I met Chris Arnade at the McDonald’s near the 6 train, under the bridge that breaks Hunt’s Point off from the rest of the Bronx. Arnade calls it the most dysfunctional McDonald’s in the United States, and he would know. His latest photo essay demonstrates how the restaurant serves as an impromptu community center, a town square, for low-income Americans across the country. The lead photo features a couple in a McDonald’s booth at this location, facing each other, noses touching. His arm is around her shoulder; she’s holding a half-eaten Big Mac in her hand.
To me it looks like any other McDonald’s. Rihanna’s “We found love in a hopeless place” is playing in the background. Arnade is wedged into a corner booth with a view of the whole place. He smiles at the family in the booth across from ours, offers a little kid advice (“Always be nice to your Mom!”), and reaches over my shoulder to snap a picture of a toddler sitting on a table behind us with his phone. She’s wearing a pink T-shirt and smiling toothily.
Arnade is a former Wall Street banker–wealthy, confident, middle-aged, white–who lives upstate. These days, his full-time, poorly-paid gig is driving his light-blue minivan around the country to photograph its ugliest, poorest places. It started as a hobby about five years ago, while he was still at the foreign exchange desk at Citigroup. He would come up to the Bronx on evenings and weekends with a Nikon D700 and a fearless, even brusque curiosity to discover how the other half lived. He spent several years documenting the lives of addicts and sex workers in Hunt’s Point, posting prolifically to Flickr in a collection called Faces of Addiction.
In the last year, he has turned to documenting poverty in forgotten places across the country. His photos and articles are regularly published on The Guardian, but his primary outlet remains social media, where he posts photos, comments, rants, and thoughts often and freely as he goes. He says he is not a journalist, a contention his critics embrace.
“What journalists have done is put up very solid walls so they don’t have to worry about the gray, but the gray needs to be talked about.”
Arnade’s work has raised the ire of a variety of people: photographers, journalists, advocates and community members. People have called his work exploitative, and much worse. Arnade tends to photograph mostly women; he has photographed them when they’re high and given them money they’ve used to buy drugs. He claims he’s built a relationship of trust with them. Critics, including some prominent photojournalists, say he exploits that trust to distribute photos of his subjects at their most vulnerable to a fan base of online lurkers.
Arnade claims he was trying to counter the prevailing narrative of sex workers and addicts as undesirable, but Michael Kamber, a former New York Times journalist and the director of the Bronx Documentary Center, thinks he’s doing just the opposite: reinforcing stereotype of the Bronx as a den of evil, with brown and black women selling themselves for a hit in an endless cycle between prison, rehab, and the streets. Arnade claims his work respects these women; Kamber says it humiliates them.
Last July, Kamber included several of Arnade’s photos in an exhibit titled, “Altered Images” at the Bronx Documentary Center. He did so, he explains, because Arnade paid his subjects and manipulated the situations in which he took the photos. The decision sparked a testy back and forth between Arnade, Kamber, and observers in both camps.
“What right do you have to make someone’s suffering pretty?” asks Arnade. He said it as a critique of New York Times photographers who sell their award-winning photographs of distant people and places. But he could have asked the same question of himself.
Arnade was most recently in El Paso, which he calls one of the best places in America despite the high poverty rate. “People are happy there,” he says, because many of them come from Mexico, where things are worse. His current plan, if you can call it that, is to photograph poverty in five of its contexts: So far he’s looked at El Paso and immigration, Selma and racism, Tennessee and the Appalachian heroin epidemic, Buffalo and the dead American dream. “I learned that there are two very, very, very different Americas,” says Arnade.
It’s a loose plan, though. Mostly he’s a man with a car and a camera sending dispatches from empty factory towns, dilapidated churches, arid trailer parks, and roadside burger joints; places where Donald Trump’s economic message resonates. In fact, Arnade felt the Trump wave building early on. Last August, he spent two weeks on the road, putting 12,000 miles in his car, asking people what they thought about the American dream. “The piece didn’t mention Trump at all,” says Arnade. “But after two weeks I knew he was going to have staying power.”
