ICP Projected: Philip Eastman
Wesley Verhoeve: Your most recent place of residence was the countryside of Wyoming. Since then, you’ve been visiting various places to document the opioid crisis. What inspired this project? Did the 2016 election play any part?
Philip Eastman: The election most certainly played a part in this project. I read about Austin, Indiana when its then-governor Mike Pence was announced as Trump’s vice presidential candidate. Not knowing anything about this seemingly level-headed evangelical, I did a little digging and discovered he’d been complicit in an HIV epidemic in this isolated rural community by ignoring needle sharing of a painkiller called Opana ER. Reading through articles in the library, it struck me how quickly our news cycle goes from one story to the next. Austin was flush with coverage from NPR to the BBC, and then they just left. That’s how it works. Another story calls. And our election swallowed many of these stories in its path.
So my curiosity kicked in. I wanted to know for myself what happens after the news cameras leave. I knew it would take commitment and patience to go to a rural town of 4,300 and start asking questions about an epidemic that had already taken many lives, so I packed up my belongings and set out for Indiana in April 2017, making Louisville, KY (40 miles south) my home base. I’ve been there ever since, with gradual trust and openness evolving over time.
WV: You’ve been speaking with people on all sides of the opioid problem, from medical professionals to people who are struggling with addiction, to affected families. What has been their response when you approach them?
PE: Generally, folks are surprised I drove out from Wyoming just to hear their stories, and that I don’t have some kind of covert angle. There’s a strong suspicion toward outsiders in some parts of the American South, but I’d say that’s true of humans overall. I’m not traveling with a team that represents a well-known media organization, so I take my time approaching people without a camera before proposing they be photographed. Many decline. Some take weeks or months to give permission with gentle encouragement. I’m very adamant about not taking “stolen photographs.” I want my subjects to give permission and know my intentions. It’s a form of intimacy to have someone open up to you about their suffering. I’m filtering countless interviews and photos and editing them down for public viewing, in the hopes that they can stimulate interest and action on the topic.
WV: Can you tell me about a moment or person you encountered during the making of this project that has stuck with you?
PE: On my second day in Indiana, I attended the meeting at the county seat to determine whether or not to renew the needle exchange that had been enacted during the 2015 HIV outbreak. The three county commissioners prefaced the meeting by making stump speeches on the lack of “personal responsibility” practiced by drug addicts in the community, how needle exchanges “enable” addicts by giving them clean tools for using, and by speaking harshly toward the nurses who had come to plead the exchange remain intact.
One commissioner spoke of the lack of gratitude in addicts who don’t wake up and decide to change their lives, and it was in that moment that the nurses politely introduced their friend: a recovered addict named Cole.
Cole had been an addict for years in the worst part of Austin and was now six months sober. He spoke calmly and kindly to the commissioners, thanking them for their efforts, while praising the nurses for approaching him day after day—for months—until he was finally ready to enter rehab. They drove him to the recovery facility. They checked in with him. The needle exchange was saving lives from disease until addicts were ready to accept help and support.
Cole thanked the commissioners again and sat down. They had clearly not expected to see a face of addiction present in the room, and they were visibly moved. The motion to approve the exchange passed.
WV: How do you envision the future of the project? Do you have anything specific in mind as an end result?
PE: Part of my research has involved digging deeper into the history of Austin and its migratory ties to Eastern Kentucky. From interviewing locals, I’ve discovered its nickname of “Little Hazard.” It seems during the Depression, families fleeing coal work came to Austin to work at the now-downsized Morgan’s Foods and American Canning Company. There is little historical writing on the topic, but the oral history is well known in the community. I think looking back into the past helps illuminate the present. I also love libraries and, most especially, microfilm.
Due to the hesitation toward news cameras, I’ve opted to record audio interviews for a future podcast called Invisible America. The title comes from the oft-repeated notion that many Americans feel forgotten by the present economic system, politicians, etc. Sometimes the only way to find out the stories of our neighbors is to go out and ask them ourselves. My hope is that by focusing on a specific region, this tale will transcend specificity and become universal.
Images from Invisible America will be literally “projected” onto the windows of the ICP Museum from August 21 to 27 as part of ICP’s Projected series. They will be visible from the sidewalk outside the museum and will be most apparent after sunset.