I knew that following Dawn Nicole Smith’s progress through Fayette County Drug Court could take more than a year. That’s how long it takes most addicts to finish the intensive treatment program, if they finish at all.
Well, more than 8,000 photos, 10 hours of audio and three years after we met Dawn in March 2004, we’re publishing her story. We’re doing it in a six-part series using 18 inside pages in the newspaper and with 130 photos in a six-part multimedia presentation online.
Her story was far more complicated than I ever imagined. It tested me in ways I never predicted. There were occasional access issues. There were ethical dilemmas. There were scheduling problems. (How do I do my job on a regular basis and still find the time to spend with Dawn? How many times do I have to apologize to my wife and family for being with Dawn on our anniversary or a birthday?)
Dawn’s life – victimized by men and under the grip of addiction – was one I could only imagine a few years ago. Now having witnessed many of her most intimate troubles in person, I can say I have a new understanding – and compassion – for her and others like her.
Many of us know someone touched by addiction, whether to drugs or alcohol. But what we don’t understand – unless we’re living with the person – is the true degree of destruction it can have on a life.
Photographing Dawn throughout this story, sometimes when she was at her worst, was never easy. Her life was always in some kind of turmoil or chaos. But she never even hinted that she might not want her picture taken at one of those down times. She was very unaware of the camera, which is evident in many of the more intimate photos we published.
That brings me to one of the more telling photos I took during the course of this story. It is a picture of Dawn and her mother, Brenda Raines, in their Nicholasville home; they were on the brink of eviction. You can see in the body language how much alike the mother and daughter are. Looking from the outside, reporter Mary Meehan and I could see the traits, good and bad, passed from mother to daughter. We often wondered how much Dawn’s children would be like her.
This photo says a lot on its own. But I shot a number of photos that I thought revealed different aspects of their relationship. You can see the tension, the anger and the love between them.
Mary and I would frequently have discussions about where Dawn’s troubles started and how they could have been avoided. She later admitted that her life may gone down a different path had she lived with her father after her parents divorced.
No doubt, Dawn’s mother has had a huge impact on her life. Dawn would often complain about her mother’s behavior, yet we would see some of the same behaviors between Dawn and her children. We asked Dawn more than once if she saw the similarities, the continuing cycle. She couldn’t see it. Or maybe she didn’t want to see it.
For more about the story, you can read the editors’ blog, Behind the Headlines. All of the stories are available on Kentucky.com, and the six-part multimedia will be rolled out as the series is published this week.