Photographer Captures Portland’s Fentanyl Crisis Amid Oregon’s Radical Drug Policy

Fentanyl crisis in Portland
Gavin Kelly hugs his mother Amanda inside the tent they live in. | Jordan Gale

When photographer Jordan Gale moved to Portland a few years back, Oregon had just passed Measure 110 — the first-ever U.S. drug decriminalization law — and he wanted to explore the topic with his camera.

Warning: The photos below contain depictions of drugs and drug use.

Gale tells PetaPixel that he grew up around drug users and has had friends pass from opioids and addiction. It’s a topic that he is both affected, and fascinated by.

“I moved to Portland when fentanyl was really starting to alter the streets here. With most things I’m curious about, I try to educate myself through photography and the act of making images,” Gale explains.

“I needed to understand the situation better, from the perspectives of those most affected. So, I went out with my camera in order to meet people.”

Fentanyl use in Portland
Fentanyl is passed between a group of people in Portland, Oregon.
Fentanyl use in Portland
Narcan, which reverses overdoeses, is passed out on the streets of Portland.

“It became apparent relatively quickly that this was a historic moment, not just in severity to the fentanyl crisis, but also for Oregon’s daring attempt to move past the war on drugs and to question how modern society can and should treat drug users,” he adds.

Gale’s stark black and white images give a 360 view of the crisis enveloping Portland. He captured police administering Narcan to a man overdosing on the street while also attending neighborhood meetings where they discussed issues such as visible drug use.

Fentanyl use in Portland
Portland Police Officer David Baer administers Narcan on an individual believed to be overdosing outside an abandoned building where fentanyl users and dealers often congregate.
Homeowners gather with county commissioner candidates to discuss issues such as visible drug use in the neighborhood and the implementation of Measure 110.

Gale says that while he had to be patient documenting a vulnerable community, he didn’t approach the project much differently from how he usually operates.

“I always make sure to share as much about myself with my subjects, as I expect them to share with me,” he says

“No matter what, you have to look a person in the eyes with honesty, with your intentions and heart on your sleeve. That honesty combined with patience, that’s how you build a relationship anywhere.”

Portrait of Gavin Kelly, a fentanyl and opioid user, in the tent that he lives in.
Fentanyl use in Portland.

Gale says he shoots in black and white because he finds color to be a distraction from how he “wishes to engage with photography.”

“Black and white lets me break down a scene so that what’s highlighted is just intimacy, a moment shared between myself and those within the frame,” he adds.

The photographer shoots with any and all cameras at hand — including his phone.

“These objects are just tools and they all do the same thing to a certain degree,” he explains.

“Most of the time, I think it’s best to have smaller cameras. They let you be less intrusive. You can react quicker with a smaller and faster setup, but that can all be thrown out the window too.”

fentanyl crisis in Portland
First responders carry an individual experiencing a fentanyl overdose in an RV parked on a SE residential street in Portland, Oregon.

fentanyl crisis in Portland

Reflecting on what’s happening in Oregon right now, he says a lot of people are struggling and stuck in a crisis without access to resources.

“Some people would rather look the other way. They choose to see those individuals struggling as anything but their neighbor,” he says poignantly.

“I don’t know how we change those minds. The whole situation is complicated and intertwined with political nuances and a severe housing crisis too.

“I don’t think we’re in a good space right now, but I think we’re moving closer to solutions and we’re at least now meeting people where they’re at.”

fentanyl crisis in Portland
A fentanyl user in Portland.
fentanyl crisis in Portland
Desmond She looks through his tent in a local unhoused encampment near the city’s downtown waterfront.

Measure 110 may now be coming to an end after a bill that will reimpose criminal penalties for possession of some drugs won final passage in the State Legislature last week.

More of Gale’s work can be found on his website and Instagram.

Image credits: Photographs by Jordan Gale