Nan Goldin’s potent documentary on the US opioid crisis

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These days, the idea of journaling your life – warts and all – through photography is well established. There’s a whole canon of photography that explores drug culture, for example, immortal images taken at what we now call an afters. We’re also used to seeing the arresting beauty of queer and trans people in fashion magazines. But before any of this, there was Nan Goldin.

Back in the early 1980s, her photographs did things we take for granted today. Her book and film, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, was made up of hundreds of images (taken between 1979 – 1986) that chronicle the agony and ecstasy of kisses and quick hits in bathrooms, bedrooms and bars. Goldin is not voyeuristic but diaristic; her subject was herself and the people she lived with, got high with and slept with, namely gays and gurls, drug users and HIV-positive people. Operatic in its drama, atmosphere and colour tones, Ballad created a space for beauty by serenading its subjects. It was about trying to hold onto people, making sure they didn’t disappear without a trace,” Goldin once explained of her portraits and the people in them.

Goldin’s impulse to hold onto people can be traced in the activist work she does today. In 2017, Goldin founded P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), an advocacy organisation battling America’s opioid crisis. P.A.I.N. formed to direct attention towards the destruction caused by the Sackler Family, the billionaire American dynasty who created and rampantly marketed the prescription drug Oxycontin through their company Perdue Pharma.

P.A.I.N. aims to hold the Sacklers responsible for the hundreds of thousands of opioid overdoses that have taken place since the 1990s, and for the Sackler name to be removed from museums including The Louvre and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, arguing that the family’s donations to the arts have been a way to whitewash their image.

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