Still from Picture Proof, Jena Seiler and Tijah Bumgarner

Aesthetics of Care and Radical Filmmaking

Jena Seiler and Tijah Bumgarner

Content warning: This article discusses substance use disorder, sobriety, and loss. If you or someone you know is living with substance use disorder, recovery is possible. Call 1-800-662-4357 for confidential and free help.

This piece is coauthored by Jena Seiler and Tijah Bumgarner; sometimes “I” is used to capture specific moments, but it is not important to us to distinguish between the two authors.

On July 13th, 2023, we sit together in a dark auditorium at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. Text appears on the screen:

To every mother who has a child with the disease known as addiction. To every mother who drives back around a block thinking “is that her?” To every mother who leaves their daughter filled with heroin just waiting for the call or the knock on the door…

I see you. I feel you. I am you.

–Debi Ellis

My hand reaches over to the seat next to me to grab Debi’s arm. The white letters against a black screen softly illuminate us and an audience of friends, colleagues, advocates, community leaders, and strangers. Debi’s words prepare us for something no one can be prepared for. I hold on tighter to Debi. Reaching, grabbing, and holding can be, and often is, a gesture of love, but it’s also an act of desperation: sometimes holding is the only thing we have left. We wait, readying our bodies for this viewing of Picture Proof.

In the summer of 2018, we (Tijah and Jena) began filming for the feature-length documentary Picture Proof. At the time, Debi and her daughter Ashley were sharing the responsibility of caring for Ashley’s two-year-old daughter, Piper. Ashley was going on two years of sobriety after completing a year of treatment at the Healing Place in Louisville, and she was working full-time at a recovery center in Huntington, West Virginia. We were bright-eyed and immediately drawn to both Ashley and Debi. They were radiant: Ashley with her long golden hair and Debi with her distinctive pink highlights framing her face. And they were generous: they welcomed us into their lives with kindness and humor. Both women believed that by sharing their story of Ashley’s struggle with substance use, it might help save someone else’s life. In the summer light, we knew we wanted to be near Ashley, Debi, and Piper and that we wanted to make a film about these three generations of women. We set out to document the subtle, ordinary, and material ways that substance use disorder and recovery shape life, family, and community. Over the course of filming, we began to see mothering as a force that pushed and motivated Debi and Ashley: Debi mothers Ashley, her grandchildren—first Piper and then Ashley’s second child, Asher—and her dogs Harry and Booboo Eyes; Ashley mothers Piper, then Asher, and her dog Sponsor; and we even saw Piper mothering her baby dolls and her new baby brother Asher. The fear of relapse and the uncertainty of recovery extended, intensified, and accentuated the vital role of mothering in Ashley and Debi’s lives.

From the outset, we approached the project and filming as a joint effort between all of us (Debi, Ashley, Tijah, and Jena). We were not interested in getting specific shots or directing what would happen or what was said. We wanted to be with them and document from a space of co-presence, not to speak for them but to speak from a position nearby them in the lineage of Trinh T. Minh-ha.1 For us, this didn’t mean actively entering the story, nor did it mean completely erasing our presence. In the final version of the film, Ashley references Tijah by name, serving as a subtle reminder of the construction of the film and that we’re the ones behind the camera. More powerfully, though, our extended presence with Debi and Ashley provided the opportunity to capture footage that’s intimate and fluid. Filming became an act of giving that we hoped could measure up to what Ashley and Debi gave to us. A kind of companionship was born from the slowness that was entailed in giving and being with. Rather than an extractive approach that emphasized efficiency, profitability, and appeal, we embraced people. This meant that we didn’t prioritize a production timeline or a narrative arc, and, in the process, we resisted the expectation that everything be explained neatly.

On the ground, filming involved much more than cinematography; it included arranging to film when it was convenient for Debi and Ashley, explaining our equipment to them, and being accountable for why we wanted to film something and responsive if they didn’t want us to film it. Sometimes filming included bringing iced tea and energy drinks, playing with Piper, and showing up even when no filming could happen. For us, pursuing a reciprocal approach became more than an ethical imperative; it became a practice of care, and that care was the only way to make a film like this. I remember getting a call from Debi while I was in the middle of a faculty meeting. At the time, Ashley had been missing, and Debi said that she had just seen Ashley’s fiancé Brandon walking down the street with Ashley’s purse. I left the meeting and rushed to join Debi as she searched the streets of Huntington for her daughter. This was the first of many trips Debi and I would take together over the summer of 2020. I only filmed twice—once of Debi in her car and once during one of the times we found Ashley. Often, I would not bring my camera on our drives through the city; I wasn’t there to film. When I did finally film, it was after Debi and I had built a strange car routine and after I had seen Ashley in a physical and mental state that I never imagined her being in. I did not have it in my mind that I would eventually choose to film this part of their lives, but because of the time Debi and I spent searching the streets, our brief, visceral encounters with Ashley, and Debi’s insistence that this, too, needed to be documented, I filmed parts of it.

