Written by Lori Boatfield
Photos by Eric Shultz
Stephanie E. Jennings is a State Certified Peer Support Specialist (CRSS) and a Certified Peer and Family Support Specialist (CPSS). Stephanie is celebrating eight plus years of recovery experience and is co-founder of Best Life Recovery Residences. She has served as the Women’s Program Director since May 2019. She is excited to announce she is now serving as Executive Director for the organization.
Stephanie is very well known in recovery circles in North Alabama, as she actively participates and networks with people and other organizations committed to helping people live their best lives.
Stephanie is a graduate of the University of Alabama, with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communications. She is an accomplished photographer, and a lover of music and cats. Stephanie has a photography studio and darkroom in Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment in Huntsville. She has worked for Huntsville EVENT Magazine since 2017.
LB: What or who inspired you to become a photographer?
SJ: I have always been obsessed with photography, specifically photographing people. When I was only 8 years old, I would use all my grandfather’s Polaroid film taking photos of friends and family but, instead of him scolding me, he encouraged me. Even though I was a child, he let me shoot photos with his cameras and play with his photography equipment.
That same year, I took a photography course from Mr. Esslinger, a paraplegic photography teacher at Lee High School in Huntsville, Ala. I didn’t realize at the time this decision would be the most important one of my life and serve as a catalyst to launch my life’s passion, photography. Mr. Esslinger was the next influential person in my life. He taught me the beauty of photography and the excitement of developing film and printing in the darkroom. Every time I printed a picture, I felt magical. He also taught me to chase my dreams no matter what.
My photography professor at the University of Alabama, Gay Burke, was the biggest influence on my photography style. She taught me to embrace my unusual side. She turned me on to famous freak photographer, Diane Arbus and other photographers like Mary Ellen Mark and Robert Mapplethorpe. I later became obsessed with photographing the performers in The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow. I even traveled to the West Coast to photograph their shows. I was living my dream. I exhibited my photography in solo and group shows from 1990-2011.
LB: How did you get your professional start?
SJ: I moved to Philadelphia the day after I graduated college in 1989 to manage a photography company. But a few months later I got my break into rock photography from the Grateful Dead. By photographing the Dead and their fans, the deadheads, I developed an impressive portfolio that enabled me to become staff photographer for two Dead fanzines, Dupress Diamond News and Unbroken Chain. I was soon one of the staff photographers for local radio stations, concert venues, promoters and newspapers. I became the Photo Editor and Cover Photographer for Philadelphia’s music magazine, The Philly Rock Guide. I was represented by New York photo agency, LGI International (it later became Corbis) and Famous Photo of London. My work was featured in national magazines such as Time, Newsweek and Glamour. My portfolio included President Clinton, Cindy Crawford, Metallica, David Bowie, Angela Bassett, Sting, George Clooney, Bon Jovi, Nirvana, Aerosmith and The Black Crowes, just to name a few.
LB: How did things change?
SJ: In 2011 I moved back to Huntsville. Somehow my dream had become a nightmare. I had crossed the line into addiction and alcoholism. My love for photography still existed but I was in a state of hopelessness and despair. My grandmother was diagnosed with dementia and I became her caregiver. I struggled for three years trying to get my life back. Then I realized I didn’t want my old life back; it was time to build a new life. My sobriety date is December 27, 2014. I started working a recovery program and my passion for photography quickly re-emerged. I started printing from my Grateful Dead archives in 2015 and was soon exhibiting photos. I created a Grateful Dead slideshow to play behind Dead cover bands in Huntsville, Birmingham and Nashville. I soon had my first Huntsville solo exhibit of eclectic portraits at Angels Island Coffee. I started working on photography projects and my recovery with fresh ambitions and freedom from the bondage of self. I brought my ideas and documentary photography projects full circle. I was able to photograph Dead & Company and the new and old deadheads starting in 2015 through 2022 and incorporate into my Grateful Dead archives from 1988-1995, creating a new touring slideshow and exhibit.
LB: Do you have a favorite piece?
SJ: Flying Jerry, a photo of Jerry Garcia at Giants Stadium in New Jersey.
LB: Tell our readers about Best Life Recovery Residences. How do they help women?
SJ: Best Life Recovery is a nonprofit sober living home for eight women. Best Life provides a safe, supportive, affordable home environment so women can build a new life after treatment from drug or alcohol addiction (substance use disorder.) Best Life provides all the resources needed to build a new life in recovery such as peer support, transportation, jobs, legal and financial guidance.
LB: What does it mean for you to be able to serve others in this way?
SJ: It’s my privilege to serve my community. I’ve found my purpose by providing women with a safe, supportive, affordable home and resources to build a new life in recovery.