A few months ago, I did something a little strange.
I thought it’d make a good blog post, an interesting, slice-of-life, what-a-crazy-place-LA-is kind of thing.
I’d like to say it was “out of character,” but I’m pretty sure now that it wasn’t.
What I did was drive some of Los Angeles’s longer streets. At 43 miles, Sepulveda Boulevard is the longest, stretching from the north side of the San Fernando Valley all the down to the South Bay and running through the gamut of LA’s socioeconomicscape – you get as close to the Getty as you do to Inglewood.
Being as I run through the Elysium prototype every afternoon on lunch, I was more interested in the
shadier dicier* end of that spectrum, so I kept a few blocks east, down Highland-La Brea-Hawthorne, up Crenshaw, down Western, up Vermont. I took some side trips through the cramped neighborhoods in Lennox and Hawthorne to see the bars on the windows, the front stoop gatherings replete with forties and spliffs, the basketball in the street, the hand signs and middle fingers as I slinked by, gawking, in my Jetta.
I 12-point turned in a dead-end alley in a part of town where, according to the conventional wisdom of my youth, “you could get shot just for being there.” At one intersection, I got waved off by a cop whose car was parked across the street. In the back seat was a young kid, head bowed against the partition. Beyond the cop car, a couple dozen people were turned out in their more-dirt-than-grass front lawns, watching whatever was happening around the two ambulances parked halfway down the block.
Leaning out of his open window, the cop banged on the side of his car. “Hey!” he yelled at me, and pointed down the road. “Now!” and I got the hell back to a road with stoplights and posted speed limits.
I drove past the abandoned lots, the industrial yards, the wasted buildings and dilapidated bars. I climbed Baldwin Hill for the last time just as the sun was beginning to go down, and in addition to feeling glad to be alive and glad to be going back to my air-conditioned (it was August) apartment, I was glad I knew a little more about the city – where certain streets start and neighborhoods end and what they look like and what their various “vibes” are from block to block.
But mostly, I was really glad that I didn’t live like “those people” I’d seen camped out in their crappy yards or parking their shitty cars behind the local titty bar.
Only then did it dawn on me that those were the things I’d been paying attention to – not LA’s vibrancy or pride or eclectic neighborhoods, but its grit and underbelly and danger zones – and I was patting myself on the back for not being “from” there.
I had to admit that what I’d really been doing was slum tourism at its finest.
This is pretty much how ridiculous I felt.
I thought I took the drive, in part, because I was sick to the bowels of the (all but unattainable) upper-class life we’re sold as the ideal – the houses on The Hills and the parties in The Canyons, in the parlance of my town – as the goal to which we’re supposed to strive. I hate the falseness of it all, the pretension, the unconscious (or not) elitism and entitlement and racism. And I thought going over to the proverbial other side of the tracks – and not even going there, but only voyeuring there from the safety of my car – would somehow work against this nefarious cultural energy, would put me in touch with something more “authentic,” something that would make for interesting “commentary on our times.”**
Instead, it reinforced those things I was hoping to expel. It proved that I am false in my intentions, even to myself, that I am pretentious in thinking that I of all the people that have driven those streets was going to find something new and insightful to say about them, that I am unconsciously elitist and entitled and, while not outright racist, certainly a passive and uncomplaining beneficiary of several forms of privilege.
I didn’t realize those things in so many words. It was a gut feeling – somewhere in the vicinity of those same bowels that I thought led me down there to begin with. All I knew is that I wanted to tell no one about it.
I continued to think a lot about My Trip To Lennox, but except for mentioning it to my buddy Leon, I’ve kept mum. I wasn’t sure how or what I felt about My Trip To Lennox, let alone how to convey that – let even further alone whether I wanted to admit to it.
Until, that is, I stumbled upon this:
It’s a rundown of a project a guy named Chris Arnade has been pursuing since 2009. It’s a common enough trope: one of the Smart Guys In The Room grows sick of sinning and turns to some marginalized, “more authentic” Others to pay off his spiritual debt.
