Troubling photos divide opinions at local exhibit

A war of words stemming from a Bronx Documentary Center exhibit has erupted over photojournalistic ethics.

A prostitute poses in Hunts Point.
An addict named Pepsi, in Hunts Point, from the “Faces of Addiction” site.

Journalists say former Wall Streeter is staining the trade

As the Bronx Documentary Center prepared to open an exhibit that examines posed, faked or manipulated documentary photography, it sent Chris Arnade a message telling him that his work would be displayed as an example of unethical photojournalism.

Since then, the exhibit has sparked a heated dialogue on how the Bronx can be represented fairly and accurately in photographs.

Arnade worked on Wall Street until four years ago when he became a full-time photographer, because, he said, he decided his work in finance was “harmful” and “morally lacking.” He started a project called “Faces of Addiction,” in which he photographs prostitutes in Hunts Point who have slipped into drug and alcohol abuse.

Many who have seen those images say they find his current occupation, too, is morally lacking. (The photos featured in the show are not published here because they depict naked women in a way that the editors have decided would not be suitable in a newspaper of general circulation.)

His photographs have run in The New York Times, National Public Radio and the English newspaper the Guardian, but have been denounced by local activists and photojournalists from the Bronx, who blast him for exploiting his subjects and distorting life in the borough.

“To make a name for yourself out of the worst of the worst is disgraceful, not only as a photojournalist, but as a human,” said Rhynna M. Santos, the curator for Everyday Bronx, a website devoted to photographing life in the borough.

Arnade insists that he is not a journalist, and says the standard code of ethics journalists follow does not apply to him. But his work is all over the Internet, and has even been included in publications worldwide.

“In every way, he’s doing photojournalism wrong,” said Joe Conzo Jr., a South Bronx native who has made a living photographing the Bronx for more than 35 years. Referring to one particularly graphic photo of a prostitute showing her breasts, Conzo describes Arnade’s work as “vulgar” and “disturbing.”

Some photographers say they also object to the way Arnade persuades some of his subjects to pose for him, by paying them or buying them drugs.

“The goal of photography is to capture an accurate and balanced representation of real life,” said Michael Kamber, the founder of the Bronx Documentary Center. But, he said, such a mission becomes impossible when subjects are being compensated.

“Your subjects could make up a story because they’re trying to deliver something,” Kamber said.

Cynthia, from the "Faces of Addiction."
Cynthia, from the “Faces of Addiction.”

Arnade says he can’t resist helping his subjects, insisting, “They’re my friends.”

Once he drove a woman from Hunts Point to Oklahoma to visit her mother, he recalled. He also drives them to rehab centers, visits them in prison, and stays in touch via text messages. He said that it’s not unusual for him to wake up to more than 30 messages from those he’s photographed. While the frequent exchanges can become overwhelming, he said, he added that that’s the nature of having relationships with addicts.

A woman named Shelley, who worked as a prostitute on Tiffany Street in Hunts Point, said she finds Arnade’s work excellent, especially the photos in which she is the subject. She adds that she appreciates the friendship she has established with Arnade.

“I consider him one of the only good friends I have that supports me in most of my decisions,” said Shelley.

Arnade says , “It’s journalism that is wrong. To just come and leave and not get attached. Those rules are wrong.”

“These journalistic standards have been around for more than 100 years for a reason,” said Kamber. “And they don’t include taking naked pictures of vulnerable people.”

Kamber, whose storied career as a New York Times photographer includes stints in Africa and heading its Baghdad bureau during the early 2000s, said that when he was documenting the suffering of victims of sexual abuse, he would start by having conversations with community leaders, health care professionals, his own editors and the women and their families about how they should be represented, in order not to further their trauma. He added that he rarely photographed his subjects’ faces, let alone their naked bodies.

Santos said that Arnade’s photographs have real and negative ramifications for the Bronx, from businesses and people not wanting to come to the area, to the reputations of the schools, to heavy-handed policing that results from negative stereotypes of an area.

“When I tell people all the way in Norway that I live in the Bronx, they say ‘that’s horrible’,” said Santos. The outdated sterotype is “a wound that just never heals,” she said.

Since the Bronx Documentary Center put on its show “Altered Images,” in June to question the work of photographers its curators say cross the line, the Center has been inundated with criticism from Arnade’s loyal followers.

“How do you correct people who are so politically correct they are not even on the same planet?” said one fan, Mary Rayme on a website.

“Anyone with a critical eye who sees the work in the context of this exhibit will wonder why it’s included,” said another, Muffy McKay.

But the Center has also heard from dozens more who say they are appalled by Arnade’s depiction of their borough. Arnade responded that as long as prostitution and addiction remain daily realities in Hunts Point, that fact and its ramifications should be discussed openly.

“Why hide it?” he said.

But Arnade’s detractors say his work should be called out , and not mistaken for objective storytelling.

“If it’s art, we have to step away from journalism, and ask ‘Why is a white man from Wall Street photographing poor black and Latino women’?” asked Kamber.

“Don’t come into my hood and exploit my people,” said Conzo.

Santos said that people who live in the Bronx should be the ones to tell their own story.

“Can someone else tell it?” she asked. “They can tell a story, but not ours,” she said.

The first sentence of this story has been changed to eliminate references to the amount of time that passed between the time the Bronx Documentary Center notified Chris Arnade and the show opened, an issue that is in dispute.