Portraits of Addiction

A Manhattan banker shoots portraits of drug abuse, sex work, and homelessness in the Bronx.

In his portraits of sex workers and the homeless struggling with addiction, photographer Chris Arnade is neither demanding an increase in social services or gawking from the sidelines at others' degradation. At their core, his "Faces of Addiction" portraits are simply about watching and listening to other people. Arnade repeatedly declares his one simple objective at the end of each detailed photo caption: "I post people's stories as they tell them to me. I am not a journalist. I don't try to verify, just listen."

If his pictures challenge our expectations, maybe it's because Arnade defies stereotypes, too. The child of Southern civil rights activists, he got a Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins before becoming a banker. During our interview, he explained his tendency to cross boundaries, saying, "I'm happiest somewhere I shouldn't be."

A show of Arnade's work opens March 10th, 2012 at Brooklyn's Urban Folk Art Studios. The proceeds from the sale of his photos will be donated to the Hunts Point Alliance for Children. Arnade's "Faces of Addiction" portraits can also be found on Flickr, and you can follow him on Twitter.

According to Arnade, Manny Quiles is a "former pro boxer from Connecticut, now an addict living in a homeless shelter. Manny's career ended after several injuries left him with a right eye that is unable to focus. Unable to fight, with little other skills, he found himself homeless and turned to heroin."
 

You live in Brooklyn and work as a banker, so how did you end up taking pictures in the Bronx?

I've lived in New York for 20 years and I've always loved exploring. For the last five years I've done it with my camera. I did a series on pigeon keepers, mostly in East New York, Bushwick, and also the Bronx, looking for pigeon guys.

Hunts Point is cut off from the rest of the Bronx. Some people have described it as a dumping ground. It's quiet and you can get to know people very easily, but at the same time it has a lot of crime and a lot of prostitution and a lot of drugs. I had come in contact with a nonprofit called Hunts Point Alliance for Children. I started doing photography with them, and I got to know the [neighborhood] children.

When did you make the transition to photographing addicts and sex workers?

While photographing the children for HPAC, I was trying to document their struggles, the obstacles they face: the gap between Hunts Point and where they want to go. I haven't taken pictures of this, because I don't like to take pictures without consent, but at eight at night on any street corner you have four or five addicts who are prostitutes operating openly and kids have to walk by them.

When you first spend a lot of time in Hunts Point you're very struck by the open-air drug use and large underground economy. The first time Takeesha, one of the prostitutes I photographed, approached me and asked me to take her picture, I was struck by her brutal honesty and awareness.

"Now on methadone," Natalie told Arnade "many stories of the 'hell that comes with drugs.' A few years ago, after a long week of drugs, she was at the end. Her friend, who she shot up with, was HIV positive. She took the needle, withdrew his blood, and injected herself. 'I wanted to kill myself with AIDS. How fucked up is that? I woke up from that and said 'Natalie, you have hit the bottom.' She has Hepatitis C but not AIDs. After finishing her Cup-a-Soup ('The food of addicts!') she walked half a block to throw the trash in a can. 'You want to see something crazy, I am homeless person who doesn't litter. Never have, never will.'"
 
Arnade spoke with Clarence, a former truck driver, "for a long time. He told me all that his addiction has wrought: job loss, homelessness, health problems. Never once did he sound angry, bitter, or depressed."
 

Looking at your images, there is a sense that you're entrenched and embedded, like you have relationships with your subjects.

If I find a project or a neighborhood interesting, I generally spend time there first without my camera. Just walking around talking to people. If you can find one or two people and build relationships with them, they'll take you to new parts. The other thing is to have no fear and just be open-minded. I know a lot of people who would never walk into a crack house. But when someone says, "Hey, there's some addicts in that building," I've just walked in. Maybe I'm naive, but I find that if you treat people with honesty and trust them with no stereotypes, they're often disarmed and are willing to treat you just the same. If I see somebody who might be reticent at first, a lot of times I'll hand them my camera and say, "Take a picture of me." That act of handing them a $5,000 camera is a way of saying, I trust you.

I always tell people exactly what I'm doing. I say I'm going to put the photo online. I always go back, but keeping in touch with people is hard. Their lives are volatile—they're often in jail, or in and out of rehab.

You also bring people the copies of the photographs you've taken, like the one Lamar is holding in a later photograph.

I always brought back pictures because I thought it was the moral thing to do. A lot of street photographers do the kind of "gotcha" pictures, which I feel is just not right. If you ask someone to let you take their picture, you owe them something. At a minimum, it's a copy of that picture.

It's also a good way to build trust in the neighborhood. Hunts Point is not huge. There's a lot of reticence because the number of whites in the neighborhood is very small. Some people in the neighborhood call me "officer." So bringing back the prints, bringing my iPad and showing them what I wrote about them certainly helped further the trust.

According to Arnade, when Jose was 18 a neighbor sexually assaulted his seven-year-old sister. "As the oldest and only male in the family, he says, he had no choice. 'I went to jail. Attempted murder. I did 14 years.' In jail he got 'with a bad crowd, started using junk.'"
 
