Inside the Opioid-Filled Living Rooms Along America’s Rust Belt
In desolate towns across West Virginia, opioids have become the new normal.
Espen Rasmussen, an award-winning Norwegian photographer, is used to traveling the globe to shoot. His book TRANSIT, which documents the experience of refugees worldwide, features photos from Chad, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Syria, and Georgia, among others. West Virginia’s Rust Belt, then, might not seem like it would rank high on the list of places for him to visit.
However, he’s recently become a frequent visitor to the state’s forlorn mining towns, meeting locals, soaking up the scene, and taking lots of pictures along the way. His interest in the area was sparked, he says, by how different it is from the typical idea of America.
“In West Virginia, it’s not New York, it’s not Washington D.C.,” he says. “It’s a different culture and people. I would say it’s more open and friendly, and it was easier to [take photos].”
So open and friendly, in fact, that he was allowed to take some surprisingly intimate shots for this series, capturing images that portray both actual nudity and the raw, naked reality of America’s opioid crisis.
When selecting images for an essay, Rasmussen’s main focus is on the narrative, he says, but there’s one shot here that stands out: A young woman, dressed up in a cat costume, sits on a bed as her boyfriend and a friend smoke Oxycontin next to her. When asked about the photo, Rasmussen doesn’t seem disturbed by it. It was a pretty typical night, he says.
“This was Halloween—they used it for partying,” he says. “They used it before we went out to party in the club, when they came back they used it, and then they went to bed afterward.”
Opioid use is so widespread in the region, he says, that people like the woman in the photo and her boyfriend don’t really feel ashamed of it. Its ubiquity is something he attributes to the opioid industrial complex and the number of miners prescribed it for the physical wear and tear their job entails. That said, his young friends were still aware of the dangers.
“They were not ashamed,” he says, “but they were like—they said to me, this young girl, for example, that she really didn’t want to do it but she was really addicted to it. And her boyfriend also told me, ’Okay, we haven’t done this for so long yet, but soon it will feed on us.’”
People start using for innocuous reasons like Halloween partying or to relieve the pain of a lifetime spent stooping in mine shafts and get hooked before they realize it, Rasmussen says. That initial desire to try opioids, he suspects, has a lot to do with the larger economic issues endemic to the Rust Belt.
“These people who don’t leave Beckley or don’t leave these small places, they really want to do something bigger or want to do something else,” he says. “But because of economic reasons or because of lack of education or family reasons or other things, they stay.”
It’s a tale as old as time—getting messed up to kill time in your small town—but one given extra urgency by the scourge of opioid addiction. The issues of poverty and drug addiction that Rasmussen encountered in West Virginia surprised him, he says, shattering his preconceived notions about America.
“We look at the U.S. as a developed nation, you know? In Norway, when we talk about the U.S., it’s about great movie actors, the culture and everything. And then you come to West Virginia and you see another reality. You find the same kind of problems you find in [poor] African countries or Asian countries.”
While the rawness of that particular shot is unparalleled, especially for those of us who do not live in the midst of the opioid crisis, that same real, visceral quality is present in the entire series. And Rasmussen was careful to focus on subjects that he feels represent a more real, less stylized experience of Appalachia. There’s been a lot of photography work done in West Virginia, he notes, but he fears that too much of it focuses on the stereotype of old mountain hillbillies.
“I was very afraid of that when I worked on this project,” he says. “I don’t want to only meet those guys, the strange old man with the kazoo. For me, it was important especially to be with young people. To see what they did and how they lived their life.”
Indeed, his shots capture an experience that is often overlooked by the rest of the country. But one that also has a lot to say about it.