Photographer Nichole Montanez exhibits at La Bodega Gallery.
When Colorado photographer Nichole Montanez first started photo series Faces of Cannabis, she thought she’d have a formatted style for each black and white portrait of children using cannabis medicinally. These children use the plant to treat illnesses like epilepsy and cancer. “I quickly learned that when you’re dealing with special needs kids, you’re not the boss,” says Montanez. “There’s a lot of nonverbal communication that happens when I’m with a child. I see them see me and we live in the in-between moments that people aren’t really paying attention to.”
Coming to La Bodega Gallery August 3, Faces of Cannabis celebrates pediatric cannabis patients — the people some parents say are responsible for select states’ cannabis legalization. At the August 3 show, Montanez will display a large installation of 105 portraits printed on metal tiles linked together. Twenty-three to 25 black and white photographs will be hung on the gallery walls. The detailed, full of personality portraits will be mostly children from Southern California, but Montanez has photographed hundreds of children across the U.S.
Montanez wasn’t a cannabis supporter until she met a child named Charlotte Figi in Colorado. Figi’s mom, Paige, decided to try medical cannabis to treat Charlotte’s Dravet syndrome (a rare, intractable epilepsy) in 2012. Paige found that a high CBD strain made by the Stanley Brothers both helped almost eliminate Charlotte’s seizures and was readily available. The Stanleys named the strain Charlotte’s Web after Charlotte. Cannabis’ found impact on epilepsy gave some parents hope and inspired some lawmakers to work on legalizing cannabis in their states. “When I saw Charlotte and how well she was doing, I couldn’t ignore it,” says Montanez. Montanez was particularly impressed because her niece Hailey McGuire (who goes by the nickname Teapot) also has Dravet syndrome and was in and out of hospitals. She began connecting with parents on pediatric cannabis Facebook groups, feeling an urgency to help them. “What I know how to do is raise awareness and try to put a new face on this because... when you think of cannabis — even if it was CBD — you think of smoking pot, getting high, the hippie culture,” says Montanez.
Her project took her all over the U.S. photographing children. One of these children was Caden Clark, who lives with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, a severe type of epilepsy. His mother, Kimberly Clark, says that she’d reached out to Montanez on Facebook prior to relocating to Colorado from Georgia for two years. The move was to get Caden medicinal cannabis legally, as it was illegal in Georgia at the time. “[Faces of Cannabis] made it possible for us to leave because every day Nichole was featuring these children and she was saying things like, ‘What I wanted to do was change the face of what cannabis looked like,’” says Kimberly. “When I would Google cannabis at the time, you would see a mugshot.”Kimberly says Montanez did a great job interacting with her son.
“The parents are able to take two steps back and let her interact with the children and get from them what really translates and transcends so well,” says Kimberly. “You’re really seeing them, not them reacting to their parents.”San Diego-based Allison Ray Benavidas and Rob Benavidas say they felt sad when seeing Montanez’s portrait of their son, Robby. He uses Charlotte’s Web oil to treat Doose syndrome, a form of epilepsy. “It’s pretty deep when you see these oversized portraits of these kids’ faces,” says Rob. “It’s beautiful, but it’s crushing.” The Benavidas family is organizing the San Diego show. Allison found out about Montanez’s work via pediatric cannabis Facebook groups. “It’s about recognizing our children for their contribution,” says Allison of Faces. “They’ve changed not only the medical marijuana movement, but they’ve changed medicine. I think any opportunity to honor and celebrate children who’ve been marginalized is important.”
The reason some states have legal cannabis today is because of pediatric cannabis patients, says Allison. Kimberly Clark echoes this sentiment. Clark was active in contacting her legislators to have medicinal cannabis use legalized in Georgia. “The ability for someone to walk into a dispensary and buy a joint is literally because someone else’s kid died,” says Allison.