Arnade says he won’t be voting Republican. But he’s worried that if Trump loses, the discontent his candidacy has stoked will go unresolved. “I’m afraid that people will just forget this whole period.”
While in El Paso, he posted a series of photos to Twitter, beginning with the observation, “There already is a wall.” Arnade numbered that first tweet so his followers would know more were coming. The photos that followed, of a city sliced by a fence running alongside the empty highway at the edge of the horizon, ever-present behind parks and homes, are like postcards; they don’t claim to be more than a snapshot, but it’s just enough to transport the viewer to a different place.
1. You know, there already is a wall. Well, a fence. Some places it also has a moat, barbed wire, & more fences. pic.twitter.com/dejm1U6B0I
— Chris Arnade (@Chris_arnade) May 6, 2016
He posted the McDonald’s pictures as a Twitter photo essay as well, on the day his photo essay was published in The Guardian. The couple in Arnade’s McDonald’s photo are Takeesha and Steve, and they’re two of the friends he’s made, and whose lives he’s documented, in the Bronx. In January 2012, a year or so after he started spending time in Hunt’s Point, he posted a picture to Flickr titled, “Takeesha again.” It’s a close-up of her dressed in a velour hoodie under a fake leather jacket, an empty, out-of-focus Bronx street behind her. The photo, like most of Arnade’s photos from that time, is accompanied by several paragraphs of text. “It was around midnight when I ran into Takeesha, who was high,” he writes. The cops were out in force that night, and he and Takeesha got to talking. She explained how she got to where she was, and why she couldn’t leave. “This place is evil,” she says. “It’s possessed.”
Underneath her story is Arnade’s disclaimer. “I am not a journalist. I do not try to verify, just listen.”
That picture of Takeesha is one of about 200 in his Faces of Addiction collection. Many of them are similarly composed: close-ups of weathered faces with urban streetscapes in the background, often at night, when the seedier parts of Hunt’s Point are alive with activity.
Some veteran photojournalists, Kamber among them, see exploitation in the images. They see Arnade as a bad actor who uses his camera and charm as weapons to intrude into vulnerable people’s lives. “He’s getting consent from women when they are high out of their minds,” says Kamber. And though Arnade’s methods may be similar to those used in other immersive journalistic projects, Kamber feels Arnade’s disregard for the women he photographs is evident in the photos themselves. “When you’ve been a working journalist for 30 years, you just know,” he says.
In Arnade’s case, it’s hard to separate the man from the work. He certainly doesn’t. Much of his writing is in first-person, and his primary outlets are his own social media accounts; he has about 12,000 Twitter followers, and 10,000 on Flickr. His outspoken online persona is part of his brand. His demographics and career background may help explain why people question his motives, but neither disqualifies him from being a fair and talented photographer.
While every newsroom has its own particular code and standards for photography, an overarching theme is detachment. The guidelines are meant to help maintain the boundaries between reporter and subject. The National Press Photographers Association lists nine principles in its Code of Ethics, including guidelines against staging events, posing subjects, paying sources, or altering photos significantly in the editing process. The Associated Press has its own code, which begins, “AP Photos tell the truth.” For photojournalists, detachment is the ethical way to approach a fraught power dynamic. Arnade thinks it’s cowardice. “What journalists have done is put up very solid walls so they don’t have to worry about the gray, but the gray needs to be talked about.”
To Arnade, his subjects are his friends. He buys them food, and sometimes gives them cash he knows they’ll spend on drugs. He’s gone with them to score and spent time in the abandoned homes and encampments where they live and get high. “When I’m in a tight spot or something, he’ll Western Union me a couple dollars,” says Sarah, one of Arnade’s friends and photographic subjects. He visits them in jail and knows who’s in rehab, who’s in Rikers, and who’s been sent upstate. He’s written about the times he paid sex workers for their time, drove one of his photo-subject friends across the country, and another to her hometown in Upstate New York.
