This past March, President Donald Trump announced his new plan for addressing the nation’s epidemic of opioid overdose deaths, which has quickly spiraled into the most deadly drug crisis to ever scourge the United States. His message was simple: “The only way to solve the drug problem is through toughness.”
In practice, this “toughness” will play out in stricter law enforcement techniques such as mandatory minimum sentences and even death penalties for some caught selling drugs. It’s a plan that wildly diverges from the solutions that many of those on the front line of the opioid crisis—emergency responders, social workers, researchers and, of course, those directly implicated—believe to be the most effective.
“It’s only when we approach individuals with substance use disorder as human beings first and foremost, that we are in a position to learn how to effectively treat the problem at hand,” says Jeffrey Stockbridge, a photographer who covered the opioid epidemic. “It’s sad that the American mentality of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ still prevails.”
Stockbridge spent roughly five years documenting the human faces behind the opioid crisis that many simply know in terms of statistics. His hope was to inspire outsiders to feel an intimate connection with those affected to help make “compassion” rather than “punishment” peoples’ default response. Stockbridge focused on photographing the opioid crisis in one neighborhood in particular, Kensington, Philadelphia, the epicenter of one of the hardest hit cities in the country.
The project began almost by accident. “For years I had been photographing inside abandoned houses in West Philadelphia and I came in close contact with many people who were addicted,” says Stockbridge. “Initially, I kept my distance but I gradually started to get to know the people I was crossing paths with and I was so touched by their stories that I began to photograph them. I went from photographing abandoned houses to photographing abandoned people.”
It wasn’t an easy project for the Philadelphia-based photographer—but then again, neither is the opioid crisis itself, which Stockbridge acknowledges is “one of the most complicated issues of our time.” Indeed, with countless millions of dollars funneled into law enforcement, emergency services, hospital visits and social services, some believe that failing to reverse the opioid crisis could bankrupt the country. The only way to end it, Stockbridge believes, is to begin to listen to the people affected.