After nearly twenty years as a financial trader, Chris Arnade left Wall Street to explore American communities experiencing poverty, addiction, and homelessness. Immersing himself at first in Hunts Point in the Bronx, Arnade then expanded his search across the country, to the struggles of the poorest of small rural towns. Arnade reveals, through his photographs and writing, the stories of those whom he refers to as “back row America.” Through shared poverty and struggles, the people of back row America find strength in a strong anchor to community and place, whether that place be the local McDonald’s or the local storefront church. By spending time in these places, simply hanging out and talking, connections are made. Through the connections that Arnade makes, a story of shared humanity and individual dignity is told. The depth of these stories and images takes form in Arnade’s book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America.
Bill Finger (BF): Hello, Chris. I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. Looking at your background, I was very curious about photography’s place in it. Specifically, before Hunts Point and before you started photographing for your book, Dignity.
Chris Arnade (CA): I accidentally fell into photography. It wasn’t until I got to New York City, when I was twenty-eight. I was looking for something to do to balance my work life. I would go on these long walks, and I just started bringing a camera with me. New York is such a great place to photograph, and my walks can be up to twenty miles.
Around 2008 somebody convinced me to buy a digital camera. It opened up a whole new avenue of photography for me. At that point, I switched to taking pictures of people, which I had never done before.
BF: How did you begin approaching people to take their photographs? Do you consider yourself an extrovert or an introvert?
CA: I guess I’m something of an introvert who goes everywhere. It’s a weird combo.
The camera actually became a great way to talk to people. Something that I had never intended. It just became that, and it opened people to sharing their stories.
Early on, I created a Flickr account and started sharing my photos. The first few pictures would be just one description, for example, “One in Jackson Heights.” Then, the description started to become as important as the photo itself, to the point where I ended up taking a notepad with me to write. I looked back at my early notes from my walks, and I would have thousands of scraps of paper, because people would tell me these things, and I would just write them down on whatever I had.
BF: You specify in your book that you stuck to this process of writing notes. Was this because you thought the recorder would be imposing to your subjects, that they might feel a little imposed upon or intimidated by an audio recorder?
CA: Initially, it was what I was comfortable with. The few times that I took a recorder were a disaster. It completely changed the dynamic because one of my ways of operating is that I’m not there to get a story. I’m just there to be there. If no story comes out of it, that’s fine. There are plenty of times the moment didn’t arise to take a picture, that it didn’t feel appropriate to take a picture. It felt like it would change the whole attitude, and I just didn’t do it. It wasn’t until the very end that I even envisioned this as a project or a book.
BF: There’s a whole history of walking as a part of the process of writers, artists, and photographers that you fell into.
CA: It’s integral to the whole thing. I would just walk all day. It’s a great way to meet people; it’s a great way for me to think; it’s a great way to see things. I would just walk.
BF: Is there an aspect of slowing down to allow for observation?
CA: Very much so. But also, like in New York City, a car is extraordinarily limiting. When I am in a car trying to do this, it’s frustrating because I see something but I can’t stop because there’s no parking. You have to pass things up. Walking, you’re always interacting. This allows things to develop on their own, in their own time.
I would say that the process went from walking to photography, to photography and writing. Now it has almost entirely shifted to writing. I am finding that photography is almost a complication that makes the interactions harder.
BF: In what way? How do you think that the camera complicated things?
CA: I was doing it all by myself, getting the story, getting photographs. It’s a lot. I feel like I lose some of the natural elements of talking to people. You’re always searching for the perfect shot; you’re always searching for the perfect light. I’m talking to someone, but at the same time, I’m always looking for that.
BF: What led you to Hunts Point, to the South Bronx?
CA: On a photographic level, it was pigeons.
CA: Pigeon Keepers was the first photo project that I focused on, where I really found a photographic thing to dig deeper into and make the walks about. It was pigeons and these pigeon keepers who keep them. I was fascinated by it. I still think it’s absolutely gorgeous art. People, mostly working-class poor, in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, keep pigeons on their roof. They collect them. Sometimes thousands of them. They buy and sell pigeons. They meet on weekends to swap pigeons, and then they fly them once or twice a day. This is really beautiful.
