Local Photojournalist Mark Trent On Documenting The Opioid Epidemic - The West Virginian
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Local Photojournalist Mark Trent On Documenting The Opioid Epidemic

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Ronceverte resident and photojournalist Mark Trent spoke at Big Draft Brewing’s “Talks on Tap” on Thursday, November 11, showing and discussing the photographs that make up part of his career.

“I’ve got to start by saying [there are] some pretty heavy images of drug usage and needles,” said Trent. “If you have any sensitivities, be wary.”

Trent worked with another former Greenbrier County resident, Allie Rambo, documenting her life, friends, and relationships as she navigated the local drug culture. A New York Times reporter, Campbell Robertson, eventually interviewed Rambo, resulting in the photo article “Despair, Love and Loss: A Journey Inside West Virginia’s Opioid Crisis,” published on December 13, 2018. This is just one of the articles that emerged out of Trent’s local work.

What follows is an condensed, rearranged, and edited form of Trent’s talk, outlining his career documenting the opioid epidemic and drug use in Greenbrier County:

“This isn’t my story. I [captured] it, yes, but I never was in addiction. I was never an addict. … [Those captured in the photos] allowed me to be there. I had to be protective. … There’s stuff I have that I don’t show because people haven’t given me the permission. … I have to hand it to the New York Times, they were so caring, so cautious, and so appropriate.”

“I got started on this project 11 or 12 years ago. I was in school, trying to figure out what kind of photography I wanted to do. I knew I loved documentary photography – I was really, really enthralled with Eugene Richards. He did a book about the cocaine epidemic. And it was called Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue. I would just sit in my school library, look at this book, just enthralled with it.”

“I was traveling around, I was really counting on being a war photographer. I was traveling in the Middle East, and I met this girl in Pakistan, and we were dating. I brought her here and she’s like, why are you trying to nose in everybody’s business, you’ve got an interesting place to document. It had never really hit me because, growing up here, you just don’t really realize what’s in front of you.”

“A mutual friend … had passed away kind of suddenly and I didn’t know why. He was my age. I found out that he was doing heroin. I was like, ‘this is crazy, people don’t do that here.’”

“I was living in Brooklyn at the time, so I came [back to Greenbrier County] with skinny jeans, looking pretty hip. I slowly got traction, but I wasn’t really getting anywhere. Then I met my friend Allie, and we were just super close. I told her what I wanted to do one day … and she’s like, ‘why don’t you stay with me? I’ll show you what’s going on.’ [That’s when] I started documenting, started taking pictures. … A lot of people were really open to sharing their stories as a cautionary tale.”

“They were kind enough to allow me to hang around. A lot of people weren’t the biggest fans of it either. There were rumors I was like riding around, buying people drugs, so I can photograph it. … We just kept our heads low. … The methamphetamine got so bad for a while [that] I couldn’t even operate. Everyone would be cool with me one day, then the next day I show up, and they’d [say] ‘you’re an informant.’ They would make up this whole thing with me. … Now that I live here, it’s a little different.”

“This is Allie after she lost a friend to an overdose in this room. … Allie was in the house, trying to get some stuff out before the families came and cleaned up. … I saw a lot of overdoses and people would come in and [first], try to find the drugs and, [second], try to find anything of value before families got there. A lot of hard, heartbreaking stuff.”

“This is one of the girls that passed away, one of her prescriptions. The family was cleaning out the house, they found all this stuff. She had started when she was 13 – she hurt her knee in a soccer accident. She was prescribed morphine and from that she started using. She really was a gateway for a lot of people [into] the community. That one injury changed a lot of people’s lives.”

“This is Allie one night, looking for drugs. There’s a lot of looking for drugs, I have a lot of hanging out. … There’s, sort of, a routine of getting up in the morning, trying to find a fix, trying to find out where you’re going to get your stuff, and then going out and getting it. … There’s always fights over drugs, always something going on. Everyone was sneaking into each other’s rooms and locking doors to do a little bit. … It was just always kind of chaotic.”

“I got pulled out of the house once by the police. … They’re like ‘What are you doing here?’ I’m like ‘I’m taking pictures!’ I tried not to advertise it either, because there’s also a responsibility I had [to the people in my life.] If I was hanging out with certain people, they automatically thought that people were involved in certain things. Then, all of a sudden, my friends weren’t wanting to hang out with me, [saying] ‘we don’t want people to think we’re into any of this stuff.’”

“These [photos] are [from] when they were making Opanas, which are really [powerful] opioids. [The companies] are making them ‘abuse proof’ but it took like no time for them to figure out how to melt them down and make them. The syringe was just black, jet black.”

“Most of this work was made in Rainelle. I could have made this … in Ronceverte just as easy, could’ve made it in Lewisburg just as easy, could’ve made it in White Sulphur just as easy. I was everywhere shooting, but this is the person that let me in. The sad thing is, this isn’t over. It’s still happening. Every time I show the work, [I remind people] I can continue to make this work today.”

