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Humanizing the United States’ Opioid Crisis

Humanizing the United States’ Opioid Crisis

In New York, the Bronx Documentary Center’s latest exhibition reminds us that drug use is not an individual’s moral failing.
Mary, 2009 © Jeffrey Stockbridge

With his warm, southern drawl, Mark Trent apologizes for his hound dog barking in the background of the interview. An hour later, Jeffrey Stockbridge’s voice softly yet seriously paints a picture of Kensington, Philadelphia. The thread between these two accomplished photographers— besides their features in the New York Times and other major publications— is their commitment to capturing different facets of the United States’ opioid crisis.

Last year alone, 81,000 people overdosed; the introduction of fentanyl into communities already exposed to heroin, K2, crystal meth, cocaine, and other drugs only inflated these deaths. The use of drugs— and the deaths that can follow— is a result of a majority low income subset of rural dwellers left unsupported by the United States government; and proactively abetted by the capitalistic hunger of Big Pharma (according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them). Alongside awarded conflict photojournalist James Nachtwey, Trent and Stockbridge’s work documenting their community’s relationship with opiates is featured in the Bronx Documentary Center’s latest exhibition, “The Human Cost: America’s Drug Plague”.

Dorothy Onikute, 33, a deputy sheriff with the Rio Arriba County sheriff’s office, responding to an overdose call on Feb. 4, on the side of the road in Alcalde, New Mexico. Photograph by James Nachtwey for TIME © James Nachtwey
A woman, who goes by Jen, struggling to inject herself in the freezing cold in Boston on Jan. 14. 2018. Photograph by James Nachtwey for TIME © James Nachtwey
Holly, detoxing in the Montgomery County Jail in Dayton, Ohio, on July 3, 2017. Photograph by James Nachtwey for TIME © James Nachtwey

The setting and tone of each photographer’s series diverge: for Nachtwey, the project was a cross-country capture entitled Opioid Diaries; for Stockbridge, a decade-long documentation of one of the crisis’ most plagued neighborhoods entitled Kensington Blues; and for Trent, a journey through his own backyard in West Virginia that manifested as Love, Loss, Despair. Where their work converges is the storyline— one that necessarily centers folks who use drugs as people worth our time, our empathy, and our activism.

As a friendly West-Virginian turned skinny jeaned Brooklynite, Trent’s photo essays came from the desire to photographically investigate a subset of individuals who shared his hometown. When he was first searching where to focus his work, his girlfriend at the time posed a sincere question after visiting where he grew up: “What are you doing looking so hard when it’s all right here?” He recounts to Blind what “all right here” really meant, describing an upbringing wherein he’d “be in typing class and a kid would be snorting pills under his keyboard.” And yet something ever present in his community— the prevalence of drug use and its ensuing consequences— was often silenced by virtue of stigma. Trent, however, always understood that treating individuals as disposable— no matter where they come from nor how they indulged— was inexcusable.

Allie crying, facing jail time and missing Barbie who died of an overdose, after a long night of using © Mark E. Trent
Allie and Regina catching snowflakes after a close friend’s funeral © Mark E. Trent

Mark Trent also recalls driving home and seeing the words “PILL BILLY” graffitied on the side of a building. “I thought, okay, we’re making art about it, I need to cover this.” So, he followed a lead through an old friend, Allie. After the death of a mutual friend, Allie and Trent began spending time together and dealing with their grief as a duo. When Trent mentioned his desire to pursue coverage of pill use, Allie simply said “stick with me.” “I stopped looking for this grand story,” Trent states, “and I started following Allie.”

Gaining the trust of the community took time— one interview or sit-in entailed hidden remote roads and hours of negotiation, sometimes with the request to leave Trent’s camera behind. But as Allie and her extended web of friends and chosen family began to familiarize themselves with the non-judgemental, open-mindedness of Trent, his story— and the education that followed— came to life. “I was hoping in longevity you would see a more sort of human view of things,” Trent shares of his commitment to developing these relationships and capturing real life when it comes to drug use.

Allie in traffic after losing a close friend in her recovery group to an overdose © Mark E. Trent
Text messages on a phone found at Barbie’s house the morning after she and Kim overdosed © Mark E. Trent

To someone new to drug use discourse, his stills are visceral. He captures people shooting up and freebasing, people upsettingly reacting to a trip, people in the midst of a high, and, perhaps most upsettingly, text messages from friends expressing concern that someone has overdosed: “R u guys ok I’m scared too death u overdosed.” When observing the collection, it’s clear Trent is distilling a day in the life for members of the community; much like a New Yorker’s trip to the bodega or their hailing of a cab. He communicates intimacy effortlessly, and has the viewer question why they have never put a face to the opioid crisis’ name.

In the same vein, Stockbridge uses portraits as a channel for an intense subject-viewer relationship. Following his series “Occupy” , wherein he documented the interiors of abandoned houses in Philly, Stockbridge became fascinated by the objects and letters left scattered within these buildings— i.e. the humans who actually were behind these spaces. He became aware of a population cycling between sex work and drug abuse, and felt he had to get to know these individuals. “I was unprepared for what people were going to share with me,” Stockbridge reveals when discussing the onset of his work. “The depth of the stories, the trauma they suffered—it just poured out of them.” His lens establishes a familiarity, featuring individuals looking directly at the camera. With his style, there is no ability to look away from the people our society has deemed beyond redemption.

Carol, 2010 © Jeffrey Stockbridge
Kevin, 2011 © Jeffrey Stockbridge
Nichole, 2011 © Jeffrey Stockbridge

On how his knowledge surrounding drugs and those who engage with them has evolved since the start of his project in 2008, Stockbridge affirms that “the human being that deserves the most compassion and help is the one that engages in behavior that makes them so repulsive to the rest of the population.” In essence, it is exactly because we have excluded those addicted to opiates that they should be given a platform to evoke empathy. And his work has invited an activist side that is palpable when he speaks. Be it pushing back against the United States’ outdated motto of “Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps” or underlining the importance of drug decriminalization, Stockbridge’s knowledge of the opiate crisis has manifested into authentic education (with an understanding of his specific point of view).

All three photographers have used their photo essays as starting points for educational progress. From Nachtwey’s TED talks to Trent’s medical conferences alongside Allie, the trio clearly understands the responsibility they hold as storytellers. They all highlight the human being behind opiates— be it their cost or their mere existence; and push back against the notion that being addicted to drugs is a moral failing. Nachtwey, Trent, and Stockbridge are furthering discourse that promotes meeting people where they are, also known as harm reduction. This conversation isn’t necessarily about immediately becoming “clean,” it’s about providing legitimate community solutions rooted in healthcare and empathy.

By Abigail Glasgow

Abigail Glasgow is writer based in New York, USA, and storyteller who believes in providing a platform for marginalized groups and individuals who have been historically and systemically excluded from opportunity.

“The Human Cost, America’s Drug Plague,” featuring work by James Nachtwey, Jeffrey Stockridge and Mark E. Trent, is on view until July 5, 2021 at Bronx Documentary Center, in New York. More information here.

Allie after being arrested for giving a friend pseudoephedrine © Mark E. Trent

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