By Barry Divola

When celebrated photographer Nan Goldin had tendonitis in her left wrist in 2014, she was prescribed OxyContin for the pain. She had no idea what she was in for.

Initially, the 40 milligram dose was too strong for her. Eventually, in the grip of a three-year addiction, she needed 450 milligrams a day just to keep a lid on withdrawal symptoms and would stop at nothing to get the drug, moving to the black market to buy more and then transitioning to street drugs, eventually overdosing on a mixture of heroin and fentanyl.

“I survived the opioid crisis,” she wrote in Artforum in 2018 after beating her addiction. “I narrowly escaped.”

Goldin in 2021 protesting against the Sackler family, whose company Purdue Pharma produced the drug OxyContin.Credit:AP Photo

Many haven’t been so lucky. There have been about 500,000 deaths from opioid overdoses since the crisis began in 1999. By some estimates, 145 people are dying each day.

Rather than simply count her lucky stars, Goldin decided to do something about it. And, being Goldin, she was not backward in coming forward. That journey, from artist to activist, informs the Oscar-nominated documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, directed by Laura Poitras, whose previous films include Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden, and Risk, about Julian Assange.

“I’m drawn to stories that allow me to say something critical about US injustice, and to show the people who are doing something to confront it,” says Poitras. “Edward Snowden and Julian Assange fall into that category, and so does Nan.”

The film also delves deeply into Goldin’s personal life and art. She was the product of a loveless household in suburban Boston. Being given a camera while attending an alternative school in the 1960s was a revelation.

“I was pretty much mute back then,” she says, speaking from her home in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene and dragging on a cigarette. “I was very shy and spoke in a whisper. With a camera, I felt like I had a voice. Suddenly I could approach people. Having a camera is a good way to walk through fear.”

And as the film details, Goldin had a lot of fear, engendered by a repressive upbringing that drove her much-loved and unconventional older sister Barbara to suicide at age 19. The film is dedicated to her.

“I don’t think I would have rebelled without her death,” says Goldin. “I was a good little girl, but after she died I became a bad girl, which is a far better way to be. It took me on a path that freed me.”

That path started in late ’60s Boston, where she fell in with a group of drag queens and started documenting their lives with her camera. Then, when she moved to downtown Manhattan in the late ’70s, she did the same with the denizens of the underground scene there. Her frank and intimate images of sex, drugs and alternative subcultures were controversial and groundbreaking, and she displayed them in slideshows, accompanied by music that veered from showtunes to the Velvet Underground.

Goldin protesting in a ‘die-in’ the Guggenheim.Credit:The New York Times

She also trained the lens on herself, capturing on film her own drug use and her horrific physical abuse at the hands of a boyfriend.

By the time she started taking OxyContin, her position as one of the world’s most celebrated photographers was assured.

When she kicked her addiction (she is at pains to point out she used medical-assisted treatment, “and that’s what everyone should have”) she read Patrick Radden Keefe’s New Yorker story about the Sackler family, who were responsible for manufacturing and aggressively marketing OxyContin to doctors, who in turn pushed this synthesised opioid onto their patients, reassuring them it wasn’t addictive.

Goldin recognised the Sackler name immediately. The family was heavily involved in art philanthropy and had galleries, halls and wings named after them in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre and other august institutions. She organised a group called PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) and proceeded to hit the Sacklers where they lived.

Laura Poitras (left) and Nancy Goldin at this year’s Academy Awards Nominees Lunch.Credit:AP

The film opens with the group undertaking a protest at the Met in 2018, where the Sacklers had a wing named in their honour. Goldin and the protesters chant slogans such as “Sacklers lie! People die!” then throw empty pill bottles into the indoor pond, bearing labels with quotes attributed to the family, including “We’re going to make a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition”. Then they all lie motionless on the floor, staging a die-in.

Goldin’s aim was to get these prestigious galleries and museums to take down the Sackler name from their walls and refuse further donations.

“I never thought we would succeed,” she says. “I didn’t go into this thinking it would work. I just knew I needed to do it.”

The group’s actions began to take effect. The first domino to fall was the National Portrait Gallery in London, which turned down a one-million pound donation from the Sacklers after Goldin said she would pull her work from a planned exhibition. And then one by one, they started caving in. Towards the end of the film, the group rushes to the Met when they hear the Sackler name has been removed from the same exhibition hall where they started their protests. How did Goldin feel in that moment?

“It was incredible. The Met is the most important museum in New York to me. That’s why I started the actions there. So when they took the Sackler name down it was justification for all we had done. I was just so happy. You don’t succeed that many times in life. It was a big moment.”

Nicholas Rivers of Maine protests outside the Department of Justice in Washington. Credit:AP

Perhaps the most powerful and distressing part of the film is footage of victims’ families testifying at a hearing last year, where members of the Sackler family are on camera, listening to how lives have been destroyed by losing a loved one to OxyContin.

At one point a recording of a 911 emergency call is played and as a distraught father explains that his 20-year-old son is dead on the floor of their home, the mother can be heard wailing inconsolably in the background. Another parent tells the Sacklers, “I hope that every single victim’s face haunts your every waking moment, and your sleeping ones too.”

The Sacklers barely bat an eyelid, seemingly unaffected.

Goldin also testified. But today she regrets listening to the advice of the victims’ lawyer and tamping down what she said.

“I wish I’d told them how monstrous they are,” she says now. “They’ve left all these bodies everywhere. How can they be that inhuman? I wanted to ask them if they ever had a moment of guilt and regret. I wanted to wake them up. I wanted to go for the jugular.”

But, in fact, Goldin did go for the jugular. She just went about it in her own way. And she achieved more than she thought she ever would.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival (making it only the second documentary to win that honour) and has been nominated in the best documentary category at this year’s Academy Awards. Its rising visibility is already shining a light on both the opioid epidemic and the remarkable life of Nan Goldin. Although she’s gratified, she says making the film and dredging up a lot of old memories was hard on her.

“And it’s still hard on me,” she says. “It was very intense and it messed me up a lot. I gave those interviews with the understanding that I would have control over editing them. I worked hard to make sure the film was something I could live with. It’s amazing Laura allowed me to do it. Laura was true to her word and I respect that.”

At age 69, Goldin has wrestled with a hell of a lot and she still has a hell of a lot to do. On a card found in her sister Barbara’s bag after her death was a typed quote from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Droll thing, life is – that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of inextinguishable regrets.”

Does Goldin feel like she’s overcome her regrets?

“Oh, my own demons are waiting for me when I wake up, trust me,” she says, smiling. “But they’re getting quieter.” She pauses and nods. “They’re getting quieter.”

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