An abscess resulting from multiple injections.

“The hard part was … after [you got home]. You don’t really realize it, and then once you get some time away, [you think] ‘that was nuts.’ … There were a few times where Allie called me [and] she’s like, ‘Hey, I forgot I did this thing one time where we went this house, and they were gonna rob you, and I talked them out of it.’”

“This is Southern Regional Jail. … [Allie] had been arrested. This is the charge that got her into a drug rehab program. She had bought Sudafed for someone and they had used it to make … meth. … This is the final spark and the final thing that led to her recovery.”

“I called up the chain of command and finally out-chained everybody and got the main guy to [tell them to let] me to come in and take a picture. … [The guy who let me in the jail] hated me. He called me, and he’s like ‘you went over my head didn’t you?’ I was like, ‘Yes, sir.’ … I got these two images, but I just felt like it was really important just to show this kind of side of things.”

“It took Allie moving away to get sober. I watched her want to get sober, then she would get out of a rehab program, and then somebody would show up with a shot of heroin and be like, ‘Congratulations, you made it out.’ They would hand it to her like a trophy. … It was really crazy how standoffish the people that were still in active addiction were to her … when she came back to see them. [She was hurt] because they were like ‘oh you think you’re better than us now’ and she’s like ‘[that’s] not it at all.’ There was such a division, immediately, that was different for her. She lost everyone here – she has no one left from this life in this area, she literally had to start [over].”

“I did give them all the option – ‘anytime you want to go to a facility, I will …drive you there.’ They knew that. That never ever happened, but that I gave [them the] options. … I did nothing special but talk to people, treat people kindly, and listened. That was it. That’s what got me access every time. … If someone was mad at me, I would usually talk to him about it and we were buddies.”

“There are some people that have just gotten swept into it. … I was really lucky. I was around this stuff all the time [and] the only time I ever took a pill I was like 13 years old. [I took] Ritalin and found out I had Attention Deficit Disorder and that’s why I couldn’t focus on anything.”

“I don’t consider myself a photojournalist, I think I’m more of a documentarian. The photojournalist guys are real hard about not getting involved, but you don’t stay in a place for ten years and not be bonded with people, stressed about them. We all became close. … That was another reason we didn’t publish until Allie was [ready]. … We had that conversation, [I said] ‘okay, you’re pulling recovery. Your charges have been dealt with, you’ve done your program, let’s talk about this stuff now.’ … They helped me. We retired images out of the series that [some of] the girls didn’t want to see anymore, you know what I mean? We’re really connected on it. It was hard.”

“A lot of conversations I had, [the addict would say] ‘well, I’m just a piece of s*** now and everyone knows I’m a piece of s***.’ [I would say] ‘you’re not a piece of s***.’ … Just being there and showing you care [can] help them and open a doorway. … They’re still people, even when they’re suffering. They’re still people – daughters, mothers, fathers, sons.”

“This is Allie’s life now in sobriety. She’s been sober for six years. She’s ordered into a court program, went through the paces, and it just kind of it clicked with her. She’s been sober ever since. I used to call and check on her all the time and now she’s the person that calls, checks on me, and straightens me out. … This is her wife and step daughter.”

“One thing that’s haunted [Allie though is that] she has a drug felony. They’re working on this program to get rid of it, but it just limits them on what they can do professionally, so they’ve been waiting tables. They work hard.”

“I lucked out to have a happier ending [with Allie and the story].”

“This [photo] is right after a funeral – one thing that hasn’t stopped is [that Allie has] not stopped losing people.”

“It’s really beautiful to see the work live on, educate, and sort of inspire. When you’re young you think you can change the world, but then, as you get older, you realize you can change single people’s lives and how that is really great. I’ve got great letters and doctors that say ‘I saw that and it changed the way I prescribe,’ or ‘I really thought differently about this.’ … It’s surgeons from all over the country, … doctors, lawyers, and prosecuting attorneys, people just sent me nice emails that say ‘I still keep that article on my desk and I still think about that all the time.’ … There’s humanity there and it’s been so rewarding in that way.”

Reporter’s Notes

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s website, “In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers, and healthcare providers began to prescribe them at greater rates. This subsequently led to widespread diversion and misuse of these medications before it became clear that these medications could indeed be highly addictive. Opioid overdose rates began to increase. … Research suggests that misuse of these drugs may open the door to heroin use. Data from 2011 showed that an estimated 4 to 6 percent who misuse prescription opioids switch to heroin and about 80 percent of people who used heroin first misused prescription opioids.”

In addition, “people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) often face social stigma, discrimination, and other challenges not encountered by people who identify as heterosexual. They also face a greater risk of harassment and violence. As a result of these and other stressors, sexual minorities are at increased risk for various behavioral health issues.”

More information can be found at www.drugabuse.gov.

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