To bear witness involves both privilege and responsibility. In thinking about the contract that is embedded in photography, but can also be extended to film, Ariella Azoulay asserts that “every photograph of others bears the traces of the meeting between the photographed persons and the photographer, neither of whom can, on their own, determine how this meeting will be inscribed in the resulting image.”2 Over three years of filming, we witnessed ecstatic joy, utter sorrow, and a multitude of gradations in-between. Often, pain and devastation take precedent in stories about addiction, but there is also joy, humor, softness, and potential. One of the beautiful things that happened because of when we started filming was that we were present for moments in Ashley’s life that were full of love and possibility, including moving into a new house with Piper and boyfriend Brandon, her pregnancy with her second child, and her engagement to Brandon. Ashley reflects on the idea of potential when she says in the film, “before when I would get sober, I didn’t have anything… Now I’ve got this whole crazy life... Is this really my life?” One scene in the film that shows our desire to hold both a space for sorrow and for joy is the gender reveal party. The scene begins with Ashley getting ready in the bathroom before the party and is abruptly interrupted when she learns that a friend has died from an overdose. The scene transitions to the party and ends with Brandon’s proposal. The editing of this scene was key for holding onto moments of joy and sorrow without eclipsing either. Joy is thereby made more powerful and sorrowful, which comes closer to people’s lived experiences, especially when they’re living with the uncertainty that often accompanies recovery. In the film, Nisey, one of Ashley’s close friends from her time at the Healing Place, responds to Ashley’s questioning of whether Brandon will stay sober with, “You don’t even know if you’re [gonna stay sober] … I don’t even know if I’m gonna stay sober.” Ashley did not make it, and in the sequence of the film, this ordinary exchange between two friends is a haunting moment foreshadowing what is to come but also highlighting the fragility of sobriety and the endless labor of recovery.

Care is involved; care means getting involved. It is messy, vulnerable, and incites misery, but it is also love. It is not creating change but being open to ways that, through caring, you will be changed. It is probably not sustainable. In addition to the non-individualistic aspects of care and its anticapitalistic potential, this is what makes caring, and making through care, radical. As a result of the capitalistic pressures that we all feel, Jenny Odell states, “we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive.”3 Engaging in an aesthetic of care means giving over to others and the project in ways that require openness, release of ownership, and exhaustion. People sometimes think of exhaustion as something to avoid, to ward off, or to protect against, but being worn out can be a marker of care. We may not be able to sustain caring at this level, and we may not be asked, but making through means accepting extended timelines, living with uncertainty about decisions, balancing more than you can handle, and knowing that the return, whatever it might be, will never be equal to the practice and the people that we care for. In the spirit of care, Picture Proof was brought to the Muhammad Ali Center and made available to the public free of charge because of the hard work and dedication of Kungu Njuguna. Njuguna is a Louisville attorney and policy strategist at the ACLU of Kentucky. In addition to getting the ACLU of Kentucky to sponsor the event, he organized the screening and invited the Kentucky Harm Reduction Coalition to offer resources on site at the screening.

In the auditorium, after the final scene showing Debi, Ashley, Piper, and Asher leaving a recovery event, an inscription appears on the screen: “In loving memory of Ashley Elizabeth Ellis, February 10, 1987–November 6, 2021,” and then another block of text:

Dear Ashley,

How I miss you. This documentary is both a showing of love and an experience of grief at the loss of a beautiful soul to the disease of addiction.

You didn’t make it. One shot of heroin and you’re gone. No more smiles, laughter, trips to Anthropologie, playing make-up with her Piper.

I love you more more.


We are enveloped by the weeping of others; we are weeping. This screening is special because of Ashley and Debi’s connection to Louisville and how many of their friends fill the auditorium. It is a strange feeling to be rendered so deeply affected, speechless, and helpless in connection to something you helped create. This film is not ours, and, in reality, it never was. In the darkness, at the end, we reach for each other, and “in holding on to one another—lies the very essence of sociality.”4 This film is our way of reaching toward and holding Debi, and we hope that Picture Proof can reach, grab, and hold others struggling with substance use disorder, the ones who are fighting for them, and those who are living with the memory of the loved ones they lost.


  1. Balsom, Erika. “‘There Is No Such Thing as Documentary’: An Interview with Trinh T. Minh-ha.” Frieze, 1 Nov. 2018, Accessed 27 Oct. 2023.
  2. Azoulay, Ariella. The Civil Contract of Photography. Zone Books, 2018.
  3. Odell, Jenny. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Melville House, 2021. 
  4. Ingold, Tim. 
The Life of Lines. Routledge, 2015.

Debi Ellis and Kungu Njunga at the July 13, 2023 screening of Picture Proof at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

Still from Picture Proof, Jena Seiler and Tijah Bumgarner

Still from Picture Proof, Jena Seiler and Tijah Bumgarner

Still from Picture Proof, Jena Seiler and Tijah Bumgarner



Tijah Bumgarner (she/her) is a filmmaker, scholar, and professor. Bumgarner holds a BFA in film/video from the California Institute of the Arts and an MA in Media Studies from West Virginia State University. As a doctoral candidate at Ohio University, her dissertation, “Examining the Ground: Shifting Narratives in Post-Coal Appalachia,” explores how extraction is narrativized. She currently teaches narrative and documentary video production at Marshall University. Since writing and directing her first feature film,
Meadow Bridge, in 2017, she has co-directed and starred in the experimental short Becoming Annette (2020); co-created the web series Quarantine Life (2020); co-wrote, directed, and produced the pilot episode of Her Hope Haven (2021); co-directed the short documentary Patchwork (2022); co-directed the feature documentary Picture Proof (2022); and served as a cinematographer for The Quiet Zone (expected: 2023) directed by Katie Dellamaggiore.

Jena Seiler (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist, filmmaker, and educator. Seiler holds a PhD in Interdisciplinary Arts, an MFA in Painting, and a BFA in Studio Art. She currently teaches at the University of Kentucky. Working across a variety of media has allowed her to develop a research-based practice, collaborate with other artists, and participate in galleries as well as other kinds of venues. She co-edited the feature film,
Meadow Bridge (2017); created an immersive art installation, Submerging (2018); co-directed and edited the experimental short Becoming Annette (2020); co-created and directed the experimental short documentary Jane (2020); served as a producer on the pilot episode of Her Hope Haven (2021); co-created the experimental video piece edge waves (2022); co-directed the short documentary Patchwork (2022); and co-directed the feature documentary Picture Proof (2022).

RUCKUS, 2018-2023
Louisville, KY