In Conversation with Poverty & Addiction Reporter, Photographer Chris Arnade

The Guardian columnist, photographer, and former physicist-turned-Wall Street trader, Chris Arnade speaks on the friendships he's made during his 6-year long Faces of Addiction project. Touching on the flaws within the criminal justice system and the alienation of many Americans by 'civil society', he details the reasons behind the revolving doors of Rikers Correctional and Hunts Point in The Bronx, NYC.


Tracy: You’ve driven across the country multiple times photographing communities that are often marginalized and afflicted by addiction. Your portrait project Faces of Addiction gained a lot of attention. Want to tell me a bit about it?

 

Chris: Yes, I’ve put almost 200 thousand miles on my car over the last five years just driving and visiting places that--for lack of a better way to put it--very few people visit. Many people live in these places, but nobody visits. I did this because I had spent 6 years interviewing and becoming friends with a group of homeless addicts in Hunts Point, which is just up from us in the Bronx. It’s part of New York City just off the 6th train, so by subway it's 20 minutes from the Upper East Side, but it’s the poorest neighbourhood in New York, and by some measures one of the poorest in the United States. It's home to about 15,000 people and is one of the most statistically dangerous neighbourhoods in New York. It’s also one of the last places in New York that has a relatively open and active market for street walkers, so prostitutes who walk the streets, who are almost all homeless or heroin addicts. And frankly, I became very close friends with most of them.

 

What initially drew you up there? Did you grow up nearby, have relatives there, or was it by chance?

 

No, no family there. I grew up in Florida in a small town of around 400 people and moved to New York City in 1992 to work on Wall Street - so I was a banker. But somewhere around 2007 I started getting frustrated with my job, frustrated with the industry, and with the way I was living my life day in and day out. So I just started exploring and walking the city, letting my instincts guide me or letting people I met guide me, all with no purpose other than to satisfy my curiosity. I wound up in Hunts Point and I was drawn in by how different it was from the rest of New York, but also how unrepresented it was in the media. People rarely talked about it and if they did, it was always in very negative terms, “There was a murder up there”. But because I just kept returning and got to know the community by talking to people, I saw a different side.

The first of a group of friends I met was a woman by the name of Takeesha who is now 47 but has been living on the streets as a prostitute and addict since the age of 13. Around 2010 or so, when I was walking through Hunts Point, she said, “Hey come over here and talk to me.” So we just started talking. She told me her life story - you could say I interviewed her but I more so just treated her as a friend, which she certainly is now. For the project whenever I took someone's portrait I would always ask, “Can I have one sentence to describe you?” And she looked directly at me and said, “As I am. I’m a prostitute, a mother of 6, and a child of God.” Her bluntness took me aback because I had danced around the issue of prostitution in our conversation even though clearly she was a prostitute; she was dressed as a prostitute and was whistling at cars. This comment broke the ice of being from such different places, and I got to be close to her spending a lot of time writing her story. In some senses I suppose she guided me around Hunts Point. She introduced me to a lot of her friends, and even some of her enemies, all of whom are hard core addicts: 12 or 15 bags of heroin a day. As they say, “whatever you have” type of addicts.

 

Did you go up there with a camera initially because you had an interest in photography? Or did you later bring one because you wanted to document these stories?

 

I brought one up there initially. I was interested in photography but never intended this to be a series, it was just my curiosity of the place that led me and my camera there. I labelled the portraits Faces of Addiction, and it started taking on more of a series organically over time. To me, the stories that were attached became as important as the pictures. Mostly I just got drawn in, and for the next 6 years--3 of which I was with these people all the time, every day--it went from listening to their stories, to helping them as any friend would: visiting them when they got put in jail, going to their court dates when they were called to court, driving them when they needed me to drive them somewhere - which often was because they were fleeing a jail charge. And I would do it. I drove one woman Beauty across the country. So that was my primary work over the first 3-6 years. About two years ago I stopped focusing on the Bronx because I asked myself if what I saw in the Bronx was true in other places. I started driving across the country to go to other towns, and see if the same things I saw in Hunts Point were happening in Selma, Alabama, or Buffalo, New York, or El Paso, Texas. I also broadened it from looking at just addiction to looking at poverty as well.

