Our recent story titled “How I Got That Grant: The IWMF Fund for Women Journalists Grant” explains how photographer Julia Rendleman won a $7,650 grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation to support her project about the effects of the opioid crisis and anti-drug policies on women. IWMF senior program officer Ann Marie Valentine noted that Rendleman submitted a strong project proposal that showed she had the trust of her subjects, an understanding of the project’s challenges, and a project that differed from other projects about the opioid epidemic. Here is the full text of Rendleman’s project proposal.
Julia Rendleman: The goal of this story is to investigate the mental strain and long-term consequences for mothers, families and children who have loved ones addicted to drugs, serving jail sentences for drug abuse, or who have lost family members to the disease of addiction. This story strives to show the psychological effects of the opioid epidemic on women and the consequences for women suffering addiction, including the mental stress of losing custody or contact with their children. I will focus on a community near Richmond, Virginia that I have been working in for about a year.
My hope is that this photo story will bring to light some of the under-reported consequences of the opioid epidemic, like mental health and stress. Fatal fentanyl and/or heroin overdoses increased by 72.0% year on year i n 2016 in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Health, a statistic that echoes national trends. My personal profiles of people living with addiction and the emotional consequences for family and community will go beyond numbers to deeply illustrate the devastating effects of the crisis.
When Angelina, 10, had to bury her dog two days after her mother’s partner overdosed, she wondered if the dog’s death was her fault. “Maybe God is punishing me for not crying when Kameel died,” she said. A family pet dying might be something a typical American child can relate to, but the added burden of guilt like Angelina’s is something unique and untold.
B.B. went to court late in 2016 to drop a restraining order against her child’s father. But that struck the judge as an odd request considering the man had been in and out of jail for drug-related offenses. He ordered her to be dru g tested on the spot. She wasn’t clean. She hasn’t seen her son Robbie since. While B.B. fights to see her son again, she says the pressure to return to drugs increases. “It makes me want to give up. There is a hole in my life and it’s all I think about, is him. I’m not a bad person,” she said.
At the McShin Foundation, a recovery center in Richmond, director Erin Mayberry says women face unique barriers to recovery. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, she stressed the immense shame culture when it comes to female addicts. B.B. echoes those sentiments, wishing people could see everything she’s been through, not just the drugs she resorted to.
A report by the Open Society Foundation found that there is harm in the stigma of the “unfit mother” and that for all of the terrible impacts of drug criminalization on women, no evidence exists that it has curbed drug use.
This is a story I realized needed to be told after working on another story about generational poverty in central Virginia. I have invested a lot of time in getting to know the subjects and need more time to uncover the complex emotional toll of opioid use. I am using the social documentary approach to capture this story, but my focus isn’t on buying, selling or even using drugs. It is about telling the full story of someone’s life, the circumstances that led them to drug use and the consequences that plague them. Americans may be aware of the opioid epidemic, and the statistics are staggering. But photographs tell a story in a personal way that goes beyond numbers and political talking points.
My goal is to find an international audience for this story. Yes, America is in the midst of the worst drug epidemic it’s ever seen, but the cycle of drug abuse and poverty is a global issue. Although I do not have any specific publication committed to publishing the story, I have been discussing this story with [name redacted], and they are interested once the story has developed more. A grant from the IWMF will guarantee a complete story on the untold consequences of the opioid epidemic.
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