New York City’s Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

Clara Cardelle, left, and Mike Bailey, right, approach a man shooting heroin in a Bronx park.

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

A site known for heavy drug use in a Bronx park is littered with orange needle tips, blue syringe holders and tie-off's used for injecting heroin.

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

Outreach specialist, Jerome Sanchez, sitting, at a syringe exchange site in the Bronx.

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

Outreach specialist, Jerome Sanchez, sitting, at a syringe exchange site in the Bronx.

new york city opioid crisis_ryan christopher jones_0005

new york city opioid crisis_ryan christopher jones_0005

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

Melrose Ave and 149th St. in The Bronx.

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

Outreach worker, Kelly Culbert.

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

Outreach worker, Kelly Culbert, right, consoles her longtime friend, Jackie, left, after shooting up in the Bronx.

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

Jackie outside of a bodega in the Bronx after shooting heroin. Her friend, Kelly, stayed with her for approximately thirty minutes to make sure she was safe while high.

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

Open-air drug den and shooting gallery formerly known as "The Hole." The site was bulldozed and shut down by the city of New York in May 2017.

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

Kelly and Jackie outside a syringe exchange site in the Bronx.

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

A sign on a bathroom door at the Middletown Thrall Library in Middletown. There have been recent incidents of drug use at the library

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

Former police officer and current security guard, Will Hopper, patrols the aisles at the Middletown Thrall Library in Middletown. The public site had become a place where people use drugs when it was too cold outside.

new york city opioid crisis_ryan christopher jones_0016

new york city opioid crisis_ryan christopher jones_0016

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

Noa Barreto's take-home methadone bottles in a paper bag. On Fridays, he is allowed to take home two bottles of methadone - one for a dose on Saturday, and one for a dose on Sunday.

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

Noa Barreto takes methadone at his home in Bay Ridge on a Sunday morning. On Fridays, he is allowed to take home two bottles of methadone - one for a dose on Saturday, and one for a dose on Sunday.

new york city opioid crisis_ryan christopher jones_0025

new york city opioid crisis_ryan christopher jones_0025

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

Lis Neilson, left, and JC Marin, right, doing household chores in their backyard in Copiague, Long Island. In 2013 they lost custody of their son and daughter to CPS because of heroin addiction. "Every day I wake up, I go to the clinic, and then I come back home. The next day I do it all over again," Lis said.

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

Underlining in a copy of "Alice in Wonderland" that Lis made when she was a teenager, at her home in Copiague, Long Island. Lis said she started using drugs when she was in high school.

new york city opioid crisis_ryan christopher jones_0029

new york city opioid crisis_ryan christopher jones_0029

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

JC Marin kisses his wife, Lis Neilson, goodbye at their home in Copiague, Long Island. In 2013, they lost custody of their son and daughter to CPS because of heroin addiction. The children now live with a new adoptive family, and JC and Lis haven't seen them in almost a year. "I'm missing the only two things I ever need," Lis said of her children. JC expresses deep remorse about the first day he used drugs, decades ago. "Because of heroin, we lost everything. I wish I could go back in time and slap it out of my hands. We can't fix what we messed up."

New York Opioid Crisis

New York Opioid Crisis

An empty wall in JC Marin and Lis Neilson's dining room in their in home in Copiague, Long Island. In 2013 they lost custody of their son and daughter to CPS because of heroin addiction. Lis said there used to be a picture of her son on that wall, but she had to take it down. "The love of a child is something I wish I never knew. Why would God give me that feeling to love a child, and then take them away?" Lis said.

New York City's Opioid Crisis

Photography by Ryan Christopher Jones

Essay for The New York Times Opinion section by Ryan Christopher Jones. All work was made in 2017-18 on different assignments for the New York Times: Opioid crisis in the Bronx; People using drugs in libraries; Methadone programs in NYC
 
Photojournalism is built on the idea that photojournalists are witnesses to history. Part of our job is to visualize issues the general public does not have immediate access to. We have a responsibility to portray the visceral realities of an often devastating world, but we also have a responsibility to maintain the humanity of the people we photograph. And on this measure we too often fail, especially when it comes to coverage of drug abuse.

The 1980s crack epidemic produced ubiquitous pictures of poor, black drug users, living in squalor and driven by desperation. The gritty black-and-white photos portrayed urban neighborhoods as a hopeless hell. This coverage defined how society consumes drug imagery, which focuses almost exclusively on the poor and people of color, and in the single dimension of misery.

Almost four decades later, the opioid epidemic has shown that journalism still slouches toward sensationalism. It has become the most fatal drug crisis in modern American history, and much of its coverage perpetuates the class warfare that has lingered since the “war on drugs” began in the 1970s. We still see gratuitous photos of people jamming needles into their bodies. We still see photos of nameless men and women shackled by law enforcement and dead, bloated bodies carried out of filthy homes.

Drug addiction is real; it is menacing and ugly. But if we fail to maintain the humanity of the people who share their stories with us, addiction coverage turns drug users into caricatures or props. 

When suffering is coupled with exploitation, those who are photographed are never allowed to live outside of the pain they’re in, because those photos turn a single behavior into an identity that exists in perpetuity.

Rich people do drugs, too. But they don’t often end up on the streets or in the methadone clinics where journalists almost always go to tell the story of the opioid epidemic. This is a public health crisis that is affecting all classes of Americans, but the poor are often the only ones seen suffering.

Photojournalists will always be tempted to make graphic, evocative imagery, but we must move on to more nuanced, compassionate work about vulnerable people. We need to see more stories on harm reduction, policy reform, advocacy groups and the variety of evidence-based recovery. We need to see the ways that families and communities are fighting and responding to the devastation in their homes. We need to acknowledge the racial and class biases in drug coverage and the representational mistakes made by those in editorial power. We need to understand how language perpetuates stigma. We need to be aware that the words, photos and captions we use as journalists can be weaponized in an already volatile national conversation around drug use. Most important, we need to represent people with addiction as human beings, even if they seem unable to protect themselves when their illness is at its worst.

Some people who use drugs never see peace, and that’s a reality that journalism has to portray. But it is important we do not paint American drug use with a monolithic brush. It is difficult to make sensitive stories, and journalists cannot create redemption. But we can find where it lives and make it louder.

LICENSE THIS STORY

Images from this story may be licensed for editorial or educational use by publications and educators. Click on the link below to learn more.

VIEW ALL IMAGES FROM THIS STORY

There are usually more images available from this story than are presented here. Click on the link below to view the entire collection.