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After nearly 20 years on Wall Street, Chris Arnade left his high-paying career to document Americans living on the margins. Traveling all over the country, he took photographs and wrote about the America that is overlooked. Christopher Booker recently spoke to Arnade about his new book "Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America," in which he documents people living in poverty and addiction.
Perhaps the most enduring image of the Great Depression is Dorothea Lange's 1936 portrait of a migrant mother in Nipomo, California. The photographer found the woman sitting in a camp where field workers had assembled after their pea crops had failed.
The great recession of our era perhaps has no such single image. But photographer and writer Chris Arnade has a bookful of images with an equally compelling and intimate perspective of what he calls "back row" america.
For more than ten years he's been travelling the country taking pictures and writing stories about Americans forced to the margins and trying to survive. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has more.
As the foreclosure crisis erupted in 2008 and Wall Streets' bad bets started to pull the rug from under the American economy, long-time bond trader Chris Arnade decided to take up walking.
A lot of it was just to relieve stress to be honest and to kind of remove myself from my job to kind of get a different perspective. Initially they started with a goal this kind of cataloguing, I wanted to walk the entire length of the New York subway system. So I would take the subway to the end of the subway – the terminus- and then walk home and I managed to walk the entire length of the New York subway system.
But this process, these walks changed things for you.
Yeah, I mean to be kind of blunt, I just learned how privileged I was and how wrong my thinking was. You know if you'd asked me prior to the financial crisis what I thought about my career on Wall Street I would've said it was benign; it wasn't good, it wasn't bad. After the crisis I came to the realization it wasn't it wasn't benign. We were doing damage.
These were the thoughts running through the Wall Street veteran's mind as he walked through some of the most economically challenged parts of New York City toward his million dollar Brooklyn condo.
What started seeping in was this realization that we on Wall Street had messed up. This intense obsession with profit and efficiency and thinking that all that matters is growing the economy, damn the consequences. Well, the consequences were really bad.
But Arnade didn't just spend this time walking. He started taking photos- posting them to a blog – and writing about what he was seeing.
When you're sitting down on– in Wall Street, playing with numbers that are just blips, you can sit there and argue, we should take over these companies. And we should go in and fire these employees." Well, you can destroy whole communities when you do that. And so at some level it evolved from a personal experience to a kind of a political one where I saw all these things that frustrated me and I kind of wanted other people to see them as well.
In 2012, Arnade left his position as a bond trader at Citibank – He was wealthy enough to not seek another Wall Street job and instead devoted his time to documenting "poverty and addiction" – driving all over the country to the parts of town people told him he "shouldn't visit" – posting his pictures along the way.
In short time, his work started to attract attention. His photos and essays were featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Atlantic.
And now, seven years after he left Wall Street- his work has been compiled into the book Dignity: Seeking respect in Back Row America.
Where would you say is back row America?
It's all over. It's not certainly not a red or blue thing. It's a lot of neighborhoods in New York City, it's in Appalachia, it's in California, it's in Chicago, it's everywhere. it's it's neighborhoods generally and communities that are often adjacent to very wealthy neighborhoods.//It's kind of the bulk of the population but the people who don't get a lot of attention we tend to focus on what I call front row which is people who go to Harvard or Princeton or what have you. I love that picture.
Arnade's photos and essays play like a slide show of America's struggles, all taken from the corners of the country that appear to have been left behind.
One question that comes up quite often and you talk about throughout the book is Why don't people leave these places. You call this question insulting. Why?
It's completely insulting. It's like this idea that we should all be economic migrants in our own country. You know people shouldn't be expected to have to get up and move all the time. I mean is that how we want to build our society to demand that people move 5, 6, 7, 8 times to uproot rather than dealing with a structural failure is we tend to simply say I'll just move.
Arnade argues each of his images reflect something more than just struggle- a universal longing to be seen and be part of a community – even amidst some of the most challenging of circumstances.
He says this is present all over the country and can often be found in one of the one of America's most recognizable places: McDonald's.
It's the ad hoc community center for a lot of communities. And in some places it's almost the town center. You know if the town is particularly devastated and there's not a lot going on it's essential. And so it became this thing where I came into a town, I would go to local, the McDonald's in the neighborhood people told me not to go.
Arnade would sit in McDonald's, talking to locals about their town, their history and some cases, taking their photographs. Working class people, retirees and people living on the margins. It was in the parking lot of a McDonald's in Portsmouth, Ohio where he took this photo: a homeless father pushing his two children in a shopping cart.
What stunned me is nobody cared. I don't mean like it wasn't a lack of empathy. It was just, that's just what happened here nobody thought anything about it clearly the parent cared about their kids they really cared about them. I'm not gonna- I don't want to question that, but I ended up calling Child Protective Services on them which was really hard. I spent a basically day and a half fighting over that one. It was the right thing to do though.
Arnarde readily admits to getting involved with his subjects, even paying some of them for their photos.
This type of involvement challenges some long held practices, while Arnade is documenting what he's seeing, there are arguments he is changing the story.
One of the things that you talk about early on is in some instances you actually helped people find drugs, you helped people find safe places to inject
I let people shoot up in my car
Journalistically this raises a lot of red flags.
Yeah, which is why under that guise- I wasn't a journalist. I think, look, I'm gonna help somebody. I think it's the right thing to do. If somebody is going to withdraw, somebody I've known for two years. I'm going to help them either get them drugs to stop the withdrawal and then take them to detox.
In 2015 the Bronx Documentary Center hosted an exhibit called Altered Images: 150 years of Posed and Manipulated Documentary Photography. It was devoted to quote "Disputed images in photojournalism. Photos that have been faked, posed or manipulated." Some of Arnade's pictures were included. The gallery wrote "Mr. Arnade routinely pays his subjects, violating one of the most closely held tenets of documentary photography."
It's very frustrating to me. Because there are no good rules. You just really have to do your best to try to understand the privilege you have relative to the person you're dealing with there are times where I wouldn't help people. You know, there was nothing good that was gonna come of out it, but bad. And so I didn't. And there were times when I had to use my judgment and guess. And I'm sure there were times where I got it wrong, you know?
People would argue that you alter the story.
But you always alter the story. There's no way not to alter the story. I mean people think by telling you their story, they're going to get something out of it, attention. Their problems going to be solved and it's not. So you're always altering the story.
What does the word dignity mean to you now after you've finished this book and been working with this thesis as long as you have.
Just a desire to be treated like a normal human being.
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Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Mori Rothman has produced stories on a variety of subjects ranging from women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to rural depopulation in Kansas. Mori previously worked as a producer and writer at ABC News and as a production assistant on the CNN show Erin Burnett Outfront.
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