I stumbled upon it on one of my walks. I saw these masses of choreographed birds flying above these brownstones, and I was very curious. Over time I located it in this one particular neighborhood, one building. I just walked up to the roof deck and popped my head up there, and there were some guys flying pigeons.
BF: There are images in your book that feature that. Also, I think at that time you were photographing the bike clubs in the park?
CA: Yes. Those are the two things that I was drawn to. I was finding these things that I thought were just overlooked communities, the pigeon keepers and then the people who take old Schwinn bikes and deck them out and restore them. Photographically, I thought they were gorgeous. Socially, I thought they were interesting. Again, the stories behind the people were interesting. It was the process by which I was being pulled into these neighborhoods.
BF: But then the subject of your work shifted. You made a transition from the bike clubs and pigeon keepers to people facing high degrees of poverty and drug addiction. How did that transition come about?
CA: Well, you just cannot not see it in these neighborhoods. It’s there. I would talk to the addicts and to the prostitutes. They would always come up and ask me things. Who was I? Why was I there?
I stayed away from it as a subject initially, because I didn’t quite feel that I could do it right. There was such a big gap between them and me, and it just felt a little gawkish.
I also wanted to make sure that I was comfortable with what I was doing and that they were comfortable with me. Over the course of time, you start to get to know these people. You start realizing that the images out there about homelessness and addiction are generally one-dimensional.
Eventually it was Takeesha who opened the door.
BF: I love the initial interaction you had with Takeesha, as you describe it in your book. You asked her, “How do you want to be described?”
CA: I think her answer was, “It’s who I am. A mother. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.” I would wave to her, and she would wave to me like four or five times, and eventually at some point she yelled over, “Why aren’t you taking my picture?” I came over, and we talked.
For the next three years she was kind enough to take me around her community, people who were living in similar conditions. That’s where it pivoted away from pigeon keepers and bike people to addiction and prostitution. Also, that’s when I quit my job. Everything took on a little bit more of an intense process. The photographs became more intense; the whole process became more intense.
BF: When you were making these photographs, were there any moments that you felt uncomfortable photographing, and perhaps images that you chose not to share?
CA: There were plenty. There are probably thirty thousand pictures that I haven’t shared out of respect. Also, that’s partly why I didn’t use captions in the book. I wanted to protect people’s identities.
Because I had a digital camera, I always allowed people to look at my pictures after I took them. I allowed them to delete the ones they didn’t like. That was tough at times; there were some pretty amazing pictures that were deleted.
BF: There are not many photographers that would share that kind of agency with their subjects.
CA: There’s one of Takeesha shooting heroin into her neck while looking in the mirror. It’s a very dramatic picture; it’s one of those where you take it and you’re like, “Wow, I hope it came out because there are so many things going on.” There’s bad light; there are people screaming in the background. You get home, and you’re like, “Wow, these pictures worked. I can’t believe it.” Everything works. And then she asked me not to show it.
BF: I admire the fact that you are giving your subjects control over how they are portrayed.
CA: It’s certainly important. You have got to build trust. There were times when that trust was broken by accident. It was tough to repair it when it went wrong.
It’s a hard process. But if someone is homeless, someone’s living under a bridge, someone’s living on the street, before I take a picture, I always allow them to go in the bathroom and clean up. Almost everybody would fix their hair, try to put on some makeup, and try to present themselves. There were some people who said that was unfair of me because that’s not reality. I’m like, “Well, no, that’s completely fair of me.” That’s letting them be involved in the process of being photographed the way they want to be photographed.
Clearly that wasn’t the case for something like the pictures of people shooting up. I only did that after basically a year and a half of being around people, getting their approval, and then making sure. Repeatedly asking, “Are you sure you’re comfortable with this?” Sometimes they say, “No, don’t do it.” Then the next time they say, “Yes.”
So, eventually you do it. Though only after you’ve cleared it with them, that they’re comfortable with you taking pictures, and comfortable that they know it’s going to go online, and that they know people are going to see it.
BF: You mention the criticism of your work. That with documentary photography you should never become a part of the story, even a minor aspect of it. That you are too close to your subjects. How do you reply to this?
CA: I’m completely comfortable with the way I behaved. I think journalistic standards are absurd. I understand why they’re there, but I think the idea that you cannot get involved, not help people out, not drive them to detox, not give them $20 here and there when they’re in desperate conditions, is just coldhearted.
