Photographer captures portraits of recovery

Coral-colored sunsets, rugged rock walls, a leafless tree dusted with snow, those are the kinds of images Edmund Smith planned to share in an exhibit of his fine-art photography.

A death in the family changed those plans.

“In February, my half-brother passed away from narcotic pain medication and alcoholism. He was 53 when he died,” Smith said. “I decided I’d really like to make these pictures something else.”

Now, his photo exhibit showcases strong faces, not the natural beauty of the Skagit Valley where Smith makes his home.

“Portraits in Recovery,” a photography show now on view in Mount Vernon, was born of Smith’s hard-earned knowledge that others do recover from substance abuse. Smith’s photo exhibit is open through July 31 in the Lincoln Theatre Gallery in Mount Vernon. He’ll be at the gallery from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday for an artist’s reception.

Smith knows his subject — and his subjects. He has two careers. In addition to running a ­photography business in Mount Vernon, he has worked for years as a chemical dependency counselor. “Right now I work for an agency in Snohomish County,” he said Thursday.

The people pictured in the exhibit aren’t his clients, but all of them have struggled with drug or alcohol dependency or addiction.

“All the photographs are colleagues and friends, people who’ve been in recovery and have multiple years of recovery,” the 40-year-old Smith said. Each face is identified by first name only. The black-and-white pictures, which aren’t for sale, are accompanied by quotes from the subjects.

Smith knows well what they’ve been through, both from professional and personal experience.

“I’ve been sober nine years. My life was very bad, a sad life. I got sober and got better,” said Smith, who grew up in Philadelphia and has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts photography from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.

“I got into a 12-step program nine years ago. You keep doing what you need to do to take care of yourself. That’s what I do,” he said.

He’s seen agonizing failures. His half-brother, he said, had tried 12-step programs and his family had tried to help. “He was in a revolving door,” Smith said. Yet through his counseling work, Smith said he’s seen hundreds of people strive to overcome substance abuse.

That determination shines in his pictures.

“Everybody has a common look, one of strength, perseverance and hope,” he said.

“One person is looking up, as if toward a higher power. One has an eyebrow raised. There are different expressions, but what connects them is hope and strength,” he said. “They have been able to weather the storm. That’s not to say you put booze and drugs down and everything gets better all of a sudden. It’s very difficult.”

Smith wants to share the message that people can get well — and stay well. The pictures don’t lie.

Every day, it seems there’s word of some celebrity being in or out of rehab. “In the media, you don’t learn a lot about people who stay on track and make something of their lives,” Smith said. “They blend in and become normal citizens. What an amazing accomplishment that is. There’s hope. There’s long-term sobriety.”

In the exhibit, Smith includes a quote with each face. One man pictured, identified only as Tom, answered the question “What does recovery mean to you?”

Sober for eight years, the man said: “One word, ‘freedom.’ Freedom to be the kind of person that God, my family and my friends always knew that I could be.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,

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