On March 10, 2018, photographer and activist Nan Goldin led dozens of protestors to the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of art. They staged a die-in. They launched hundreds of pill bottles into the reflecting pool of the Egyptian Temple of Dendur. On the labels: “Prescribed to you by the Sackler Family.”
It was first action of her newly formed group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), and arguably its most emblematic to date. PAIN has since carried out many similar protests focused on pressuring art institutions like the Met to stop accepting donations from the billionaire Sackler family, whose members recently settled for $4.5 billion—and full immunity—for corrupt marketing actions they took as the owners of Purdue Pharmaceuticals.
PAIN is a small organization, just Goldin and a handful of those in her inner circle. It has received a large amount of media coverage due to Goldin’s reputation in the art world. But what began as an entity revolving around a celebrity figurehead decrying pharmaceutical companies, has, over the past two or so years, been evolving into something else.
Goldin’s body of photographic work, and her broader reputation as an artist, has been shaped by her lived experience with heroin as well as Purdue’s OxyContin, and by her involvement with drug-user communities. Her most famous series, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, intimately documented friends and lovers in the mid-’80s New York art scene. Some have credited Goldin with legitimizing self-documentation as an art form. But she’s also been criticized for profiting off marginalized people, and specifically those who use drugs.
In 1997, 20-year-old fashion photographer David Sorrenti died of overdose, and Goldin was drawn into the backlash against the “heroin-chic” aesthetic popularized in that era. Goldin had photographed Sorrenti’s then-partner Jaime King, 17 years old and using heroin at the time, for a fashion campaign. The photographs sold in 2019 for $25,000.
Much of Goldin’s work since then has reflected the class position she’s come to occupy, like documenting her stays in celebrity rehabs. But after surviving an overdose in 2017, she felt moved into activism.
She founded PAIN with her sights squarely on the pharmaceutical industry, and specifically Purdue, which she believed responsible for creating the opioid-involved overdose crisis.
But that crisis predates pharmaceutical overprescribing and is driven by escalating adulteration of the unregulated drug supply, not by prescription opioids.
As Goldin deepened her knowledge of harm reduction, she found PAIN’s original mission shifting.
“What is the harm caused by the Sacklers?” Crackdown podcast host and drug-user activist Garth Mullins asked Filter. “A lot of the fear coming up around Oxy and the Sacklers is leading to doctors being afraid to prescribe pain medication … We need more pharmaceutical opioids, not less.”
The government’s primary response in addressing Purdue’s perceived impact has been to restrict opioids and increase surveillance of the people who use them, to the detriment of pain patients as well as people who use state-banned drugs. After the crackdown on pharmaceuticals, overdose surged.
PAIN members have been anxiously watching the opioid bankruptcy settlements to see how the payouts are actually being allocated.
“We’re afraid the money will go into policing,” Goldin said. “That money deserves to go to the people that they’ve been harmed and to harm reduction communities and other people on the streets.” She cited a case in West Virginia, where the state spent nearly $2 million of its settlement with Purdue to build a police fitness center.
But as Goldin deepened her knowledge of harm reduction and of user-led responses to prohibition, within a year of PAIN’s formation she found its original mission shifting.
Having built a reputation on calls to abandon the Sacklers, Goldin seems to be in the process of doing so herself.
PAIN now calls attention to syringe service programs under siege, and legislation to decriminalize syringes. Rather than focus its energies on deplatforming wealthy art institutions, the group has been increasingly drawn to the movement for decriminalization and safe supply.
PAIN is often described as an “anti-opioid” organization, a label Goldin rejects. “We have never been anti-opioid,” she told Filter, citing the fact that she takes buprenorphine for opioid use disorder (OUD) and does not believe in abstinence-based treatment. “I love drugs and I believe in drug use.”
In 2019, PAIN joined grassroots organization VOCAL-NY to protest in front of then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office over delays to New York City’s four long-awaited safe consumption sites. In 2020, PAIN again joined VOCAL to protest Cuomo’s move to schedule fentanyl as a controlled substance and to advocate for access to OUD medications.
Goldin credits VOCAL’s mentorship with sparking the shift in PAIN’s political consciousness over the past two years. Using sales of Goldin’s work, PAIN now fundraises for harm reduction efforts, like securing $35,000 for North Carolina Urban Survivors Union to purchase a mass spectrometer for walk-in drug checking.
She still holds the view that the Sacklers ignited the overdose crisis. But she now wants to shed PAIN’s focus on Purdue—and the public’s association of PAIN with pharmaceuticals. Having built a reputation calling on wealthy and powerful institutions to abandon the Sacklers, Goldin seems to be in the process of doing so herself. PAIN might even get a name change down the line.
“Bringing down the architects is important, but of course, the solutions are even more important,” Goldin said. “That’s where our focus is going to go.”
By forging connections with grassroots organizations, and leveraging Goldin’s celebrity to platform—and fund—its actions, PAIN seems to be reinventing itself. It’s working to transcend its original mission and foreground marginalized drug users rather than privileged ones.
“I want to continue to be on the streets because that’s all we have,” Goldin said. “Every system in America has failed us. We only have the people.”
Top photograph by Tamara Rodriguez Reichberg. Bottom photograph by Lottie Maher.