Arnade was a successful Wall Street financier who, according to his Policy Mic interview, “became disillusioned by the narrow-minded corporate greed he saw on Wall Street leading up to and following the 2008 financial crisis.” He started walking around New York City to clear his head, taking his camera with him to keep that clear head busy with things besides the ways in which all the money he was making for himself and other Smart Guys was rotting his soul, and, one day, somehow just happened to “find himself” in Hunts Point, one of the diciest areas of the South Bronx. Once there, according to Arnade, people apparently started asking him to take their portraits, and before he knew it, he was snapping shots in junkies’ crash pads, whores’ walk-ups, drug dealers’ lairs and various other dens of urban iniquity.
Arnade says he never intended it as a project, that “this was just me doing what I wanted to do.”
He takes pictures of prostitutes and drug addicts and down-at-heels and transforms their pain via Internet alchemy into…what, exactly? And why? What is it that he “wanted to do”?
“There was some sense of penance going on,” he explains to Policy Mic. “I was raised Catholic — the idea that you have to do good to make up for the sins you’ve done …Wall Street did very bad things over the last 10 years.”
So, taking pictures and putting them on the internet and hanging out and becoming “very close to a lot of the subjects now…not just an artistic level, but a personal one” is making up for the money he and others like him made on the backs of the people and others like them that he now photographs. Or something like that.
As a point of comparison, take a look at the “For The Love of Money,” Sam Polk’s take on leaving that same Wall Street bs and what he’s done since.
It’s difficult at first to know which side of Arnade’s fence I land on, because many of the pictures are beautiful, and many of the people he photographs do seem to find some meaning in having themselves presented to the world “on their own terms.” He says of one of his very first subjects, “I was relatively cautious initially because I didn’t want to be insulting, but she opened up and started telling me her life story.”
As he recalls it, she told him that she wanted to be portrayed, “As who I am…A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.”
The argument could be made that what bothers me about this has more to do with me and my cultural hangups than it does with Arnade at all. Because the way I stumbled upon his project, via that Buzzfeedesque “8 Photos” list, is one of the things that bothered me about My Trip To Lennox: it’s an exercise (and an easy enough one to do, at that) that’s expected to pay some kind of dividend – a spiritual debt in Arnade’s case, a connection to The Authentic in mine – but one that’s actually little more than cheap, age-old voyeurism.
Yet there is something else. Arnade insists that his subjects are “people who are seemingly in the lowest of the low positions who are still somehow resilient. Those moments of resilience,” he says, “can be very optimistic.”
Maybe they can be, but scroll through Arnade’s flickr stream, through however many of the 1,155 grim, well-shot photos he’s taken since mid-2009 that you can stand, and you’ll see what I’d call a relative dearth of optimism. Some of the subjects – many of whom Arnade returns to weekly – do seem sometimes noble, I guess, in a certain way. Many of their stories are sad. Some, you can tell, are supposed to be heartbreaking, even tragic figures.
But a lot of what I see is just junkies being junkies.
I know some junkies, active junkies and recovered junkies, and they’re not noble or magical or heroically tragic or wonderfully weird harbingers of the otherworld or any of those other superlatives that William S. Burroughs tried to make the real, the true, the metaphysical junkie out to be. Most addicts are riding that wave of (often self-) victimization just as far as it’ll take them, and Arnade’s junkies don’t strike me as exceptions.
One woman, a woman named Sonya that Arnade shoots a lot, talks in that “8 Photos” bit about loving heroin and her addiction to it more than anything else – more than the kids she walked out on in Rhode Island, more than her husband, more than her health or her sanity or life in general.
“I am happier in some ways than I’ve ever been in my life,” she says.
That’s the quote that got me thinking about this whole thing. I don’t know what Arnade is doing by including that quote in the cutline (which is basically a long caption). After a while, you’re no longer just “reporting what people say.” You’re saying something yourself. Is it commentary on our society? On heroin? On addiction? Are you supposed to feel compassion for this woman? Or just be happy you’re not a junkie?
Arnade says, “I want viewers to take a moment to stop and look at people that they otherwise wouldn’t stop and look at [and] use that opportunity to read their story.” Which sounds to me like he’s hoping to inspire sympathy or compassion in people for those they usually ignore. Which is a noble enough idea. But does it work? Or is it a way to rationalize all his own good feelz?
