TIME Magazine Makes History With 'The Opioid Diaries'

By Beth Leipholtz 02/27/18

The four-part special report highlights and dissects the vast impact of the national opioid epidemic. 

Cheryl Schmidtchen being consoled at the funeral for her granddaughter Michaela Gingras in Manchester, N.H.,
From The Opioid Diaries: Cheryl Schmidtchen being consoled at the funeral for her granddaughter Michaela Gingras in Manchester, N.H., Photo via The Opioid Diaries by TIME

For the first time in its 95-year history, TIME has devoted an entire issue to one photographer's work documenting a critical issue in the country: the opioid crisis. 

The special report, titled “The Opioid Diaries,” pairs photos and interviews from more than 200 subjects across the country. Over the duration of the past year, photographer James Nachtwey and TIME’s Paul Moakley teamed up to travel around the country and document the crisis. 

According to a media release, the two spent time “on the streets of Boston and San Francisco, on patrol with first responders in Ohio, New Mexico and West Virginia, visiting clinics in New Hampshire, in jail cells in Kentucky and at prayer meetings in Massachusetts, gathering stories from the drug users, families, and others at the heart of the epidemic.”

According to TIME editors, this special report was conducted to demonstrate that the opioid crisis is drastically affecting the poor and uneducated. 

The Opioid Diaries are broken into four parts: 

  1. Descent: Living With Addiction
  2. Consequences: Policing The Crisis
  3. Aftermath: Resiliency and Recovery 
  4. Epigraph

“Descent: Living With Addiction” chronicles the lives of those who misuse opioids. Nachtwey’s photos display the reality of use on the streets of various American cities. 

“Once you’re into heroin, it’s almost like a relationship with a person you love,” said Dan, a homeless man battling addiction in San Francisco. "And letting go of that, the thought of never seeing someone I love again—I couldn’t imagine giving it up forever."

“Consequences: Policing The Crisis" follows law enforcement officials as they respond to and confront opioid use and overdoses in the U.S. 

“You kind of become cold to seeing somebody overdose,” says Walter Bender, a deputy sheriff in Montgomery County, Ohio. “As an officer, you bury it away. A lot of us do that. That’s how we cope. It becomes easy to talk about the drug and not talk about the person, to say, 'Yeah, just another one.' But seeing the families that are affected, their loved ones, actually seeing them on the scene, trying to care for their loved ones or friends. To see that, to see the children involved, the heartache, it’s overwhelming. You also learn not to give up. So I talk to everybody out here. They might not want to talk to me, but I’m talking to them. I just don’t brush by them. They’re a human being. A lot of things are lost in the world today, and humanity is one of them.”

Part III, “Aftermath: Resiliency and Recovery,” documents what comes after an overdose or arrest. For some, this means court and jail time. For others, it means treatment. Jason Merrick, Director of Inmate Addiction Services at the Kenton County Detention Center in Covington, Kentucky, says he has used his past struggles to connect with those currently in the midst of substance abuse. 

“I had to come to terms with the shame and guilt surrounding the wreckage of my past,” he said. “The lives I had impacted, the wasted time. In recovery I realized that I can use the most disgraceful, embarrassing moments in my past to empathize with other men that are coming through the program. It was almost magical—the shame became something that I could use. My past has become one of my most valuable assets in helping people today.”

In the epigraph, Nachtwey discusses what documenting this crisis taught him. In the past 35 years, he has traveled to numerous countries to document wars, uprisings, natural disasters and global health crises. But, he says, documenting the opioid crisis made him aware of the “national nightmare” in the U.S.

To see more photos and read interviews, visit http://time.com/james-nachtwey-opioid-addiction-america. In addition to photos and interviews, the project also features behind the scenes, videos and resources

To see the print cover of the issue, click here

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.