Chris Arnade Photography

Don’t ask, don’t tell, just judge


I receive much criticism of my work; mostly it focuses on the exploitation angle. I am a banker taking pictures of addicts. I get it. There is another theme that runs through the comments. Here is an example from the New York Times story on me:

“I must say that some of the video clips accompanying the story—especially the parts showing him touching up the hair of one of the women as he was about to photograph her or directing another woman to change position as he got ready to compose his shot —seemed to depict a fashion photo shoot that crossed a boundary of “proper” distance from the subjects.”

I get variations of that. Emails asking, “How can she be homeless? She has polish on her fingernails.”  Most however are like the New York Times comment, “You are shooting poverty fashion. It’s disgusting. Addiction is ugly.”

Even those in the most desperate situation, homeless, addicted to crack, working as a prostitute, still want to look their best. Many of the women will respond, “Oh, not today, I look like crap. I don’t have any makeup on.” Others will say, “Give me a second to fix myself up.” When I do show them their pictures they behave like every other person, “Oh damn, I look hot,” or “I look so old, I need to lose some weight.”

Pride is not lost easily, and certainly is not a monopoly of the well to do.  

I thought of this Sunday. At the request of Takeesha I went to her apartment to visit. She wanted to talk and asked for some more pictures. She was in a bad way, drugged, depressed, and anxious. Still, she spent the next five minutes in front of the mirror fixing her hair, applying makeup. There was a moment, when she stopped to look at her reflection, the tears still in her eyes, and she said in a whisper to herself, “Damn, I look awful. Awfuuuuul.” She sat looking at herself for half a minute, then switched to a high pitched bouncy voice, turned to me and with a big smile said, “But don’t you just love my new hair color?”

(Mary Alice and new jewelry)

Later in the day I ran into Mary Alice. She had just been released from Rikers, having spent nine days locked up for prostitution. She asked me for $10, the price of a fix. I told her I would buy her a sandwich at the deli and give her $5.  After eating the sandwich and having a smoke with me, she darted across the street to a nail salon. As I got in my car she ran up and showed me the jewelry she had just bought for $3. She said, “I know you think I just buy drugs with your money, but see, sometimes I buy other things. These bracelets, they are beautiful, and they cover up my track marks. Them things are ugly. Lots about shooting up is ugly.”

Indeed a lot about addiction is ugly, but it does not mean an addict has abdicated every shred of their self-worth.

This line of criticism touches on exactly why I am doing the series. I want the addicts to have a say in how they are portrayed, to have some small control over the narrative. That is rarely done. Often the narrative is high jacked by others to prove a point: Addiction is ugly and addicts are weak. It’s easier to forget them if its all their fault. Don’t ask, don’t tell, just judge.

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    I had been thinking of doing something like this…This series, being done so beautifully, is really encouraging… I guess...
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    Worth a read. Not just this post, but the photo journal as well.
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