Photographer Michael Blanchard is known for his stunning photography and moving storytelling, but his creative journey wasn’t always smooth sailing. He hit some pretty big bumps along the way. Blanchard was once COO of a hospital laboratory system in Maine with 1,000 employees. From the outside, he seemed to be on top of the world. Yet he was arrested three times in three months for drunk driving. “The way I was living, I shouldn’t even be here today. I thought there was no way I could quit alcohol, so I thought, ‘I’ll just end it all.’ But when you lose everything, you get your priorities back,” Blanchard said.
Sober for 13 years, Blanchard’s photography has become therapy and a spiritual process for him. The joy and serenity he feels while shooting photos help him stay present and focused. Blanchard’s photography and stories have helped inspire many others struggling with mental health or addiction. As is often the case when ego chimes in, however, inspiring others wasn’t necessarily his original goal. “When I first started shooting, and began seeing all the likes and positive comments I was getting for my photography, my ego got in the way. I thought, ‘Wow, I take good pictures, I’m going to be a famous photographer.’ Didn’t work that way. But when I said, ‘I’m going to help people with my photography,’ everything changed. Photography got me out into the community, but I didn’t want to make it all about me. I wanted to give back,” Blanchard said.
Since 2016, Blanchard has created calendars from his photographs and donated a majority of the profits to various Island organizations, including Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, Rising Tide Therapeutic Riding Center, and then Misty Meadows Equine Learning Center, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Vineyard House, for those in early recovery. Over eight years, sales from Blanchard’s calendars have raised $42,500.
His goal for the 2024 calendar is to focus on food insecurity on the Island by raising $5,000 from calendar sales to help the Vineyard Committee on Hunger (VCOH). VCOH is a volunteer organization (no paid staff) that helps alleviate hunger on the Island by raising awareness and funds. Though Martha’s Vineyard is often viewed as a playground for the rich and famous, that isn’t the reality for many Islanders. “Creating my calendar is a way to give back, yes, but it’s also about raising awareness. When I tell people that there are people on the Island struggling, they’re horrified. They just know the Vineyard as a wealthy vacation spot, but we’re a community like any other community,” Blanchard said.
According to VCOH, one in six Vineyard families needs assistance to get through the winter months, and 30 to 40 percent of Island schoolchildren receive free or reduced-price lunches. VCOH does its best to help kids when they’re on school breaks and over the summer with meals, while also providing assistance to Meals on Wheels, M.V. Center for Living, Elder Services, community suppers, and more.
Blanchard’s gallery, Crossroads Gallery in Oak Bluffs, is more than just a place to view his work. It’s also become a gathering space for people to share stories about their own struggles. “The other day a guy came in, and he was jumping up and down. Literally. Turns out he was having a manic episode. I’d written about being diagnosed with bipolar, and he saw it. He told me that when he read about my experience, it didn’t feel as shameful. He felt some hope,” Blanchard said.
A few years back, when Blanchard was raising funds for M.V. Community Services’ New Paths program — an intensive substance use disorder recovery program — he got a call from a woman in hospice, during the last week of her life. “She told me her situation and I said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear this,’ and she yelled at me. ‘I’ve lived long enough. I’m writing checks,’” Blanchard chuckled. “Then she asked me if I really believed that the New Paths program was a good one. When I told her I absolutely did, she said, ‘All right, that’s all I needed to know.’” Not long after this conversation, the director of M.V. Community Services called Blanchard and told him they’d received a check for $20,000 for a new wing. “Sometimes donations come in from outside the sales of my calendar, which is great. It’s all about raising awareness.”
The photos chosen for the calendars are printed on fine high-quality paper, which means if someone covets the October photo and can’t quite bring themselves to flip to November, they can easily frame October, hang it up in their living room, and gaze at it forever. Though creating the calendar is a lot of work, it’s clearly a labor of love for Blanchard. “Every year is like running a marathon,” he said. “You get done and say, ‘I’m never doing that again,’ but then the pain subsides, and you go back and do it again.”
As the saying goes, “it takes a village,” and luckily, Blanchard has a lot of support. The Island community and Blanchard’s Facebook fans play an integral role in bringing the calendar to fruition. “Each February I conduct The 12 Days of Calendar Voting. Day one is January, Day 2 February, and so on. On any given month, I post photos I’ve taken in that month from the previous year. My Facebook followers vote for the top five photos, which then make the cut for the calendar. Over that 12-day period I have had as many as 400,000 people clicking. So it is popular!” Blanchard explained. Locally, members of M.V. Community Services’ Daybreak Clubhouse, a service for folks living with mental health issues, play an important role as well, by volunteering to stuff thousands of envelopes from preorders.
Island businesses carrying Blanchard’s calendar include Tony’s, Cousen Rose Gallery, Craftworks, Sanctuary, Edgartown Books, Bunch of Grapes, SBS, Coastal Supply Co., Cronig’s Markets, and the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association gift shop. Blanchard’s calendar is also available online and through his website, blanchardphotomv.com.
Blanchard’s two books, “Through a Sober Lens” and “Fighting for My Life,” won the Ben Franklin Award for most inspirational story and best art and photography. A portion of the sales from these books helps support addiction treatment on the Vineyard.