Paying subjects is a bright line for some photojournalists, and for good reason. It’s easy to see how the promise of cash would be enough to persuade a subject who desperately needs it to pose for a camera without thinking about the consequences.
And there are consequences. Those photos are online forever, and although Arnade doesn’t use full names, their subjects can easily be identified by people who know them.
Peter Schafer, an independent photographer who published a series about sex workers in a brothel in the Dominican Republic, argues that paying subjects for their time is the right thing to do. “I pay them the same rates I pay models that I work with in New York,” says Schafer. “Why should they give that free? That really boggles me.”
Arnade agrees the standard practice of paid photojournalist and unpaid subject isn’t fair, though he says he’s never paid a subject specifically to appear in a photo. Sarah remembers it differently. She says she met Arnade when she was living in a shelter in Hunt’s Point and she heard from a friend named Shelly that “he was offering people $20 to take pictures of them, and I needed money, so I let him take a couple pictures. And then we just established a relationship after that.” Arnade says he met Sarah through Shelly, but he denies offering either of them money.
Arnade says his policy is full disclosure: he does not mislead his subjects or the viewers of his photos. Jessica Reed, the features editor at The Guardian who has published much of his recent work, says transparency is key. “You have to be honest with the reader,” she says. That’s why Arnade’s photos on The Guardian are always accompanied by text.
Photojournalists, especially traditional ones, want time, distance, and editors between when they shoot and when a photo makes it to the paper or the website. Kamber says that when he was at The New York Times, in the few instances where he photographed women who had been sexually assaulted or in other sensitive situations, “it was not uncommon for half a dozen editors to contact me before those photos were used.” They would ask questions like, “Do you have pictures that don’t show their face? Does the woman know what she’s consenting to? What about her family? Does she have children that will be embarrassed with this? Is this going to impact her legal situation in any way?”
“That’s real journalism,” says Kamber.
Whatever you think of Arnade’s Bronx work, it’s hard to deny that insisting on being a part of the story has made him better able to tell those stories. McDonald’s is depicted regularly in mainstream media as a soulless corporation mass producing poison for the poor–a story that can be told from the safety of New York–and never from the places where McDonald’s is home to Bible studies and bingo games, a safe space from the cold world outside.
“He really has deep, deep love for the communities and places where he spends time,” says Reed, the Guardian editor.
Another series of Arnade’s photos was taken at the taxi clubs of Queens, where for $2 or $3, a man can buy a dance with a girl. He likes the one of the couple, if you can call them that, at 3 am in the blue light of a club. The man is shorter than the girl, anonymous, facing away from the camera leaning into her, lost in the fantasy. The girl is staring at the camera, bored, stoic. Her work is almost done.
Arnade infiltrates these worlds and bring them to viewers. Like all photographers, he attempts to straddle the fine line between documenting and stereotyping, between illuminating and exoticizing.
Back in McDonald’s a week later, Arnade introduced me to Sarah, who was recently released from her latest stint at Rikers after fleeing from three rehab programs. Soon after, Sarah’s boyfriend came in carrying a cluster of pink roses. He gave most of them to Sarah and one to Chris, who smelled them to see if they were real. “You lifted these, didn’t you?” asked Chris. The boyfriend shrugged.
“Yeah,” he said sullenly.
Chris and Sarah reminisced. He asks about her daughters and her ex. They talked about her legal trouble, about Shelly and Tiffany and their other friends in the neighborhood. He asked if she wanted to take a trip upstate to where she was raised. We can go back to the skating rink, he suggested. She doesn’t say no.
Sarah flipped through pictures on her phone, showing Chris a picture her boyfriend took of her.
“I like taking pictures of her so she could see herself with a different view, you know?” the boyfriend explains. “You get accustomed to the hardships. You forget how beautiful she is sometimes, you know?”