, we’re not a hospital — we’re not a lot of things that typically people would reach for to address it,” he said. “We all landed on that we were there to reduce stigma by increasing understanding, by increasing conversation … every piece in there is about humanizing those in recovery, amplifying their stories and decreasing stigma.”
Mancuso said he wanted to make sure the exhibit was welcoming to all visitors and created a safe, judgement-free space for people to explore different topics about the opioid epidemic.
When Foley visited the exhibit with his portraits of people recovering from substance use, he said he thought it was put together well. The goal of his portraits, he said, was to show how everyone makes mistakes and those mistakes don’t define people’s lives. While taking photos, Foley said he wanted to make sure his portraits told the story of his subjects and not just one moment in their lives.
“I haven’t seen the show in Muncie, but I visited the show here in [Indianapolis] numerous times,” Foley said. “Every time I went to the museum, I would learn something new. That’s the great thing about this show — everyone can learn something.”