Ever since Chris Arnade started hanging out with homeless drug addicts and prostitutes in the South Bronx, his life has taken a huge turn — for the better.
A former Citigroup financier of 20 years, Arnade, 48, became disillusioned by the narrow-minded corporate greed he saw on Wall Street leading up to and following the 2008 financial crisis. "I was no longer comfortable on Wall Street," he told me in a phone interview. "I wasn't enjoying the work. I stayed because I have a wife and three daughters, but it was no longer meaningful."
As a way to relieve stress, Arnade began taking long walks — sometimes wandering 20 miles — through New York City's outer boroughs, camera in hand. During one stroll, Arnade found himself in Hunts Point in the Bronx, one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods. It was there, about three years ago, that he met a prostitute named Takeesha.
"Takeesha was working one of the streets in an empty industrial area. She called me over and said, 'Hey, take my picture,'" Arnade recalls. "I was relatively cautious initially because I didn't want to be insulting, but she opened up and started telling me her life story."
Takeesha explained to Arnade that her mother was a prostitute whose pimp forced her to start working on the streets at age 12. She revealed a history of rape, teenage pregnancy, heroin abuse, and violence. "As somebody who spent a lot of time on Wall Street, it was very refreshing to hear somebody being so honest about who they were," Arnade says.
Afterwards, Arnade told Takeesha that he wanted to post her picture and story on the internet, and asked her how she wanted to be portrayed. "As who I am," Arnade remembers her saying. "A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God."
Out of this profound, humble interaction, Arnade's new life as a photographer of the poor and marginalized unwittingly began. "I basically started a project that was never intended to be a project," Arnade explains. "This was just me doing what I wanted to do. It was a very selfish project."
Arnade frequently couches his photographic endeavors in nonchalant terms — as a way to relax. However, he hinted to me that there might be a deeper, subconscious motivation for his work.
"There was some sense of penance going on. I was raised Catholic — the idea that you have to do good to make up for the sins you've done …" he trails off, before jumping tellingly to a different topic: "Wall Street did very bad things over the last 10 years."
Arnade is open about his personal wealth, though he is careful to note that he made it through smart investments, not fraud. Still, as he acknowledged in an op-ed in the Guardian this month, Wall Street bankers often take advantage of the gray area between those two terms: "We would sit around at dinners eating sushi and lobster, drinking, and proudly telling stories about overcoming some regulatory obstacle, or finding some flaw in a law that could be exploited … We didn't call what we were doing fraud, which is such a louche word. We called it 'arbitrage.'"
Perhaps by giving a voice to those who have been shunned by society as criminals (prostitution and drug possession are crimes under New York law, after all), Arnade is making amends for the way so many wealthy Americans have left poor people out in the cold.
Arnade quit his job on Wall Street about a year and a half ago and has taken up street photography as a full-time hobby. Since 2009, he has posted over 1,000 photos of New York City's homeless to his Flickr account as part of a project he calls "Faces of Addiction."
Four nights a week, from 5 p.m. to midnight, Arnade can be found in Hunts Point. Most of that time is spent simply hanging out and chatting. "I'm very close to a lot of the subjects now," he says. "I follow them on not just an artistic level, but a personal one."
Arnade with a subject in Hunts Point, Bronx.
On occasion, Arnade's proximity to his subjects leads to heartbreak. In April, Arnade wrote a blog post recounting the story of a woman named Millie who died from a bacterial infection after she repeatedly used dirty needles to inject heroin. "The last picture I have of Millie is of her talking to a stray cat," Arnade wrote. He continued:
"It was a late October night. She was working 'the spot,' a shuttered loading dock on an industrial street where I had first met her over a year before. Always shy, this night she was quieter than usual. She spoke to the ground, her voice a soft mumble of English and Spanish, a tight smile on her face. Always fashionable, she was dressed as if headed for a nightclub with small iron-on stars running the length of her pant seam."
"It's not a very good picture," he later remarked to me. "But it reminds me a lot of her and what happened. It's very emotional for me."
One of the things that makes Arnade's photographic style so powerful is its simplicity. "I want conventional snapshots of unconventional people," he repeatedly remarks. He favors face-lit head shots, with the subject staring straight at the camera.
"I don't put them in a studio," he explains. "I want them to be in the context of where they are in the moment — but also slightly outside of it. I want them to have that five-second break from their life to look at the camera and through to the viewer."
"The artistic style I've chosen is intentionally simple," Arnade explains. "I don't want to think too hard about the composition of the photo because that would take away from the point of the project." But what is the point, exactly?
"I want viewers to take a moment to stop and look at people that they otherwise wouldn't stop and look at. And use that opportunity to read their story."
Of course, not everyone has reacted positively to Arnade's project. "Usually the criticism is about the wealth difference between me and my subjects," explains Arnade. "They call it 'poverty porn' or 'exploitation.'" That more than a few of Arnade's photos feature prostitutes (one of Arnade's current projects focuses on transsexual prostitutes in the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights) in their "work uniforms" probably doesn't help to dispel that critique.