- "One of the things I saw that struck me is everybody wants to have a family. That’s like a universal." Tweet This
- "Before you judge anybody, especially another group, walk a mile in their shoes or sit down with them at McDonald's." Tweet This
- "People think of these churches as being fire and brimstone and judgmental, but...if you show up and sing the songs, and you tell them what you did wrong, they’re going to forgive you, or at least try to help you." Tweet This
It is difficult to read Chris Arnade’s book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, or look at the striking photographs inside without feeling a bit guilty. How many times have we rushed passed a homeless person at the local library or turned our faces away from the distraught woman with the cardboard sign standing outside our rolled-up car windows? How often have we stopped to consider where that person comes from, or what he or she has suffered? And for those of us who grew up in working-class or poor communities, how many of us avoid going back (or staying too long if we do go back) because doing so makes us feel uncomfortable and anxious—sort of like we are being sucked back into a black hole that we only managed to escape by the grace of God? But the images and stories in Dignity do more than just leave most of us feeling a bit ashamed of our past actions toward people on the back row; they also evoke feelings of compassion. What makes the book a must-read is that it forces us to not only look at the people on the back row that we so often ignore but also to truly begin to see and (hopefully) better understand them.
I was curious to learn about the family backgrounds of the men and women featured in Dignity, so I asked author Chris Arnade to share more about what he observed about the family lives of the people he met in back row America. We also discussed the power of faith in these communities and the main message he hopes to communicate through the book (the following interview has been edited for clarity).
Alysse ElHage: I noticed that you often asked the people you photographed about their childhoods. What did you observe about the family lives of people on the back row—did they share anything in common that stood out to you?
Chris Arnade: I did ask a lot [about family background], and a lot of it was left on the cutting room floor, partially to protect some of the things they told me. There are a lot of bad stories. I think the theme that runs through is abuse. I don’t want to paint an overly broad brush. But certainly, among people who are suffering from the worst addiction and are living on the streets and maybe the sex workers, there was a broad theme of abuse at an early age. I think in a lot of cases people were passed around in foster care or the life they found themselves in was not necessarily all that different from the life their parents might have had. So, in some cases the people who were going through the worst, their mother might have done something similar or their father. But with the exception of a few, there were not a lot of positive stories about fathers. In some cases, I learned to simply not ask about someone’s father because I knew what the answer would be. It would either be, I don’t want him in my life, or he’s never been in my life...
Relative to my Wall Street friends, for instance, especially with hard-core abuse, there were cases of family dysfunction. It’s rare that I met people that came from a good family, or from what they would self-describe it as a "good family." There were those cases where people talked kind of glowingly about their childhoods, but this was far more rare.
Alysse ElHage: Many of the people you photographed, particularly the women, had children—often multiple children from whom they were separated. And they seemed to draw strength from motherhood and from their families in general—regardless of how broken their families might be. There was one young man who told you that although his mother had been a drug addict, and in and out of jail when he was growing up, he could not leave her because she needed him. Why do you think the family connections were still so strong, despite the trauma many of these individuals faced as children, and what does that say about the power of family in people’s lives?
Chris Arnade: I’d say there were two broad themes. One is they have rejected their family, or their family has rejected them, and they want nothing to do with it. And they’ve formed part of what I call a “street family,” which has the hallmarks of a family but without blood relations. And that’s the extreme case.
The other case was—certainly, for the people who were going through fewer problems and might have been in and out of Section 8—family was everything. Even though you would look at it and call it completely dysfunctional, family was all some people have. And in terms of the women having a lot of children, even though they keep getting taken away from them, one of the things I’ve noticed, and it was something that struck me when I was doing my work in the Bronx: I don’t know if it’s fair to say they just move on. I mean, it tears them up at times. A number of times, I’ve had women show me phone pictures of their kids and be proud, even though that child is not really in their life. I’ve heard women basically sitting there sobbing about children that they’ve lost and then getting pregnant again, knowing they probably will lose that child, too. It was one of the hardest things for me to put together. Because they don’t want to have their children taken away, even though it probably will happen. And they maintain an intense bond with the child even though it’s gone. They try to stay in their lives. I can tell you some amazing stories. When I started posting these pictures on social media, I’ve had children who reached out to me and found their mothers and reconnected. I just recently got a connection from a woman who’s been living off and on the streets for 25 years, from a child of hers’ who is now an adult and wants to talk to her mother. So, there’s still a lot of bonds there.
With the exception of a few, there were not a lot of positive stories about fathers. In some cases, I learned to simply not ask about someone’s father because I knew what the answer would be. It would either be, I don’t want him in my life, or he’s never been in my life.
