Chris Arnade's "Faces of Addiction" Still Fighting Stigma

By Regina Walker 10/05/15

"I will be photographing people who are battling addiction across the country, sharing their stories, to give a fuller picture of the extent of the problem.” ~ Chris Arnade

Chris Arnade's "Faces of Addiction" Still Fighting Stigma
Chris Arnade

Photographer and documentarian Chris Arnade is well-known for his multi-year project, “Faces of Addiction.” Through photographs and personal stories, Arnade has been focusing on addicts living in the Hunt’s Point section of the Bronx; known as the poorest neighborhood in NYC. Hunt’s Point is a maze of contradictions—an essential part of New York City’s economic life, as well as by far the single largest distribution point for the tons of foodstuffs flowing into New York by truck every day. It is also notorious for its high crime rate, active and visible sex trade, and for a very, very high incidence of drug trafficking. It is these contradictions that fascinated Arnade and drew him to work there.

I had the opportunity to spend a day with Arnade about a year ago when he shared with me his experiences documenting the lives, struggles, disappointments and hopes of those addicts whose daily lives he shared. Recently, we spoke again about a new project he is embarking on.

Now, Arnade will be focusing primarily on active addicts, but also some who are clean, across the country. Arnade told me that one among many of the issues raised by “Faces of Addiction” was its somewhat narrow scope—it’s one of the strengths of the project, of course, but Arnade also remarked that he has been criticized for his Bronx project due to his focus being solely on Hunt’s Point. Arnade expressed a desire now to tell the story of addiction as it is expressed in various areas, economic brackets and ethnic backgrounds.

“People have contacted me wanting to tell their stories,”Arnade remarked and a recent month-long road trip for another project solidified his intention. Arnade also said, "The Bronx was getting to be too much. Too rough on me. There have been little or no successes in the Bronx."

Arnade has never been just a photographer and storyteller. He has entered into the lives of the addicts in Hunt’s Point and referred to a number of them as his friends. “It is tough to be a friend of an addict, as families and others know.” 

Solidly in the harm reduction camp, Arnade often carried clean needles and clean water and would offer his car for his subjects in the Bronx to get high. “It is ridiculous for people to think that by refusing to help people inject safely they will not get high.” Arnade would also offer information and assist addicts who requested his help to get into detox and rehab. He has even driven some of his subjects great distances if they wanted to return home, and started financial campaigns for the legal fees and treatment costs of some of those he has befriended as a result of his work.  

Arnade expressed the belief that those in rural areas may have greater shame about addiction and drug use—so it is therefore more hidden. This belief is borne out by recent studies that show that drug addiction—especially heroin addiction—is indeed on the rise in many rural areas, despite the common preconception that heroin is primarily an urban drug. And in those newly afflicted regions, it’s not just the drug use itself that is a law enforcement and public health problem—it’s also coping with related issues like fragmented families, and an uptick in the incidence of HIV/AIDS, that have tested to the limit the resources of many traditionally close-knit rural communities.  

Though Arnade says he plans to talk to people in recovery as well (“It is a personal need for me. I need to see some successes.”), his focus will remain on those in active addiction. “The active user stories are harder to tell but I want to remove some of the stigma around people who are still using. People who are still using are often uncomfortable telling their stories. Addiction doesn't kill a person's human side.”

With this project, Arnade is seeking to uncover the prevalence of addiction across the country while also attempting to help remove the stigma. He expressed to me his belief that “trauma leads to addiction” and further stated “we need to reevaluate our concept of trauma. Growing up in poverty is trauma.” 

His desire is to tell the back stories of the people coping with addiction—to present them, not one dimensionally as mere addicts, but rather as fully rounded individuals—and address the addicts' families and friends who also suffer greatly.

I asked Arnade how his numerous years working in the Bronx on the “Faces of Addiction” project have affected him personally. "I drink less now,” he responded. “Alcohol had been a problem for me. I don't want to say I am an alcoholic but some people may call me one. It has become important for me to realize that I have to take care of myself.”

Arnade speculated that he might possibly put together a book after he completes this project but much remains undecided. He is committed to spending however long it takes on the road to do justice to his goal, and to his conception, and is seeking participants through various means including direct contact from addicts, family, friends, nonprofits, needle exchanges, methadone programs, etc. He is inviting anyone to send him an email at [email protected] with your location in the subject line: Addiction in El Paso NM, or Addiction in Pulaski VA, or Addiction in Omaha NE, etc.

“I am willing to go anywhere if I get enough responses."

Arnade anticipates the project commencing in late December 2015 or January 2016.

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Regina Walker is a licensed psychotherapist in NYC. She has written for multiple publications and is an avid photographer. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.