 

On the mention of visiting your friends in jail, and knowing the extreme stress and adversity these people have to face every day just to get by, and then you throw in the arrests, the court dates, the incarceration. Is it tough to see your friends get arrested?

 

Not to dumb it down but for them, being jailed or getting a felony is just a matter of course. They treat going to court and getting a charge like you or I treat getting a parking ticket. It’s just a reality of life for them. A lot of times I'd be talking to them at one in the morning on the streets, or in crack houses, or traps as we call them, when there would be a police raid. Sometimes the police would come by and they would all just be taken away for no specific reason. Well, we all know the reason: they all had drugs, but most of the time the police didn’t care. It was when they needed to arrest someone that they’d do it. But if they were feeling a little bit lazy, they’d let it slide. That’s not to cast any negativity on the police force, because there are a lot of decent policemen, but the system itself doesn’t really know what to do with addiction or with addicts on the street, so it teaches police to just throw them in jail. And there are policeman who treat the jail system as a recovery option, so when they see someone they know going off the rails, they’ll throw them in jail in hopes that it'll shake them out of it. Some really do have good intentions, they're just left with very few options.

 

In Brownsville, NY a policing method was adopted where the police tried to close the hostile divide between young offenders and policemen. They became much more involved and they were much kinder - which they received a lot of flak for. The intention was to reduce the anger and animosity behind a lot of the crime by young offenders. It was called J-RIP and was found in the end to have significantly reduced crime. In fact a lot of research shows that feeling a greater sense of community reduces crime.

 

There’s a lot I’d like to touch on about that, but I’ll focus on two points. The first is that a lot of the problem with the way the NYPD approaches these issues in the Bronx is they flood the neighbourhood with rookies. There isn’t that sense of community amongst the police; they’re just there to do their job and move on up. So that connection is difficult. Sure, on an individual level that can be made but a lot of the police themselves are young and scared, and they move in and out fast. There’s one guy I know who's been there for 18 years, and he gets along with everyone. He’ll talk to the addicts and he wont arrest them. Instead, he’ll go over and say, “Hey come on dude, can you move on? Let’s clean up and get out of here." The way the Bronx and Hunts Point get policed is very transient - they just send cops in and flood the neighbourhood. They’re an occupying force, and they just want to go in and get out.

My second point goes to your comment on a sense of community. My view on addiction is very much about that too. In general, the people I know who are street addicts have been removed from their families or social circles because all too often they’ve suffered a trauma. When you think about the kinds of traumas that the people I know suffered, they’re unimaginable things like having been raped by an uncle, beaten by their own parents, or witnessed killings at a young age. All these things immediately make you very different from everyone else. It makes it very hard to interact socially with other people, and in some senses they've been ejected by those experiences that they didn’t ask for, or do anything to deserve. Sociologists have a term they call "civil society" which is essentially what I call "the in-club": those who we accept in society based on the way they behave. More specifically, these days belonging to civil society means having an 'approved' education, knowing how to dress, and knowing how to talk. The vast majority of addicts are people who have not been admitted, or who have been ejected from civil society. Their experiences set them up to behave very differently because they're traumatized, so they get ejected from their communities.

 

Their nervous systems are over-reactive if they’ve been abused, which civil society doesn’t like. We don’t like ‘jumpy’ or scared people. We only accept bold, 'confident' people.

 

Yes, so of course they don’t feel like they belong. One thing that people don't like to admit is how the act of using a drug is a very social process. People's first experience using a drug is very often because someone else showed them how to do it, or told them what it was like to do it. When a person goes into a crack house or a heroin den, not only do they get to use drugs to provide a moment of relief from that severe trauma, but they also meet people who've had equally traumatic experiences they can relate to. It’s like, “Wow, you too.” Finally they have someone they can relate to who doesn’t look at them like they’re disturbed, or dirty, or uncomfortable. It’s a very accepting community that provides them with a sense of belonging - which we all need. So that makes it much harder to address the issue of what to do when looking at drugs and crime. They've finally found inclusion and relief though using drugs. Because again, drugs do two things: one is they numb the memory of that pain, and the other is they provide a person with a social network. It may not be the social network that you or I may approve of, but on the streets they have family, often for the first time. There’s a very universal human desire to be included, to be social. And a lot of street addicts are people who haven’t been included by the broader society. They're outcasts because civil society is too uncomfortable sitting with what's happened to them, and how they're acting because of it.