I’ve got to be careful here, because I’m a guy with a camera, and I don’t have a lot of training in this. And I know it’s politically a very sensitive subject. But one of the women in the book is a sex worker in California. I asked her a question, even though I knew what the answer was: “Why do you keep having children?” She said, “Basically, that’s all I have.” So, what I’ve seen is, these women who are going through a really rough time or have had a rough life, they really think that having that child is going to be a ticket to the white picket fence with a happy family. Because they’re going to do it for themselves—they’re going to do it for their kids. And they certainly have the hope that the father of the child will be involved. So, they really invest a lot of emotion. It’s almost like they’re kind of buying a lottery ticket. It’s their emotional way out. So many of them have said to me, “I’m going to do this for that kid.” And then it doesn’t happen. But they try. I’ve seen extraordinarily loving mothers, who by most measures probably should have their child taken from them, who are trying their best to be a loving mother. But the father may not be there; their addiction may come first. So, it’s really heartbreaking to watch, because I don’t think there is anyone I’ve met who does it because “I’m just going to get more money from the State.” I’ve never met anybody like that. It’s entirely: “I’m doing this for me. It’s going to make me a better person. I’m doing it because I want that white picket fence. I want that house. I want a place where I can live [that is] unlike where I’m living now.”
One of the things I saw that struck me is everybody wants to have a family. That’s like a universal. There are rare instances of people who might say, “I’m mentally messed up, and I don’t want to do that to a kid, or my parents did that to me, and I don’t want to be that person.” But 98% of the people want to have a family. And I think we all want them to put their economic house first and then have the kids. They start realizing that’s never going to happen—[their] economic house is never going to get in order. But they’re not going to stop having kids, women especially. For the women I’ve met and for many of the men, having a child gives them a role, it gives them meaning—something in life that makes them important.
What I’ve seen is, these women who are going through a really rough time or have had a rough life, they really think that having that child is going to be a ticket to the white picket fence with a happy family...It’s almost like they’re kind of buying a lottery ticket.
Alysse ElHage: I wanted to ask you about the chapter on the church, which is one of my favorites in the book. I grew up in a very small Pentecostal church with, maybe on a good week, 20-30 members. And even though I am not part of that denomination today, it bothers me when people outside these circles, including other Christians, make fun of these churches. So, I very much appreciated that you treated these small churches and the people worshipping in them with respect. What was it that you saw or experienced in these churches that earned your respect?
Chris Arnade: I do respect them. And you have to understand that I never made fun of religion. I’m not that person. But I wasn’t very far from it. It helped that, even though I grew up Catholic, because my father was active in civil rights, I spent a lot of time in black Baptist churches. So it wasn’t an entirely new experience for me. I’ve seen the power of those services. For me, it was how welcoming and how powerful it was. To be honest, it was pretty powerful at times. There were times in services when I was moved to tears.
You know, this particular service I wrote about, I think lasted four-and-a-half hours. It was a long time on a Sunday night in a wooden house! I think there were maybe 20 of us there. And everybody took turns speaking, and some people got up and sang, and they even asked me to speak, which I did. What was really impressive about it was to see how welcoming it was and how much of a community it was and how non-judgmental it was. People think of these churches as being fire and brimstone and judgmental, but not at the individual level. If you show up and sing the songs, and you tell them what you did wrong, they’re going to forgive you, or at least try to help you.
Alysse ElHage: I believe I’ve heard you say that many of the people you met who had overcome drug addiction had done so with the help of their faith or a church. Is that correct?
Chris Arnade: Yes, I think almost 95% [of those I met], if not everybody I’ve met who has managed to overcome addiction in this community in the back row (not the front row, not the wealthy people)—in almost in every case, it was somehow through a church or finding religion. And so, as a scientist, it’s like, well, this is happening, this is working. You know, regardless of what my prior thoughts on religion were and my deeper thoughts on religion, this is something that is helping many people.
Alysse ElHage: You said you were an atheist when you went into this project. Did this experience change you or your beliefs in any way?
Chris Arnade: Yes, I go to mass now and then. I’m not particularly good about it. I wouldn’t call myself religious because I haven’t gotten there yet. And I don’t want to sound pious or anything; I’ve got a lot to work on. But I certainly am much more open-minded about religion. I’m much more curious, and I’m much more at the point where I’m realizing that there’s a lot more there than I would have thought at all. You know, it’s a lot more central to our understanding. It has a much more central place in my life, and it should, perhaps, take a lot more central place in a lot of people’s lives.
Alysse ElHage: In addition to having them read your book, what will you teach your own children about people in the back row—and what advice do you have for other parents?
Chris Arnade: Don’t be scared of the poor. Don’t be scared of people who are different from you...And it’s not scary. There’s a lot to learn. Don’t be scared of differences. Before you judge anybody, especially another group, walk a mile in their shoes or sit down with them at McDonald's. If you come at it with a good mindset—meaning open-minded and not wanting to change people, just wanting to listen—people will open up.
*Photo credit: Chris Arnade. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_arnade.