Michael Willems

A drug den in Toronto. Michael Willems started photographing the people in this drug den as a long-term photojournalistic project, to show drug addicts as the complex people they are, not as two-dimensional clichés. “Look closely and you see some of that complexity,” says Michael. “A ‘sharps box’ half full of used needles and a carton of chocolate milk. An addict shooting up cocaine and an electric toothbrush on the sink.” Drug addicts, like all people, are multidimensional, and are not defined by their addiction alone.
This work was shown as part of Contact 2009, a Toronto-wide photo exhibit, and later, as a solo exhibit entitled IV – Intravenous, in The Kodiak Gallery in Toronto’s historic Distillery District. A photo book showed the story of the young couple that Michael followed, including how they eventually stopped using drugs. Reaction was overwhelming: at the exhibits, on CBC programs and in other media. “To this day,” says Michael, “I hear that people remember IV – Intravenous, and take a more nuanced view of drug addiction, seeing it as a serious medical problem that affects real people, rather than as a simple criminal problem.”

Michael Willems (www.michaelwillems.ca) is an Oakville-based photographer who thinks photography should make a difference.
The power of a single still image to contain an entire story in all its complexity and to evoke all manner of emotions drew Michael to photography early in life, when he was an engineer working in Africa and the Middle East. Later, he added formal training and eventually went full-time as a photographer and teacher—he now teaches worldwide and at Ontario’s Sheridan College, in addition to writing for Canada’s Photo Life magazine.
Flash is Michael’s specialist subject, but photojournalism is his passion. While he engages in virtually all types of photography, he feels strongly that photography has both the power and the duty to bring about social change, by simply informing as well as by showing the complexity of the issues that mass media often reduce to thirty-second black and white segments.