“Face of Cannabis” by Colorado-based artist and photographer Nichole Montanez is a touching and thought-provoking series of black-and-white images depicting children who have benefited from medical marijuana. Since launching the project over five years ago, Montanez has photographed 284 children and 11 adults, including five current NFL players and one former player, a senator, and two veterans. Beginning with about 80 images, “Face of Cannabis” now consists of 105 photographs — and counting.
The project started in 2013, inspired by Montanez’s niece Hailey (aka “Teapot”), who in 2008 was diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy characterized by frequent, prolonged seizures as well as behavioral, developmental, and speech delays. After Teapot began to have seizures as an infant, Montanez became aware of Charlotte Figi, another Colorado-based youth with the same syndrome who was having success with CBD.
While working as a graphic artist and designer for The Gazette, Montanez photographed Figi in May of 2012 for an article on the subject of medical cannabis. Soon after it published in 2013, Sanjay Gupta‘s Weed documentary series began airing on CNN, and as a result, more families were moving to Colorado for access to medical cannabis. Soon, other states looking to pass similar legislation asked Montanez to photograph their children, too.
“Watching states one by one pass laws was a great thing to witness,” Montanez tells High Times. “But the greatest thing for me was being here at the center of the movement and having a front row seat to wellness. There is no cure and cannabis is not a miracle. But I have watched it ease the suffering over and over again. And that’s really what it’s all about. The chance to answer that lingering question, ‘What if this works for my child?'”
To create her digital photographs, Montanez brings the studio to the children, most often with a simple dark backdrop and a carefully positioned stationary light. “Technically and artistically, the project presented a few difficulties,” she explains. “I knew I couldn’t use flash photography. The majority of kids included in the project have catastrophic epilepsy, and light can be a seizure trigger.”
As there was no single studio, Montanez shot everywhere from family homes, fire stations, and hospital beds to the inside of SUVs, state capitols, parking lots, and shopping malls. “Many of the portraits were spontaneous and under low-light conditions. My one light was often less than ideal,” Montanez says. “But I learned to adapt early on and let go of the notion that I was in control of any part of this. Every portrait was child-led, and I was happy to walk away with at least one usable frame.”
Montanez says that the most difficult part of the project is unquestioningly when a child dies. But there are also reasons to remain hopeful. For Montanez, the project was never just about cannabis. “It was always about children,” she says. “As I see the industry grow and CBD goes mainstream I’d really love it if people would always remember the children. They are the ones who made it all possible.”
“Face of Cannabis” is on view August 3, 2019 at La Bodega Gallery in San Diego. Next year, it is scheduled to travel to Lowell, Massachusetts and Grand Junction, Colorado. There is also a hardcover book version of the project published in December, 2018, which one of Montanez’s child subjects calls “the seizure yearbook.” See more photos from “Face of Cannabis” below.
Sydni suffers from Doose syndrome. She began having seizures at four years of age. Sydni’s was the first “Face of Cannabis” portrait, taken August 31, 2013.
14-year-old Reggie (left) suffered from Dentatorubral-Pallidoluysian Atrophy, a progressive brain disorder. His family relocated to Colorado from Florida to try CBD. Cora (center) was born with Macrocephaly-Capillary Malformation and began having seizures at five months of age. She lives in Colorado with her family and began using CBD in 2014. Maitri (right) began having seizures at 5 1/2 years of age. She moved with her mother to Colorado from Vermont in 2014 to try CBD.
15-year-olds Jennifer and Haley walk up the Virginia state capitol stairs following a “Face of Cannabis” photo shoot in May, 2015. Haley suffers from Dravet Syndrome and had her first seizure at five months of age. Jennifer, too, suffers from epilepsy and briefly moved to Colorado from Virginia in 2013 to try cannabis. She found relief from THCa and returned to her home state to fight for cannabis reform. Both girls, along with their mothers, were among the children instrumental in changing medical cannabis laws in the state of Virginia.
Scout (left) was born with cortical dysplasia. He suffered his first seizure at 10 months of age. The cause of the seizure was a lesion on the right side of his brain. A cyst was later discovered on the left side, and he underwent surgery to remove both of those when he was three years old. Scout lives in Idaho and took part in a “Face of Cannabis” photo shoot to help raise awareness and attempt to change laws. Brooklyn (center) suffered from intractable epilepsy and began having seizures at three months of age. Robby is pictured at the right.
Kaitlyn holds her three-year-old daughter Kennedee at their home in Fountain, Colorado, October 22, 2014. These would be the last photos of her. Kennedee’s parents had just initiated hospice and taken their daughter home. Walker Warburge Syndrome had already claimed the life of her older sister at the age of two months. When Kennedee was born with the same syndrome, she was sent home on hospice, but she had survived. Her parents credit CBD for quality of life during her last year.
12-year-old Caden walks down an alley in downtown Colorado Springs, November, 2015. Caden suffers from Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome. His mother moved with her two young sons to Colorado in 2013 to treat Caden with CBD. The family has since returned to their home state of Georgia where laws have been changed to allow use of CBD in children with epilepsy.
Nine-year-old Maddie stops to feel the pavement in an alley in downtown Colorado Springs in October, 2015. Maddie suffers from Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome. She and her mother moved to Colorado from North Carolina to try CBD.