The photographer Nan Goldin documented the AIDS crisis in a way that pressed close against the skin of those it affected, capturing searing portraits of her friends as they struggled and eventually succumbed to the illness. Over the course of the 1980’s, nearly all of her friends died. To pay tribute to their memory and help find a cure, Goldin curated the first AIDS-related art show in New York which took place in 1989. Some 1,500 people attended, which spurred a political movement and helped launch the Day Without Art initiative.
Now, the artist is watching a new epidemic sweep the country all over again—destructive opioids. Goldin herself was addicted for three years. Since getting clean, she has thrown herself into pushing for those responsible to redistribute the profits they make off of drugs like OxyContin into foundations that will help addicts. Most recently, Goldin staged an action in the Sackler wing of New York’s Met Museum. Certain members of the Sackler family—founders of the pharmaceutical conglomerate Purdue Pharma—were the inventors of OxyContin.
At Mexico City’s recent Liberatum festival, Goldin publicly shared her harrowing story about how she became addicted to prescription opioids.
NAN GOLDIN: [I was prescribed OxyContin] for an operation, and I quickly became completely addicted. It took me only a month or so, and I lived the next three years in such fear of withdrawal that even when I decided I wanted treatment, it took me a year to find treatment. I ended up living entirely in my own bedrooms: I had a bedroom in New York and a bedroom in Berlin, and a bedroom in Paris, and anywhere I travelled, I stayed in the bedroom. So, I missed the world totally for about three years, and it got to be the point where all I was doing was counting my pills and snorting them and crushing them, and counting and recounting. So my world had become very small.
Then I ran out of money. OxyContin costs $30 a pill, for a 30 milligram pill. It’s a dollar a milligram. So, when I ran out of money for that, I went back to heroin and I snorted Fentanyl which is, I don’t know if all of you are aware of Fentanyl. It’s 100 times stronger than morphine. It’s a synthetic opiate that’s in almost all drugs in America now, even when it’s pressed into pills. It’s even in marijuana sometimes. People are overdosing like flies. I snorted it and I overdosed and obviously I came back and at that point I decided that I had to go into treatment. So, a year ago today, I got out of treatment and I stayed in the hospital for two and a half months and I came off everything. I came out and that’s when I became aware of the statistics of the opioid crisis. And I decided that this was something I dealt with so deeply myself, that this was the place I should start pushing back.
[There was a piece] for the New Yorker that talked about what’s called “The Empire of Pain,” and traces [the involvement of the Sacklers in the opioid crisis], this extremely wealthy family that’s famous for art philanthropy. This family is the private owners of Purdue Pharma where OxyContin was first invented, where it was first developed, and they market it in a horrendous way. There are museums all over America and the U.K. with their signage. They’re famous most of all for their wing at the Metropolitan Museum, which is where we did the action. It’s my favorite museum in the whole world. So, I felt like it was the most important place to do it. And we designed beautiful bottles of fake OxyContin prescriptions, and we threw a thousand of them into the pool, the moat around the temple. It’s an early Egyptian temple that’s been reconstructed by the family.
There are 200,000 people dead [from opioids from 1999 to 2016]. It’s more than all the homicides, suicides, and car accidents combined. There’s more people dying [from opioids] than [American soldiers] who died in the Vietnam war. These statistics are startling for us. There’s a baby born addicted every 25 minutes, and someone is overdosing every 15 minutes in America. There’s 150 dead a day, and it’s getting worse. The pain medicine is now being cut off, the doctors aren’t over-prescribing. But they’ve flooded the markets. In a town in West Virginia, they prescribed over three million pills to a town of a few thousand people. It’s a famous case. West Virginia is called the overdose capital of America. The statistics are horrible. So they targeted places with miners, and people who were working in tough [conditions]. And then it entered the black market, but it was phenomenally expensive, and then people can’t afford it and the turn to heroin and Fentanyl.
What I support is harm reduction, most of all. There are only 15 percent of addicts in America who are seeking treatment. The thing that I think works best is to find people who are in great need and offer them harm reduction, which are safety consumption sites, places people can go to inject safely with clean needles. If they want to get clean, just start them with what’s called MAT: Medication Assisted Treatment, which is something called Buprenorphine that blocks the opiate receptors so you can’t get high. It’s a great medication to put people on and there’s a lot of holistic treatments that are very good a hallucinogen that changes some of the opiate receptors, so that people evidently don’t want to get high anymore. A lot of people are going to that extreme, but most of all, we want people who come into the hospitals overdosing, there needs to be a doctor there 24/7 to get them medicated assisted treatment.
Shame is preventing tens and thousands of people from getting help, so we decided we would do some kind of campaign where I would photograph people who are willing to be photographed—people who have lost people, telling their story, people who are activists promoting different treatments … just to give people hope. There’s no faith in this disease. So this is about faces that people can relate to, to find some kind of hope, because the only thing that helps addicts is compassion.