Photographing The Desperate Opioid Crisis In America's Abandoned Cities | Opinion

It's mid-morning and I'm alone on a hot street in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, the epicenter of the city's burgeoning heroin crisis. The crumbling streets in this old manufacturing district have become a haven for heroin addicts who crawl along old factory walls with desperate and worn expressions.

The middle-aged man I'm photographing had been stumbling down a street with the lurching movements I'd long ago recognized as that of an opioid high. With his eyes closed and black headphones dangling from his ears, he pauses under some trees near a dented guardrail. As I slowly approach him and start photographing, I can't stop wondering what a man in his condition is listening to through his headphones. As he slowly kneels on the cracked and sandy asphalt, deep in an opioid high and oblivious to me, I sense that he is beginning to overdose.

Nervously I take out my phone, but as a photojournalist I'm used to quietly observing reality and not directing outcomes. A beat-up maroon Toyota comes to a screeching halt behind me and two men in t-shirts and sunglasses briefly look at the man sprawled along the road and tell me to call an ambulance before screeching off. The 911 dispatcher seems overly calm, and I immediately sense that she receives hundreds of similar calls a week, as she asks for my location and doesn't seem concerned that I have no idea where I am.

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Police and others revive a man who overdosed on heroin in the Kensington section of Philadelphia on July 21, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The man later came to and was taken to the hospital. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It was the second heroin overdose I had witnessed in a week. As this crisis began to unfold in front of my eyes several years ago, I was frustrated that it wasn't receiving the attention it deserved from politicians and the media at large. So, in response, I've decided to document it through pictures.

I mostly travel by motorcycle, looking for back roads, motels and small, blighted cities that offer a window into an America slowly slipping away into addiction or standing resolute against it. I like taking a motorcycle instead of a car or plane; the journey on the motorcycle is often difficult but leads to an appreciation for both the distance and the isolation of much of America. Those "fly-over" cities and towns viewed from 20,000 feet become exotic oases on a motorcycle. Reaching Warren, Ohio from Brooklyn on the bike is a battle with tractor trailers, flat tires and summer downpours.

I find that many of the heroin users I encounter want to talk. Maybe it's the disarming nature of the high or simply the hope that a guy with a camera will lead to the $10 needed for the next fix.

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Men walk down a street in Clarksburg on August 22, 2018 in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Eric approached me as I was standing under a tree across from an old factory on the edges of Warren, Ohio. His arms are covered with little red needle marks that snake across fading tattoos. He is walking with crutches and under his sunglasses and baseball cap I see a man whose youth is still fighting to survive. He comments on my motorcycle, which is parked on the grass near a tumbledown children's playground.

This neighborhood, which looks like it was once proudly middle class, is now strewn with junked cars, boarded up houses and suspicious young couples whose malnourished bodies dart around like feral cats. Eric gives me a brief and animated story of his life thus far: the Marine Corps, some odd jobs in Florida and the eventual return to this struggling midwestern city where the loss of the manufacturing industry has left a sucking hole in the economy.

An older, heavy-set woman with a greasy head of gray hair runs out of what I had assumed was a shuttered business. Its windows have sheets of plywood over them and there is no visible door. She yells to Eric for a lighter and just as quickly disappears back into the building. I'd assumed the woman was his grandmother but shortly learn it's his wife. With that Eric laughs and hobbles back around the corner and into some opening I can't detect.

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Mike, 22, a heroin addict who began using opiates when he was 13, pauses to shoot-up by a railway underpass in the Kensington section of Philadelphia which has become a hub for heroin use on July 31, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

These past years of documenting the opioid crisis has strangely left me with more hope than despair. Too often in the news business one's subjects are a world away in terms of background, language, tastes and life experience. But with this drug epidemic you face your brother, friend, father, neighbor and eventually yourself. I have engaged in more intimate conversations with addicts than I have with many close friends.

In 2016 about 948,000 Americans reported using heroin in the past year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. There are many theories as to how America has found itself in this position. I personally think it has to do with the changing role of work in American life. With the end of manufacturing, many Americans, especially young males in rural communities, have lost an anchor to their families, communities and to their role in life.

So many of the communities now devastated by opioids are located in former towns and cities where factories were the largest employer. Most of these places are now ghost towns with little to offer the residents who stayed.

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Eli, who was recently incarcerated for over seven years and is currently addicted to opioids, sits along a street in Clarksburg on August 22, 2018 in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

One evening in a cold motel room in Vermont I was documenting two young men using heroin. Suddenly the subject of music came up and we learned that we all had a taste for early English rock; Echo and the Bunnymen, The Smiths, The Cure. We spent the next 45 minutes lost in the discussion of music. I had momentarily forgotten my purpose for being there, that shared love of music had bridged the distance between subject and reporter. Yes, my job is to document this story, but it also gives me an opportunity to humanize it and in turn, a chance to offer a helping hand to those that are slipping away.

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Drugs are prepared to shoot intravenously by a user addicted to heroin on February 6, 2014 in St. Johnsbury Vermont. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin recently devoted his entire State of the State speech to the scourge of heroin. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Read more: Some of the most haunting images Spencer Platt took while documenting the opioid crisis.

Spencer Platt is an award-winning photographer who joined Getty Images in 2000. He has covered conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo and Ukraine. In 2007, he received the World Press Photo of the Year award for his picture of young Lebanese survivors surveying bombing damage in Beirut during the Lebanon-Israel crisis of 2006.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​

Photographing The Desperate Opioid Crisis In America's Abandoned Cities | Opinion | Opinion