Stories concealed by addiction

Jillian Bauer is exhausted. Her hand tremors slightly when she wraps it around the almost empty coffee cup. Everything about her demeanor – slumped shoulders, dark circles – indicates a string of too many late

Jillian Bauer is exhausted. Her hand tremors slightly when she wraps it around the almost empty coffee cup. Everything about her demeanor – slumped shoulders, dark circles – indicates a string of too many late nights, but there is also a spark in Bauer’s eyes, one that would be hard-pressed to go unnoticed.

There is something keeping Bauer going, and it’s not caffeine. That motivation fuels her desire to tell stories.

There is a specific kind of narrative Bauer is interested in telling, at least for her new undertaking, “The Rooms Project,” a multimedia venture rooted in photography that tells the often-hidden account behind recovering alcoholics and addicts. Though the project is not associated with any institution, recovery method or program, Bauer feels it is an important healing tool.

Bauer is passionate about “The Rooms Project,” and there’s a reason for that.

“I am a recovering alcoholic,” Bauer said. “But, I’m also a lot of other things.”

One of those other things, she said, is a storyteller.

“Visual storytelling is kind of my thing,” Bauer, 30, said with a smile – and she has the repertoire to prove it. After completing her undergraduate journalism degree at Temple in 2006, Bauer went on to start her own photography business, teach as an adjunct in journalism and design classes at her alma mater and pursue a Master’s degree in interactive design and media at Philadelphia University.

To this day, Bauer said she can still recall the exact moment when she realized photography was not only a hobby, but also a passion that would come to shape her entire life.

She said her love for photography was kindled when she began to notice severe socioeconomic issues during her time as an undergraduate. Bauer tried to write articles surrounding these issues, but to no avail – her words were never as vivid and visceral as she desired.

“I took a candid photo of a guy waiting for a bus at City Hall and that photo, to me, said more about those issues than you could describe to somebody in a five hundred or six hundred word article,” Bauer said.

From there, it just suddenly clicked for her.

“A frame is a way for us to tell a story,” Bauer said.

Now, she wants to tell the stories of alcoholics and addicts in a new light. Bauer said she believes a photo is worth a thousand words, but she hopes she can bring a fresh meaning to the old cliché. Part of that new meaning comes from Bauer’s own experience in the recovery process.

Bauer said she struggled with alcohol from the time she picked up her first or second drink. She also recalled her preconceived notion of what an alcoholic or addict was – a notion that hindered her ability to seek help.

“Alcoholics, in my mind, had lost it all, or never had ‘it’ to begin with. Whatever that ‘it’ is,” Bauer said. “But then I went to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and none of those people there fit the stereotype I had built up in my mind of what a recovering alcoholic was.”

The more Bauer heard of peoples’ stories, the more she realized there was a parallel between her own and theirs.

“When I was able to identify with each of these people, because we have this disease in common, I saw the variety in the rooms of recovery,” Bauer said. “That variety reflects what you would see in any public setting.”

Bauer did not realize the people she would meet in recovery would not fit the dark stereotype of an alcoholic or addict she had created in her head.

“If I had known that, I would’ve gotten sober sooner,” Bauer said.

Now, Bauer wants to make sure no one else struggling with an addiction feels that way.  One of the most important points of The Rooms Project, Bauer said, is that all kinds of people are affected by alcoholism. She hopes to undeniably show that idea to the world.

“I started setting up portrait dates,” Bauer said. “I would tell whoever I was photographing to choose a place that says something about who they are as a person outside of recovery, or shows them in an environment they would not be in without recovery.”

Victoria Mier can be reached at

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