That’s why I went out of my way not to call myself a journalist. It would be very limiting on how I could operate in these communities. I’m going to buy people a meal if I’m with them. I’m going to let them shoot up in my car, if it’s the safest place to shoot up. I’m very comfortable with that.
BF: The other side of the coin—there have definitely been photographers that have taken similar approaches.
CA: Yes, exactly. These things are messy, and I wish people would talk about them more openly instead of just reverting to buzzwords like unethical, ethical. They’re all gray areas, and it’s frustrating. I think if anybody is committed to doing the right thing, they can do a good project, but you’ve got to have good intentions. You have to feel like you’re doing it for the right reasons.
BF: Earlier you mentioned the importance of community. How did your focusing on McDonald’s come about, and where does it fit in as a center of community?
CA: It was entirely accidental. I was spending so much time in these communities. I ended up finding myself in a McDonald’s for the same reason that the people I was documenting were there, because it was useful. It was, relatively speaking, safe. Had power, to charge a phone, had Wi-Fi, had a bathroom, had inexpensive food, and was a place where I could escape from the craziness of the streets. Just sit there and do my work, or just talk to people.
It was very eye-opening as well. I did this project for over three years in the Bronx. People would always want to meet at the McDonald’s. That’s where we always met. It really didn’t dawn on me how much time I was spending at McDonald’s until I started going on the road.
If I went into a new town and I wanted to learn about poverty or addiction there, I would just go to McDonald’s. I would park my car there and then just go for a walk. I’d come back five hours later from walking and hang out at McDonald’s while writing up notes and uploading my photos.
What is interesting is I was primarily using McDonald’s on the road for working, but inevitably I started finding out more and more of the stories and the pictures that were coming out of the McDonald’s when I was working. People would come up to talk to me. I saw all these people hanging out there in this community. It was really funny from a photographic standpoint. I was so in denial about the story, this idea that the McDonald’s was the story, that I actually would take people outside of the McDonald’s to take their picture because the lighting was so bad inside.
I’d take them out to the parking lot or wait until they left and go where they wanted to go. I’m like, “The McDonald’s is the story. Why am I denying this?” The story here is how important McDonald’s is to these communities and how much community is in the McDonald’s itself.
I started learning how to take pictures in McDonald’s. From an artistic standpoint, you’ve got to really—McDonald’s was so important. It is this place that is integral to these communities.
It became this process by which I learned a lot. It shifted. As I spent more time on the road, I spent more time in McDonald’s. To the point where my entire nights were spent in McDonald’s just sitting there, writing out my notes, talking to people, uploading pictures, and working.
BF: In some ways it’s very different compared to photographing the Bronx. Being there for three years until you really have a chance to get to know the people, you meet someone who helps give you the introductions, but when you’re on the road, how did your process have to shift? Was there a difference in how approachable people were, how open they were to being photographed?
CA: I had to be a little more aggressive because I’m only there for a week or two. But I also got better at it. I knew where to go. You go to the part of town where people tell you not to go. Then you find the McDonald’s and just sit there.
People would end up coming up to me. I would approach people at times. I had a background now where I could tell them, “I’m working on a book on McDonald’s” or “I’m working on a book on this.” I had introductory stories to explain why I was there, and that basically broke the ice. I learned how to spot the people who wanted to be left alone and the people who were more willing to talk.
At that point, it went from being a deep dive to something of a survey with the intention of it being a cross section. In one place you do a deep dive, and then in the rest you do a survey to combine the two.
BF: I assume you’ve stayed in contact with a number of the people you became friends with and interacted with in the Bronx, but how about on the road? Was there anyone that really stood out or that you clicked with?
CA: There were plenty of people I clicked with but unfortunately didn’t stay in contact with. The thing about the people I deal with, they changed their phone numbers a lot. I have a whole list of phone numbers of people from there.
Actually, the book cover is an example of that. To be inside the book, you don’t need a release form for a person, but to be on the cover you need a release form.
I had to get a release form for this couple who were homeless, who I took a picture of two years earlier. My publisher says, “We want to use this picture.” A picture that I don’t have a release form from. But they really, really, want to use it. I’m like, “Well, I guess I could go back to Huntington, West Virginia, and try to find them.”