 

That’s a critical piece that needs to be talked more about: childhood trauma. What happens to us in our early social environments shapes the way our brains develop. Even looking at something like neglect: if you’re not responded to when you cry, or if you get shut behind a door when you're feeling inquisitive, or if you're hit when you speak up, or as the research shows if you don't get enough hugs, then the brain's limbic system (at the apex of your central nervous system) is altered. These individuals grow up to be more prone to self-isolation, poverty, anxiety, depression, suicide. Their neurotransmitters don’t fire across the synapses in the same way, and their nervous systems work in vastly different ways than others who had safe and secure, affectionate early years.

 

I called this series Faces of Addiction. When it became somewhat popular, sadly the press called it Faces of Prostitution - that’s all they could see. It seemed they just wanted to be voyeuristic about prostitutes. But in my mind I’ve always known it to be Faces of Abuse. One of the things about spending five years with the same people is your knowledge expands; you peel down the layers of the onion and you get to a deeper and deeper understanding of why they behave in the ways that they do. There was a period of realization when I just stood there and thought, “This is all about abuse - all about abuse.” And that abuse can come in some very violent manners: there’s a lot of sexual abuse and certainly a lot of neglect if a mother is an addict, because she can't help where her focus is. I think of growing up in poverty as a trauma as well.

There’s a very well-worn path to becoming a homeless person who uses heroin, and that often goes like this: experience a childhood trauma, be ejected by the family (or self-eject from the family because that was partly where the trauma was), find drugs to soothe you from your pain and to also give you inclusion into a group. If you throw being female into the mix, you’ll find prostitution because now you need quick money for the drugs you immediately need to soothe or numb yourself from your past pain, and the current pain that stems from what you have to do to make money. Because once you’re a prostitute, and you become homeless, you suffer more abuse. It becomes a vicious cycle. I’ve heard women say before, “I need drugs to be able to get into a car again with a stranger.” It’s too trauma inducing, but it’s virtually the only way they now have to make money because they’re a felon or because they don't have the skills civil society requires to employ them. So a circle of dependency is created. It’s a very, very high wall to climb, and they got there because of that trauma you mentioned: childhood neglect, abuse, poverty, ejection from civil society, felonies. These things are rooted in experiences that set them apart from you, or I, or someone else who hears [or reads] this.

 

A sentence from a piece you wrote for The Guardian was quite astounding. You said, “Their childhoods were spent dealing with problems that would break most adults.” There’s a lot of focus fairly, and rightly, given to the experiences of minorities. Of note where I'm from is the residential school system that perpetrated mass physical abuse on an entire population of indigenous peoples. However, the extent to which we reprimand people for their ‘white privilege’ has to take into account those we ridicule as ‘white trash’ who are also born into the same systems of abuse, culture-of-origin extermination, tremendous poverty, addiction, and crime. You’ve written about this as well.

 

The way I think about it is we define worth by education and the scientific, rational mind, and we tend to look down on poor people. I see it a lot in my travels: if you’re poor and you live in Appalachia, your chances of getting an ‘approved’ education are very low. Economically you’re already on the outside. You’re not going to have a lot of chances to make a living: we’ve devalued manual labour, we devalue farming, and we’ve devalued their accents. So when they start looking for meaning or assurance through other mechanisms, we continue to make fun of them. If they're looking for meaning through the church, well, "We don’t approve of that anymore, that’s kind of backwards. It's idiotic." But religion has been around since humans have been on this earth as a universal way of finding inclusion. And now we tell them to discard it? So when they try to find assurance through church, they’re considered idiots, and when they look for meaning through racial identity, they’re racist. Of course that is not to say that there isn’t a lot of ugly racism going on, there is and it needs to be addressed. It’s just that we’ve made it very easy for racial identity to be all they have because we have isolated them. So we’re caught in a box where we’ve demeaned and devalued all forms of meaning to them. To someone growing up there, they’re on the outside economically and socially; they know it and it's humiliating to them. That’s why there’s a lot of anger coming from them politically right now.