Susan Sontag, to whose work I often turn for help figuring out how to see the world, wrote a lot about the capture of “reality” via photography and painting and writing. In Regarding the Pain of Others, she writes that, “the gruesome invites us to be either spectators or cowards…So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.”
In other words, feeling sympathy for someone is a way to avoid feeling guilty.
But Arnade says right up front that he feels guilty, you say. Well, yes, he does, but he also implies that this is a way of paying off his guilt. Poor people make him feel guilty – taking their picture makes him feel better.
“To set aside the sympathy we extend to others,” Sontag continues, “for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may…be linked to their suffering…is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”
I don’t doubt that his project has enabled Arnade to reflect beyond his own sympathy, and perhaps his photos have generated something along those lines in other people. If it’s touched something off in one person, I suppose it’s better than never having existed. But I agree with Sontag that “compassion is an unstable emotion [that] needs to be translated to action or it withers,” and I wonder what all this aimless or unactionable compassion- and sympathy-generation is doing, and what it’s doing to us to think oh, I can click on this and warm my heart for a second and that’ll make me a better person.
Which pinpoints another of the problems – the project is a sentiment (and sentimental) loop; Arnade seems to reinvest whatever sympathy his photos engender back into the photos. Or really, his descriptions of them. There’s no such thing as an innocuous or objective caption. Even captioning a picture with nothing more than a date, or the act of putting only the date or only a location, or not including any kind of caption at all, is a key to how to read a picture. A picture becomes its own thing the second it’s snapped and removed from its context, and no amount of “background” or “explanation” that the photographer or anyone else can attach to it does anything but replace the original context. In fact, that “true” context might as well have never existed, and the picture becomes its caption.
So then Arnade’s photos, most of which are accompanied by not only captions or cutlines but veritable mini-narratives, become not simply a retrospective of Hunts Point, but a narrative about Arnade himself.
Which is certainly okay, or would be if it weren’t trying to be this feel-good something else. The overwrought cutlines dripping in sentiment are bad enough; telling interviewers why he’s doing what he’s doing is insufferable, and the work is only ruined by sentences like this:
“My days are much rougher now emotionally,” Arnade says. “One hour in Hunts Point is like 24 hours anywhere else in terms of the emotional impact. But I’m much happier as a person than I’ve ever been.”
In fact, the whole emotional project that Arnade has convinced himself he’s involved in strikes me as bullshit.
Do the project, do the work, do whatever – but don’t pretend like it’s making the world a better place, one heart, one mind at a time. If it does, it does, and good, but claiming it or encouraging it undoes that. At least to my mind.
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To restate what by now must be obvious: I’m of two minds about all this stuff.
I realize that this idea that I can or should be able to go wherever I want – that led me to think My Trip To Lennox was an okay idea and Arnade’s sojourn to Hunts Point was for him – is a result of being a middle-class white man in a world built by them and for them. In a recent series of exchanges with a friend, I realized that another layer of this problem is that when I decide to talk about these things or engage them, to admit my entitlement and try to abstain from indulging in it, to try to see what W.E.B. DuBois and a whoooole long legacy of other folks have meant by “double-consciousness,” I can feel good about myself – and not just by my own metrics, because even if I’m trying not to pat myself on the back for realizing what to 37% of the US, 58% of California and 70% of Los Angeles is simply the way things are, doing so does make people think, there’s a guy with an open mind.
Of course, no amount of insight on my part is going to change the lens completely, let alone change the facts of my/our existence. The fact is, I can choose when to think about this stuff, when to confront it — and whether I want to deal with it all. It’s not waiting for me every time I step out the door or turn on the television or simply think about the world. Nothing bad happens to me if I don’t think about it, or don’t notice it, or don’t remember it, and yet if I do, I get rewarded. Which to me epitomizes the whole white male privilege thing (and the neo-liberal agenda, if you want to get political about it, which I don’t, so we’ll save that). Even the sense of guilt and repentance you get when you “flog yourself for the sins of your ancestors,” as that friend put it, is, well, kind of bullshit.