And that’s what I did. I spent three days searching for this couple in Huntington. It was like a needle in a haystack. This couple I briefly met in a McDonald’s one night. It took three days. It took a lot of searching. I ended up showing the picture to somebody who said, “Oh, that’s Blake. He lives in a tent down near the river.”
I went down to the river to find him. His tent was always empty. I left a message in his tent. I left these messages for them everywhere. Eventually, he found the note I left him, and he texted me. Then I sent him a fax permission slip. Two of them, one for him and one for his friend, and they both signed them and faxed them back. Then I wired them money since the publisher agreed to pay them.
It was this interesting thing: can I find these people that I had taken a picture of three years before? I did.
BF: That’s incredible that you were able to find them. You have a section that’s basically dealing with place and this whole idea of how the front row is used to being so mobile. Then think about aspects of community where, for these people, it’s like, “Why should I move? This is where I live. This is where my community, and my friends, and my support system are; everything is there.” It really does play into that.
CA: It was interesting trying to find them because it was just a whole realization that, as you said, even three years later, homeless people can be located because they have a place. Not a home, but they have a place. It was also interesting to see how excited they were to be on the cover of the book. One of the things I was worried about was that when I found them, they would say no.
I sent them a copy of the book. He sent me a Christmas card last Christmas. It was sweet.
BF: There’s something really wonderful about that. Still, I’m dumbfounded that you were able to accomplish that in just three days.
Now, I’m assuming you shared the book with some of the people you knew in the Bronx.
BF: What was their reaction to seeing themselves?
CA: Some are happy, but some are angry that they’re not in it more. And some want money.
I set up a fund to give money to people who are in the book.
BF: In your book there is the addiction, issues of homelessness and of poverty, but then these moments of joy, these moments of living life, are still there. It’s not just focused on this one aspect. Your approach reveals the humanity of your subjects.
CA: The idea was to show the dignity. That there wasn’t just the addiction and hopelessness in these places. People were doing their best to create art in their own way.
BF: It just says, “Hey, viewer, these are people, and they’re more like you than maybe you realize or perhaps want to admit.” For example, there’s the photograph of the two sex workers who are looking through the telescope.
CA: Yes. Takeesha is one of those, by the way. That was an amazing moment. I used to be an astronomer. I was in the Bronx one night, and you could actually see Saturn from the place where the prostitutes work. It was this one area called The Stroll. They were wondering what I was looking at. I said, “Oh, that’s Saturn. Actually, I have a telescope at home.” I brought it the next time and set it up to show them Saturn. It was interesting.
That was a picture I wasn’t going to post. I thought maybe the juxtaposition was too weird, and when I posted it, it was one of the few pictures of mine that went viral. I’m glad that someone suggested to post it. I think at the time I thought it might have been a little bit demeaning of Takeesha, making her look silly, but my wife cleared it with me and said, “No, no, it’s a really sweet picture.”
BF: I think it’s another one of those that opens up the humanity of it. It shows those people who are “front row,” who have never experienced poverty, never experienced homelessness, that these are people just like them. That they exhibit the same curiosities, the same humanness, gives those viewers an “in” into these people’s lives. A certain empathy can be engendered. An empathy for these people that they have perhaps brushed by going down the street, but have never really engaged with or listened to.
Do you feel that creating this work has changed you?
CA: It changed me dramatically for the good. I’ve certainly opened up my awareness of a lot of problems. I might have understood, or at least acknowledged, but didn’t really understand the depth of those. I certainly think I’m a more empathetic person. I wasn’t somebody who was cold, but it’s easy to ignore the problem. I was ignoring the problem.
BF: As far as this project, as far as the book, what do you want people to take away from it? What do you want people to learn from it?
CA: The title was not chosen by me. I’m glad they chose the title they did, which was the dignity that comes out of these rough situations. You don’t want to lose sight of the dignity that’s within each person, no matter the hardest situations. Also, the idea, the classic example I think is, before you judge somebody. One of the reasons I started taking pictures the way I did.
The intention was to force people to look at somebody they don’t generally look at as human. I think that is the whole theme of the book, to look at people and give them full context, and give them their dignity of thinking of them as more than just somebody who’s a homeless addict.