 

The community aspect of the church is a good point others have pointed out as well. The number one thing we need to be happy and healthy is a reliable, consistent social surrounding. People used to go to church and connect with their community every Sunday, and that’s something that most millenials don’t have today. I myself as a Hitchens fan was never a church goer, but I now see that as a loss. It was once explained to me that uniting myths and folklore, or the belief in something greater than ourselves, improves mental health.

 

It gives you meaning. If you met me 10 years ago I was also a Christopher Hitchens type. I have a PhD in Physics and being a Wall Street trader was a very critical, numerical thinker. When I got to the Bronx, I just assumed everyone would be an atheist, but they were all exactly the opposite. Yet who am I to say, “Well actually you know the bible is inconsistent.“ or whatever. What a smart-ass, what a dick I would be. And this isn’t to say that, "Oh they’re poor little children who need to find hope", because it’s actually the farthest from that. We all need to find meaning in different ways. If mine just happened to be that I found meaning through economics and numbers, or being the guy with the PhD, well that's no different than from them, and I’m not going to diminish how they find their own meaning or worth. It just so happens that the world values and chooses to find worth in my way of finding meaning a whole lot more. Just as with a lot of types of help which often are very well-intended, it comes with unintended judgement that you may not see when you’re giving it. I don’t want to dismiss the good intentions of other people because I was that person 15 years ago. I understand where they’re coming from. They're just really doing their best, but they're doing their best in a very close-minded way that they don’t know because they're coming from a very different place with very different experiences. So I try to just offer help as any friend would and always to check my judgement at the door.

 

Your piece on Appalachia touched on the opioid addiction explosion. If we listen to what we're taught, we can choose to do all the right things: don't smoke, don't drink, and do not do drugs. But regardless of where you're from, if you’ve been abused, neglected, or rejected, your biochemistry is still affected, and you'll still seek things to soothe that trauma. We're seeing the effects of that with prescription addiction in white America now. 

 

All of that comes from feeling isolated and not having the skill set to find inclusion in society or even just in your own surroundings wherever that may be. There’s a lot of anxiety that comes from the modern world. We’ve built up a lot of pressure for people just to make it - just to pay rent and get to eat. And people don't have a way to deal with that stress, so of course this happens when you can buy drugs over the counter. I keep using this term civil society because it’s how we talk about the in-club of society: what characteristics are rewarded both economically and socially from the way you behave. They’re unwritten rules, but we all know them. You buy into an entire system. For people who grow up under any of these types of trauma we're talking about, and we expect them to step onto this very fast moving escalator? Well that's not equity. Other people were already on the first step of that escalator as kids. So right now, you and I are sitting here in the West Village, and the people who live here have kids who are already on the first step of that escalator at two years old, or three years old. This includes the nurturing they get as infants: their parents having had the ability to read to them, having the income security to come home before dinner to play, getting them into the right schools. But aside from the neurological connections being made as kids, they're also building cultural connections and social connections, so by the time they’re 15 or 16, they get it. They can operate and move seamlessly in civil society.

Now you put someone like Takeesha who was raised by her grandmother, raped by someone at 12, had her first child at 14, was put on the streets to work with her mother at 13, and you ask her to step into a job here? She can’t just “join” civil society or easily hop on that escalator. That escalator moves fast and if, for whatever reason, you fall off, or you get on late, or you slip, well, people trample all over you. And that happens at every level. It doesn’t just happen at the bottom. But the biggest difference for someone who comes from a lot of money is that when someone turns to any kind of drug, or falls into addiction, it’s often easier to get clean because they don’t have to A) still find a way to pay the bills while they get help, and B) they don’t have to cut tall their social ties. Your drug dealer most likely wasn’t your brother or step-dad, or your mom. Now I’m not saying that you can’t have very bad, immensely damaging abuses at every income level, or that you can't have sordid family that you have to flee, but it’s much more common in marginalized neighbourhoods like Hunts Point.

 

Many have come to understand that the criminal justice system has been a massive failure in terms of reducing crime. Want to talk a bit about your opinion on where we went wrong?

