Chris Arnade is getting famous, which wasn't his goal, as it makes him uncomfortable. Until recently, he has lived an extraordinary life but one outside the limelight: He grew up in the tiny east Pasco town of San Antonio, with his intellectual, world-traveling, civil rights activist parents and six siblings. He got a Ph.D. in physics, moved to New York and spent the past 20 years as a foreign exchange trader on Wall Street. He is 47 and married with three children, daughters, now all in their teens. It was their burgeoning independence, their desire to hang out with friends rather than their dad, that gave Arnade the free time to do what he's doing now, the thing that's getting him so much attention:
Photography. Raw, gripping portraits, documenting the people living in Hunts Point, a violent and poor area of the South Bronx. His series, "Faces of Addiction," has been written about in the New York Times, Mother Jones and Le Monde magazine. He posts his portraits online with a vignette describing the subject. These men, women and, sadly, teenagers, tell him their secrets, of being raped and running away and living on the streets, of selling their bodies and injecting heroin and being tired and wanting to die.
"I'm like a walking corpse," one woman told him. "I just want it to end already. I don't have dreams no more."
They tell him their hopes, to get their kids back, to get out of the neighborhood, to get clean.
He stumbled upon Hunts Point a few years ago. For a long time, Arnade has been fond of long, quiet walks, exploring desolate parts of the city. He is a self-taught photographer and began bringing his camera with him. He spotted a monastery in Hunts Point and it made him think of his childhood home near the Saint Leo Benedictine Abbey close to San Antonio. He had spent many summers working on the paint crew at Saint Leo University, plus picking oranges and watermelon in the nearby groves and fields.
As he explored Hunts Point, he found that it reminded him of San Antonio. Not in the desperation or crime, but in the sense of community. San Antonio is pastoral, a place where Arnade swam, fished and played as a child outside till the wee hours; Hunts Point is gritty, urban, a place where people live under bridges among fetid garbage. But in both places, he sees human kindness and connectedness, whether it's Arnade's former San Antonio kindergarten teacher sending his mother a card, more than four decades after he was a student, because she heard Arnade's mother was sick, or if it's Hunts Point sex workers watching each other's backs.
"I like neighborhoods and places where you can get to know people," he said.
His parents, mother Marjorie and German-born father Charles, a long-serving and legendary professor at the University of South Florida, spent half a century living in San Antonio, when they weren't traveling the globe. They helped organize Pasco's first NAACP chapter, which met in their house and drew gunfire and slurs. Arnade remembers some of the parents of his friends not allowing him to come over because his parents associated with African-Americans. But, after decades of living there and becoming part of the community, when Charles and Marjorie moved away in 2007, the town held a going away party for them. Charles died the following year. Arnade brings his mother back for the town's annual Rattlesnake Festival, so she can catch up with friends, but he's afraid she will be too fragile to make it this year. Marjorie was recently diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and is in hospice near her daughter in North Carolina.
Arnade has taken a break from banking to be with her and to spend time with his photography projects. He first began shooting subjects in Hunts Point when he was standing in front of the monastery one day and a sex worker asked him to take her picture.
"I was stunned by her honesty," he said. He asked how she would describe herself, and she said:
"I'm a prostitute. I'm a mother of six. I'm a child of God."
The camera gave him a way to talk with people, to find out more about them and their lives. He now spends most evenings and weekends in Hunts Point and has gotten to know most people. He sometimes gives them money or blankets. He tries to get them substance abuse help if they seek it. In a phone interview Thursday, he spoke of being out until 4 a.m. and he worried about a woman named Millie, who had an infection on her arm from shooting drugs but refused to go to the hospital. He hoped to get a doctor who would go with him to find her, and at least give her some antibiotics.
"I always say I've learned more about life in the past three years than I've learned in the past 20," Arnade said.
He said his time spent in Hunts Point has changed him. He has become more compassionate, less judgmental. Most people, he said, "are just trying to have a decent life and get by."
He is more appreciative of growing up in a small town — one where he, like many teenagers, felt confined and couldn't wait to escape.
"I had a great childhood," Arnade said. "I had two loving parents and a community who took care of me. It provided me with a safe, happy environment with very little criminal activity."
He said he hasn't had any problems with being in potentially violent situations in Hunts Point — a Manhattan banker in drug houses in the middle of the night, with an expensive camera around his neck, surrounded by some people desperate for a fix.
"I'm sure at some point something will happen," he said. But he's not going to change what he's doing. He said his wife and family worry but are supportive. He plans to go back to Wall Street, but said he's enjoying having more time to spend telling these stories.
"I want to put a human face to people who are often treated like stereotypes," he said, "and give them a platform to tell their stories without judgment."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.