PDN Photo of the Day

Inside a Sleek World of Medical Marijuana Cultivation

Danielle A. Scruggs’s photographs of a medical marijuana cultivation center in downstate Illinois resemble a top secret science project with hints of cannabis culture. Shot for the Chicago Reader, where Scruggs is the director of photography, the images were made after a struggle to gain access and while working under strict media controls. Since Illinois began allowing medical marijuana use in 2013, the Reader has been covering the companies that are working to supply the growing market for legal cannabis. As Lee V. Gaines wrote in the October 2016 story that accompanied Scruggs’s images, “We wanted a firsthand look at how this new industry is faring in Illinois, how companies…grow their weed, and what kind of state-imposed—and self-imposed—regulations and restrictions they grow under.”

That brought them to Revolution Enterprises, a 75,000-square-foot facility in Delavan, Illinois, a town about three hours southwest of Chicago. As Scruggs tells PDN by email, “The assignment came about in August 2016, when the Reader’s deputy news editor, Robin Amer and one of our freelance writers, Lee V. Gaines, told me about Revolution Enterprises…The Reader has been covering the state’s medical marijuana programs extensively (we even published a Marijuana themed issue that ran in April) and the writer of the story had been working for weeks to gain access to this medical marijuana facility. Finally, they granted her request, along with several other Chicago and Illinois-based publications to tour and photograph the cultivation center.”

The access they were granted was highly controlled, but Scruggs found the restrictions an exciting challenge. “What made the story so appealing to me was also what made preparing for the shoot a challenge: the amount of restriction,” she says. “Since no one had ever been granted access and the employees were pretty tight-lipped before we arrived, it was difficult to decide how to prepare. I had no idea what the place would look like or if I would even be allowed to bring a backpack and extra lenses—it turned out I wasn’t. We also had to wear scrubs over our clothes and protective covers over our shoes to keep from contaminating any of the plants.”

The images she made reveal a facility with a clinical sheen. “Once I arrived, I felt like I was on the set of a sci-fi movie—lots of stark white floors and walls, lots of bright fluorescent lights, employees in scrubs and masks, different kinds of equipment for processing marijuana leaves into shatter, C20 oil and hash. I wanted to capture the strangeness and coldness of the facility so I purposely slightly overexposed everything, and when I processed the images, I adjusted the contrast slightly to make what pops of color there were in all that white stand out even more.”

If she could shoot the story again, Scruggs says she would have liked to photograph the people working in the center, who appear sorting and weighing the product, and hint at the culture of the place. “Looking back, I would have loved to get portraits of the people who worked at Revolution both inside and outside the facility, to contrast what they looked like at work in their uniforms, and what they looked like in their down time in the surrounding town. But time constraints and the distance from Chicago would have made that very difficult in the amount of time we had.”

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