The Discovery Project

ATLANTA — As Trace Taylor listened to a DeKalb County Drug Court participant share his struggle with drug addiction after suffering through Hurricane Katrina, an image of a man straining to carry a 12-foot pile of boxes popped into his head.

Those are the kinds of conceptual images the senior criminal justice major uses in his new research project, titled “The Discovery Project,” a photo documentary that aims to inform the public about the effectiveness of drug courts and how they can help change behaviors.

Taylor recently displayed the project at a Starbucks in Decatur Square on March 30 and in the GSU Undergraduate Research Fair.

“The way I see it addiction is the same across the board. It doesn’t have to be drugs,” Taylor said. “I wanted to use conceptual images that interpreted the themes of the project in sort of a creative way.”

Taylor, who grew up on a farm in the small town of Clear Springs, Ala., fell in love with photography after taking a class in high school. He pursued the craft in college at the University of Alabama Birmingham, but came to GSU with dreams of becoming a forensic photographer.

“I just loved the film process. Not just shooting, but printing, and just the amount of time that goes into and creating something that is yours,” he said. “Ever since I took that class, I always had a camera and was always shooting photos.”

Taylor said “The Discovery Project” was initially a research assignment for a GSU criminal justice course. He was presented the opportunity by criminal justice faculty Leah Daigle and Wendy Guastaferro.

“I told them that I’m like the most unique criminal justice major because I am also an artist,” Taylor said. “I had no idea what I wanted to do, but anything I could use my camera for and do some art. There hasn’t been much done qualitatively on how drug courts work, so this was sort of a pioneering opportunity for us.”

Taylor worked with the drug court’s director, Andrew Cummings, to come up with five themes to base his project around, which included “unmanageability,” “surrender,” “relapse,” “accountability” and “purpose.” Taylor learned about each theme as he listened to the participants in the program, who are expected to receive treatment as an alternative to a jail sentence.

“Unmanageability is instability. It’s what life was like in active addiction,” Taylor explains. “The next was surrender because it’s impossible for the treatment to work until that person surrenders and completely lets go.”

Taylor spent three months meeting face-to-face with more than 40 participants. He took pictures and recorded more than 500 minutes of the participants’ stories for the “The Discovery Project,” which viewers can listen to on headphones as they watch digital pictures roll across digital photo frames.

“We are always interested in nonconventional means of breaking down stigmas around addiction, particularly around the individuals in the criminal justice system,” Cummings said. “Working with Trace was an opportunity to do this and to use the participants’ own experiences and ideas to communicate with the public.”

Cummings said Trace was successful at creating a project that is “powerful and gripping.”

“You walk away with a sense of hope and a sense that people can change, but also how difficult change is,” Cumming said. “He did an awesome job.”

Taylor is one of many GSU students who have used experiential learning opportunities around Atlanta to expand their college experience. This summer, Taylor hopes he will have an internship at either the DeKalb County Drug Court or in a forensics department.

“There is a sense of humanity that I don’t think is recognized enough among drug courts and I really wanted to explore and promote that to the legal community and society as a whole,” Taylor said. “This work is showing how art can be used as a means of bridging the gap between the objectivity of the legal field and the subjectivity of the art world, and hopefully change a few minds and a few hearts in the process.”

To learn more about “The Discovery Project,” visit www.tracetaylor.com.

April 16, 2012