Editor’s Note: This article contains mentions of substance use disorder. Please take care while reading, and note the helpful resources at the end of this story.
As North America continues to grapple with the complicated effects of the opioid crisis, content creators are taking to the streets to record the realities of what’s occurring in some of the continent’s most drug- and poverty-stricken neighborhoods. A long-debated issue has been the ethics of street photography and the filming of individuals with substance use disorder.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2020 to 2021, the number of drug overdose deaths increased more than 16%. In 2021, more than 75% of the nearly 107,000 deaths related to drug overdose involved an opioid.
According to the Lancet, while the coronavirus pandemic is believed to have disrupted “treatment programs and access to life-saving medication such as naloxone,” the opioid crisis has been an epidemic “since its inception in 1995,” following the marketing of OxyContin as “a safe and low-risk” analgesic.
Elliot (@elliot.jrr), for instance, is a content creator on TikTok whose platform consists of passerby footage, presumably taken by him, of people suffering with substance use disorder on the streets of Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. In some of his videos that have since been deleted, however, Elliot referred to the individuals as “zombies in real life,” which has prompted some backlash from other TikTokers.
Tracey Helton Mitchell, a health worker and author of “The Big Fix” who is prominent in harm reduction spaces and has for the last 25 years worked with individuals who are trying to get off drugs, spoke to In The Know by Yahoo via email about the ethics of filming those with substance use disorder. Mitchell, a recovered addict, often speaks candidly about her experiences on TikTok.
“I do not think it is ethical to film people. It does not raise awareness. Anyone who lives in these areas are aware. There are enough people that are willing to be on camera voluntarily. There is no need to violate the privacy of individuals who are suffering,” she wrote. “If a person is willing to tell their story in a way that is not exploitative, that could be acceptable. There are advocates and individuals willing to tell their stories.”
Rehabs are the only business with a 7-10% success rate that blame clients. A big reason is treatment is not customized to the needs of the client. It’s generally whatever bed is available. Many rehabs don’t use evidence based treatments, have underpaid staff, limited oversight.
— tracey helton mitchell MPA she/her (@traceyh415) September 25, 2023
“Many if not most of the filming I see is for clicks and clout. We call it ‘poverty porn.'”
Compensation for sharing their stories, argued Mitchell, should be considered as well.
“I do feel depending on the context, they should be compensated for their time and insight. I volunteered to be in a movie about my addiction to heroin. In retrospect, I feel I should have been compensated for my time as many folks profited off my story,” Mitchell explained, before delving into the “clout” some may derive from recording folks.
“Many if not most of the filming I see is for clicks and clout. We call it ‘poverty porn.’ The more shocking, the more clicks. Instead of filming, that person could be helping,” she added. “I try to support individuals telling their own stories of homelessness and addiction on social media. There are many accounts out there telling their stories in their own voices.”
Lost in Phoenix, a YouTube account that was founded by Art Castro in 2011 and has since branched out to platforms including TikTok, takes on an arguably more ethical approach of raising awareness. By conducting interviews with Phoenix residents who are struggling with substance abuse, Castro claims to highlight the stories of the people who are “almost invisible to us because we can’t bother ourselves with asking how we can better understand & help these people in need,” reads his YouTube page.
Min Hwan Ahn, an attorney in Philadelphia, provided insight on the legality of recording someone who is under the influence — regardless of whether consent was given.
“An individual under the influence might not fully comprehend the scope and repercussions of their consent at that moment. Consequently, those who film such individuals even with their ‘consent’ while high might still face legal issues if it is later argued that the consent was not ‘informed’ or ‘voluntarily given,'” he told In The Know via email. “It is a sensitive balance between protecting an individual’s rights to privacy and freedom of expression.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-4357 for resources, or find a treatment option near you through the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers directory. Visit the American Addiction Centers website to learn more about the possible signs of substance use disorder.
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