On the other hand, that stuff – poverty, racism, people treating each horribly and people feeling good about themselves for bullshit things – is all out there in the world, and some of it’s really powerful stuff. There’s no denying Chris Arnade’s photos are moving. And maybe at the end of the day that’s all there is to that, or should be. You do your stuff for whatever reasons you’re doing it, and try to do it well, and keep those reasons to yourself, and then let the critics have at it and say what they will. Because they will – death and taxes and haters, amirite?
I might fool around with criticism here and there, but primarily I consider myself a storyteller, and really, my attitude is that it’s all fair game. Whatever the problems are with the world – the nefarious societal undercurrents, the blatantly obvious cultural biases, the structural racism – I’m not going to fix them, and frankly, a lot of them make damn good stories (inter alia, 12 Years A Slave). Chris Arnade himself – Arnade qua Arnade – is an interesting story. Maybe more interesting than his pictures.
I can, and probably should (and think I do), try not to make the world’s problem any worse by telling stories, but in all honesty, my first allegiance is to the story. I’ll live my life over here the best I can, and hopefully that’ll help guard my fiction other there against any blatant ill-will, but if I feel like there’s a story I want to tell, man, I’ma tell it.
I just finished re-reading Joan Didion’s essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I won’t get too much into it now because I plan to later, but the final words of her preface seem too apropos to the tail end of this discussion to skip:
“…people tend to forget,” Didion writes, “that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”
It’s one thing to “sell people out,” to use their suffering and their ancestors’ suffering for stories, for art, even for your own personal gain, shoot, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, especially in the arts. But it’s another thing to make up some bullshit story about why you’re doing it, some self-stroking, feel-good explanation of the good you’re doing by selling those people and their pain out.
So maybe My Trip To Lennox wasn’t all that bad, in and of itself. At least, if I look at it objectively as mercenary grit research I’m not ashamed of it. In fact, I imagine I’ll be taking various Trips to various Lennoxes in the future, wherever those Lennoxes may happen to be, whatever Lennox it is that I need to see and feel and smell for whatever story I’m writing.
But at least, from now on, I’ll be straight about what I’m doing there.
What do you think of Arnade’s photos?
How does regarding the pain of others make you feel?
Do you seek it out? Or avoid it?
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* It is, of course, impossible to avoid the racial implications here. Not just of the word “shady,” but of class in the City of Los Angeles. The neighborhoods I’m talking are predominately black neighborhoods – poor black urban neighborhoods that I, a middle-class white suburban, first learned about by watching movies like Boyz n the Hood and listening to albums like AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Like any halfway-aware 21st century person, explaining the nuances and baggage and bullshit that go into the racial dynamics at play in My Trip To Lennox would take me about a book’s worth of discussion, but they’re also obvious and run-of-the-mill – and they still didn’t keep me from doing it. Which is the whole entitlement thing in a nutshell, right? Knowing how the deck’s stacked and where the cards lay and how the principles of your actions play out, knowing that something’s “wrong,” or at least not all that cool, and still taking advantage of your ability to do it anyway. Is it “worse” to do this kind of stuff when you’re aware of what you’re doing? I don’t know. What’s “worse” mean? Worse to who? How? I can tell you this, though – it’s certainly more embarrassing. BUT, Arnade’s stuff isn’t as strictly black-and-white as My Trip To Lennox, and in an effort to avoid a 30,000-word post, I’m gonna use that as excuse to sidestep the issue. Sorry I’m not sorry.
**It’s part of the hypocritical myth of The American Legacy that rough-and-tumble is more authentic than well-turned-out. Riches are better than rags, of course, but never forget where you came from. You can hate rags and never wear them again, but don’t let anyone catch you saying so. This, too, is heavily coded with race and class, I know – Drake and Kanye versus Jay-Z, and the three of them versus the suburban white kids that buy their albums, all that jazz. But again, one thing at a time. As problematic as the idea of cultural authenticity is (as opposed to personal authenticity, which is a valid goal, if not the goal in life), as little of an idea as I have as to what it even means, as much as I dislike the fact that I’m drawn to concepts and people and elements of our culture that claim to be and present themselves as authentic, I am. We all are. That’s the struggle. Or part of it, at least. And part of the story’s – whatever story you want – backdrop.