Heroin isn’t chic - a statement that could not be displayed more clearly than in Loral Amir and Gigi Ben Artzi’s project, ‘Downtown Divas’. In the 16mm short film and photograph series, the pair took Russian heroin addicts out of their lives for a day and dressed them in the latest designs from Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton, Alexander Wang and more, presenting them to viewers in all their track-marked nakedness.
The result is uncomfortable and puts the viewer on edge as the women switch between lucidity and confusion, looking like lost children. The images show unquestionably candid and devastatingly honest bodies, their skin vivid of the mistakes they’ve made. Yet they grin innocently as they fiddle with their expensive skirts and pose suggestively in glittered sweaters and draping silver shorts – their price tags sitting at thousands of pounds in value. In some, their naked bodies are on full display, made all the more prominent by their awkward poses.
The women - who were mainly living off their work as street prostitutes – were, on occasion, too high to be photographed. As Loral explained in an interview with Bullett, “There were some girls that we brought to the studio but could not photograph because by the time we arrived, they were already so dope sick that it was just impossible to film them. They were like zombies.”
It’s akin to the work of Boris Mikhailov, another Eastern European photographer whose images document the true cost of the Soviet utopia as our eyes adjust to the terrifying reality of homelessness, drug abuse and alcohol addiction in a post-Soviet reality.
So what reality are Amir and Artzi trying to convey? Is the message intended to be about the horrors of an ever-present danger of young women working in the sex industry, restraining their liberty by injecting their bodies with a cornucopia of drugs? Or perhaps it goes further and opens our eyes to some shocking truths about the fashion world and its perceived glorification of the heroin chic model, prevalent in the 1990s.
Maybe it was to break down stereotypes; as Loral explained to Bullett: “I also thought it would be interesting to show a different side of the women and ignore that ‘drug addict’ tag that they carry around.” There are unquestionable moral and ethical questions that such a shoot raises; does it glorify drug use and sex work? Is it sensitive to the traumas that the women face? Has it taken advantage of their vulnerability, objectifying their vices for entertainment value?
Regardless of the motivation though, the effect of the images is jarring, touching and not something to be forgotten. The physical impact of their drug use cannot be ignored, however uncomfortable it may make the viewer feel.
Photography: Boris Mikhailov