5-year-old Charlotte uses her talking device at her home in Black Forest, Colorado, May, 2013. Charlotte suffers from Dravet Syndrome and was featured in the 2013 CNN documentary WEED with Dr. Sanjay Gupta. (Photo Nichole Montanez)
Over five years Southern Colorado photographer Nichole Montanez has taken more than 200 portraits of children who are the ‘Face of Cannabis'.
When Southern Colorado photographer Nichole Montanez started photographing children who could or are benefiting from medical cannabis or CBD she didn’t know exactly where the project would take her. But she knew it was a story she wanted to tell.
Montanez’s niece had her first seizure at almost four months old. That eventually led to the “Face of Cannabis” portrait project Montanez started showing in Colorado this year. She wants to take the installment across the country.
“At the time I was like, ‘how does anybody know what a seizure even is?’” she said of her niece, who is now 12.
The seizures persisted and Montanez’s niece, Hailey, was eventually diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome, a form of epilepsy that typically occurs within an infant’s first year of life, and the illness doesn’t respond to medication.
“We had never heard of it. It was very rare and, according to what we could find – there were only about 700 confirmed cases,” Montanez, a graphic designer and artist who works at the Colorado Springs Gazette, said. “A lot of doctors outside of neurology had never heard of it.”
The diagnosis led Montanez and her family to a support group and people who shared similar experiences with Dravet Syndrome, including fellow Colorado Springs residents Paige Figi and her daughter Charlotte.
The two are most widely known for “Charlotte’s Web,” a CBD strain that is low in THC and helps Charlotte and dozens of other patients to control seizures. Montanez became a believer in what medical cannabis and CBD could do when she visited Figi and Charlotte one night at their home for dinner.
“We sat down to eat and she (Charlotte) started eating and that was the moment for me because she had been tube fed,” Montanez said. “My niece had recently stopped self-feeding.”
Montanez said she’d never voted for cannabis-related legislation. It wasn’t even really on her radar as a treatment until that evening. There’s still little known about the long-term effects of children using the drug, even as medication.
Eventually, Montanez picked up her camera and started photographing children like Hailey and Charlotte who have become the faces of the possibilities of medical cannabis. Montanez now has more than 10,000 images from the past five years — many are portraits, many others document the lives of the families who either use or fight for the option of using CBD or medical cannabis.
“The families didn’t ever really stop coming. I kept adding portraits and portraits and portraits,” she said.
In total, the photographer has 283 black and white portraits. Her work has been on display in Los Angeles, Dallas and most recently at the Fremont Center of the Arts in Cañon City, near where Montanez lives.
Not all of the portraits are of children who are CBD or medical cannabis users — but they are children who could possibly benefit from the substances.
“This was always meant to be the face, these are the kids that can benefit from it, and are fighting for a chance to try it,” she said.
Montanez has traveled to 13 states to meet and photograph children and their families, some who live with Dravet Syndrome, and several others who face different illnesses. She said she met and photographed families who illegally grow cannabis in their basements.
She’s also followed families to Washington, D.C., where they’ve become policy advocates for federal legalization of the medicinal use of cannabis.
“For every one of those portraits there are probably 10 more children that could use it,” she said. “These children are not something to be pitied, but worth fighting for.”
While showing throughout October in Cañon City, Montanez said she was most surprised at people who asked her more about CBD and how people who suffer from seizures are benefiting from medical cannabis.
She believes the conversation about medicinal use has somewhat stagnated since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use in 2012.
“There were a lot of tears. I was surprised to see people coming into this brand new and having such a strong reaction,” she said, adding that her ultimate hope for the installment is that people will think about how medical cannabis can help children.
Medical cannabis is legally available in 30 states and Washington D.C. But in some neighboring states to Colorado — Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, and Idaho — there is zero legalization.
“Maybe next time there’s a vote coming up in their state, they’ll do the right thing,” Montanez said.
Montanez’s show “Face of Cannabis” will show at the Georgia Amar Habitat Gallery and Studio in Denver for three weeks in January.
Having a background in news, Montanez said she wants people to see the story for what it is and that it’s not all triumph because so many states legally allow medical cannabis use.
“It’s not a miracle drug. But it’s a treatment that can actually work,” she said. “I don’t want to lead people to believe that every child is a miracle. It doesn’t work that way. This is the truth. These kids are the truth.”