The Man Behind “Faces of Addiction”

By Regina Walker 12/03/14

“I have a few rules. I don’t get intimate with anyone and I don’t buy or do drugs. Everything else is open.” ~ Chris Arnade

Regina Walker

Chris Arnade’s multi-year project: “Faces of Addiction” has garnered a great deal of attention, both good and bad.

I first met Arnade at a McDonald’s in the South Bronx on October 20, 2014. When I got there at about 9:30am, he was already talking with Beauty. Beauty is 22 and from Oklahoma. She was born in prison. Her mom was a crack addict and prostitute. Beauty is eating 2 Egg McMuffins that Arnade has bought for her. “I will drive you to Oklahoma. But not him” Arnade tells Beauty.

Beauty has been in the Bronx prostituting for about 2 years. She has seizures from her drug of choice: K2. “It will take 3 days but I am willing to do it,” and Arnade means it. He has done this with many of the addicts he has befriended and followed. 

Pepsi by Chris Arnade

Beauty is tearful. She wants to go home to Oklahoma but she wants to bring her boyfriend. Arnade is not willing to take him along. “Beauty has an issue with men.” Beauty nods her head in agreement while she cries and eats her Egg McMuffin. 

Chris Arnade is 49 years old and grew up in Florida. He received his PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1992. His dissertation was on Theoretical Particle Physics. He then spent 20 years as a successful trader on Wall Street. In 2012, he gave up his profession completely to focus full-time on “Faces of Addiction.”

“Faces of Addiction” combines photographs and text that tell the story of addicts in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx.  The images and stories are haunting and raw. There are few, if any, happy endings. Seeing the work, one might describe Arnade as a documentarian but seeing his interaction with his subjects, there is much more going on.

I wanted to meet and talk to Arnade to understand his motivation, why he changed his life around completely to devote himself to this project.

Cynthia by Chris Arnade

I asked Arnade how he transitioned from a Wall Street Trader to who he is now. 

He shared that in 2006, he began taking long walks—20 miles—which he dubbed “terminal walks” as he would walk to the end of a subway line and “...let events take me where they did. I was motivated to explore the world outside of Wall Street. Someone told me not to go to Hunts Point so I went there. And I had to keep coming back.”

A self-taught photographer, Arnade eventually began bringing a camera along with him. “My background in physics helped me understand the workings of the camera.”

“At my former job, you had to take two weeks vacation. My vacation was here (Hunts Point). I felt myself drawn here every day.” Arnade spent his days on Wall Street and his nights and weekends in Hunts Point. “Eventually the disconnect was too great so I just quit.”

Diane by Chris Arnade

After a while, it became political for him. “It was very frustrating that what was being portrayed in the media was not what I was seeing. There really is no difference between these people and the people I worked with on Wall Street.”

I asked Arnade if he had a particular goal with this project—a book perhaps. He responded that he had no specific goal and he didn’t believe people would be interested in a book anyway. “There are no success stories. People want happy endings and there are no happy endings here. What I am happy to do is portray the ambiguity of life. But people don’t want ambiguity.”

Pepsi by Regina Walker

“Not everyone wants to be saved. Some of them are living a decent life. It is life on their terms. If anybody wants to be saved, if they want help, I will help them but to go in and just try to change people is fucking insulting.”

Arnade regularly helps those who ask him for help. He will drive them to detox, rehab, and back to their homes if they are from out of state. He will give them money. Arnade does not just capture the stories, he has become part of the stories and part of the community. 

Fifty thousand people live in Hunts Point. “It is a community,” he says, and Arnade is involved in non-profit work in the community as well.

“Every woman out here has been sexually abused as a child as well as most of the men. The addiction I see is the result of the abuse and trauma. So it is a way to cope with trauma...poverty is trauma. Some have a genetic predisposition, but some are just dealing with shit. Drugs are popular because drugs work. They help people deal with shit. Drugs aren’t going to go away if you have shit in the world.”

One of the greater misconceptions about “Faces of Addiction,” Arnade stated, is that it is about prostitution. “People will say my series is about prostitution. It is not about prostitution, it is about addiction. If you are a female addict and you find yourself on economic hard times you are going to be a prostitute. And most of the men, too.”

Beauty by Chris Arnade

Arnade went on to say, “I have been criticized by some in the sex work industry because they view their work as empowering. It is not empowering for the people I know. It is a means to an end and the end is to get drugs.” Arnade commented that sex work may be empowering for the “$1000 a night escorts,” but not for the prostitutes he knows.

In response to the accusation by some that Arnade’s work amounts to so-called “poverty porn,” he responded, “I wish there was more poverty porn because there is a lot of luxury porn.”

As for the reaction by some that he is exploiting his subjects, Arnade remarked, “If this is exploiting, I haven’t seen a fucking dollar. I honestly don’t care what people say.” In the end Arnade shared, “This is much more a personal project but ultimately it is an artistic project.”

Currently, Arnade spends about 3 days a week in Hunts Point. When I asked him where he slept he responded “my car, crack houses or hourly motels.”

When I asked him if the direction of his project is changing he shared, “I am not really interested in doing a survey anymore, but following the stories of the 20 people I know very closely. That requires less physical time but more emotional time.”

Arnade was honest that his financial security allows himself to devote his time to this project while also maintaining his family’s lifestyle.  “If I were by myself I could live on $20,000 a year but I can’t do that to my family. I don’t need space, I don’t need nice things. You can’t drag your kids on your own personal thing though.”

Pepsi by Chris Arnade

Finally, I asked Arnade how this project has impacted him. “It is tough. It wears on you and it has changed me a lot.”

“I am a different person than I was when I started this. I am a lot more open-minded. I am a lot more sympathetic. I would say I am a lot happier. It is a tough thing to describe whether you are happy or not. I look back at my old self and I don’t want to be that person. It seems like a very narrowly-focused type of person. I have very little tolerance these days for polite company, for going into a restaurant and talking about baby showers and what are you going to do with your money.”

Arnade described his family as “supportive” of what he is doing but also commented, “When you change so dramatically, it is rough on people around you.”

After the formal interview, I drove around Hunts Point with Arnade for a while. He pointed out various auto body shops “that’s a front for drugs,” and would point at certain people on the street and declare, “addict.” While we were driving Arnade received a call from one of his subjects who wanted to meet him. Arnade agreed to meet her briefly but expressed exasperation to me. “She is getting on my nerves. I was with her for most of last night.”

We meet up with Pepsi, a 45 year old heroin and crack addict, near the not for profit program Arnade is committed to spending a few hours at today. They speak briefly and I take that as my time to exit. I thank Arnade and Pepsi (who shared with me “I think I am on my last run”) and walk to the subway filled with more questions for and about Arnade than when I first met him.

Regina Walker is a writer, photographer and psychotherapist in NYC. She is the Senior Writer of Revolution Magazine (USA). She last wrote about her four favorite recovery memoirs.

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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.