Arnade writes that Deshawn "started using crack at 16, and has been doing it since. After being raped five times, she bought a gun. 'I never had to use it, thank God.' When I asked why she fled home at 11, she paused for the first time, looked at me, and said, 'It's really hard for me to go there,' before breaking down in tears. She finally said, 'I am usually a very strong, honest, and outgoing lady, but I just can't go there.' When I asked her what her dream was, she said, 'to get out of this place—to be happy and in peace—but it's all I know. I believe God got better plans for me. I really do.'"
 
According to Arnade, "The last 17 years Millie's been in and out of rehab and jail and mothered four children...When she found out she was pregnant with a fourth, a little over a year ago, she entered a methadone clinic. 'I was almost always clean, I really wanted it for myself and my child. When I was seven months I slipped, I did a speedball. The baby was born premature and addicted to crack.' This child was also taken by the state."
 

One of your subjects, Takeesha, talks about how she needs to go from Hunts Point to Mott Haven in the Bronx, to get back on Medicaid, but it's too hard to get there. She said, "It's, like, so simple to walk across the bridge, but it's like you can't go across." Why do you think she feels this way?

Hunts Point is unique because it really is cut off geographically. To get to the rest of Bronx you have to cross over a rail yard and then under the expressway. When you're in Hunts Point, you're in another part of the Bronx. That's why I liked Takeesha's quote so much. If you're an addict and you're a sex worker and you've been in jail 156 times, you wake up in the morning and all you have to do is walk a mile—[to her] that's the largest move in the world.

You photos and your captions seem to epitomize the overlap between drug abuse, homelessness, sex work, and poverty. Have you gained an understanding of the way these things are connected?

My views on these issues are in flux because of my experiences here. Sonia, who looks and acts like a librarian, says, "If I had all the money in the world I'd have all the crack in the world." She's saying, Look, I've been in and out of rehab, I was clean for eight years, I'm not lacking in resources in terms of help. I've got methadone, I've got people willing to help me but unless it comes from me it can't happen.

When you don't talk to someone, it's very easy to judge them. You can build up a narrative where they kind of deserve what they got. When you talk to someone, it's much harder. Jamie, one guy I've gotten to like a lot, lived underneath the Bruckner Expressway. Whenever I'd go back to see him, I'd bring him whatever he needed because the winters are tough. We'd smoke a cigarette and just talk. He had a cat, Mimi. Mimi was a female and looked like she was going into heat and I asked him if I could get Mimi spayed. Then I asked some people for help trying to get Mimi spayed. I kind of got more offers to help Mimi than I did to help Jamie. I appreciate all those offers, in both cases, and people have been very helpful for Jamie, but there's the mentality that an animal doesn't deserve what it's gotten but a person does, because maybe they've done something to deserve that.

At the age of 13, Chris Bishop killed his father, stabbing him with a knife after a childhood of abuse. He spent the next 18 years in correctional facilities. He told Arnade that, "When he was drunk and mad he would hold me out the apartment window and threaten to drop me to the street, eight floors below. He beat me and my mother all the time. I have been drinking ever since. To forget."
 
Arnade says, "Prince spends the night collecting scrap metal and old pallets that he cashes in before sunrise. He uses the money mostly for heroin, an addiction that has landed him in prison three times."
 
When Takeesha asked what Arnade was doing in the neighborhood, "I explained to her and then she asked to have her picture taken. I then asked her how she wanted to be described. 'As what I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.'"
 
Arnade writes: "Smart, polite, and well-spoken, Sonia told me and my friend Nina of her life-long battle with her addiction. She started when she was 22, an overwhelmed single mother of three children working two jobs. She got into prostitution, becoming 'a five dollar whore,' trading sex for drugs with neighborhood dealers...She has a 'significant other,' a wonderful man who's been with her for seventeen years. He does not drink, smoke, or do any drugs. When I asked her how she wanted to be described she responded, 'I am good person with a very bad disease. If I had all the money in the world I would own all the crack in the world.'"
 
According to Arnade, Lamar is "manic depressive and a 'loner,' he has tried to kill himself many times, once by drinking disinfectant, another time slicing his wrists. 'I am just a person trying to get it right. I am caught in the grips, but I am just trying to get it right.' He was heading out to make the rounds. 'Lots of the stores around here help me out. In exchange, I do small jobs for them. This is a tight neighborhood. We all look out for each other.'"
 
Arnade writes that, "Sunshine has been clean for two years now, on methadone. 'I feel the best I ever have.' She often thinks about how many of her friends died from their addiction. 'I lost 15 friends to Hunts Point and heroin. We lost Madonna, we lost Roxanne, we lost Russia, we lost John and Billy. We lost so many addicts. This shit is real.'"
 
"Everyone in Hunts Point knew Supreme," says Arnade, "but not where he stayed. I eventually found him, at the 'junkyard.' When he saw that I had brought a copy of his first photo, he gave me a big bear hug. Always engaging, stylish, and proud he insisted on many more pictures."
 
Arnade met Vanessa, "standing on the cold street corner looking for business, wearing only flip-flops and smoking with her two friends. When I asked her how she wanted to be described, Mary Alice jumped in and said 'She's the sweetest woman I know. She will give you the shirt off her back, if she has one on.'"