 

In a sense we’re criminalizing a lifestyle, and often a coping-mechanism, which only causes more distress and plays into that vicious cycle we were talking about before. Sometimes it works to disincentivize the people who are removed from it initially, but if you’re born into crime, or you're on the streets at a very young age, it’s not going to make a difference whether or not drug use is considered a crime. Rikers Island, where most people from New York City end up going to jail, is an atrocious facility in so many different ways. I interviewed the Mayor of Ithaca who became known for proposing safe injection sites. Unfortunately we know this will never get passed, so what's more important is the process of arresting addicts that he's looking to address. What happens in the Bronx is when people get arrested, there's a whole system they have to go through. For example, Takeesha will get arrested, and three months after being shovelled back and forth between Rikers and the Bronx Court System, she’ll pop up and be assigned to an inpatient rehab clinic. So they’re good about the end result. However that first three months is pointless. She’s detoxed in a hard cold manner, and she’s in a prison with people who are violent. So what they’re doing in Ithaca is taking people like Takeesha who are well known to the police, and they're handing them over immediately: from the streets straight into care. They’re bypassing the whole Rikers / Court system. And the result along with that has been, “Okay we’re arresting you, and we’re only doing that because presently that’s what we do, but we’re offering you into social services right now.” They're skipping that unnecessary, expensive, and harsh few months.

 

On detoxing through the prison system, it may work to some degree, but rather inhumanely. While detoxing through a rehab clinic may also work, and a bit more humanely. But if the roots of the trauma have not been addressed, and the conditioning of the behaviour (as a learned, ingrained stress reduction mechanism) has not been looked at, then sending them back out to their neighbourhoods just wont be effective. They'll fall right back into it.

 

It gets to the point where people are so conditioned to being arrested that they simply think, “Oh I’m arrested again, I’ll see you in three months on the streets.” It’s this needless cycle and it's expensive. We can't forget about how costly it is to put that person through jail for three months. So if we took that money and used it for social services immediately, it would be a lot more helpful and a lot more effective but you're right: what happens after? Beauty who I follow very closely was in Rikers, and every day she had a court appearance (which over the course of three months can be every two weeks, so she might have six of them), they wake them up at 5am, they put them on a bus handcuffed, and they drive them to holding pens at the bottom of the Bronx Criminal Court. There are two: a male holding pen and female holding pen. They get called up sometime during the day and they stand there silently as the public defender and the prosecutor argue over paper work. With Beauty, during that process in the holding cell downstairs in the tombs, there are male prisoners who wrote her a letter basically saying, “Hey when you get out, let me be your pimp.” I have those letters because she gave them to me when she got out. So you form those connections, but they’re not the connections you want when you get out.

 

Right, you have a criminal record so you can’t get a job. So you can’t eat or afford rent, but you know there’s a way you used to be able to make money, and now you have a new connection right at your fingertips. But we expect them to not return to their old ways.

 

Yes, and sticking to the theme, if you didn’t belong to civil society before, well you certainly don’t now. You’re isolated from a normal life even more now.

 

So what keeps you doing this? Is it the friendships you’ve made?

 

Well I certainly get great satisfaction out of this. A lot of it is the friendships. I guess it can be very frustrating to a certain degree, because I don’t have much patience these days. I don’t want to imply that I have any idea what it’s like to be Takeesha or Beauty but I’ve inherited a little bit of the way they think, where when I come to Manhattan now which is only about once a week, sure it's nice, but it’s a bit distancing. So there’s that. But I also do this because if I can figure things like poverty and addiction out, I'm intellectually satisfied. I feel very much like there’s a lot to learn. But I know now that by being a person who kept my head in a spreadsheet and played with numbers, I just didn’t see. Now I’m seeing this world in a very different way and seeing how the world operates and what leads people to do what they do, and I guess that's pretty cool. So from a very selfish standpoint, I’m getting a lot of personal satisfaction out of learning. There was a very odd period of about a year or two when I was working as a trader on Wall Street during the day and going up to Hunts Point hanging out in crack houses on the weekends. It became too much, and one of them had to give. And it wasn’t going to be Hunts Point. Mostly because I asked myself, where am I the happiest?

 

Thanks Chris. An honour speaking with you, and I'll keep looking forward to more of your work.