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Mark E. Trent, Despair, Love, and Loss
Mark E. Trent, Despair, Love, and Loss, The Human Cost: America’s Drug Plague presented by the Bronx Documentary CenterCourtesy of the artist and the Bronx Documentary Center

These photographs depict the stark reality of drug addiction in the US

The Human Cost: America’s Drug Plague shines a light on the tragic stories of Americans whose lives have been marred by addiction, stereotype, and poverty

Drug addiction in the US is at a critical point. Last year, 81,000 died as a result of drug overdoses in America, let alone the countless other lives capsized by addiction or proximity to addiction. The majority are casualties of the devastating opioid crisis, but other potentially lethal and addictive drugs such as fentanyl, heroin, K2, crystal meth, and cocaine are also rife on the streets.

According to the Associated Press, about 5.7 million children under the age of 11 in the US live with a parent who suffers from substance addiction. The epidemic is so widespread that creators of The Muppets felt it necessary to address the problem. In 2019, they introduced a young Muppet named Karli, who lived in foster care due to her mother’s “grown-up problem”. 

An upcoming exhibition at The Bronx Documentary Center (itself located in an area heavily affected by addiction and drug-related violence) examines the lives tarnished or devastated by drug abuse. The Human Cost: America’s Drug Plague features the work of four photographers and documentary filmmakers taking an unflinching but deeply compassionate look at these harrowing stories of profound loss.

Fearless and prolific conflict photographer James Nachtwey has been at the frontline of battles all over the world. On this occasion, he travelled with visual journalist and editor Paul Moakley throughout the states of New Hampshire, Ohio, Boston, and San Francisco to send these dispatches from the war on drugs. 

Jeffrey Stockbridge documents life in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighbourhood during a span of six years. Once a thriving industrial town, unemployment hit an all-time high after closures of the area’s textile mills. “When the jobs disappeared, the drugs moved in,” explains Stockbridge in a statement from the gallery. “Today, half of Kensington residents live at or below the poverty line.” 

Filmmaker and photographer Mark Trent tells the story of a group of close friends in West Virginia as they’re pulled into the orbit of addiction and, ultimately, tragic death. “None of us knew what was happening or how destructive this would be. We began seeing more and more overdoses and suicides in our community,” says Trent. “The details were scarce and the stigma that came with drug abuse masked the early deaths until it was so common it didn’t phase us anymore; the word ‘pillhead’ began being used to describe ‘those people on drugs’. This was long before it touched nearly everyone in West Virginia and across the country.” 

For a preview of some of the photographs featured in the exhibition, head to the gallery above. 

The Human Cost: America’s Drug Plague will be showing at The Bronx Documentary Center from June 5 until July 5