In 2011, Chris Arnade was growing stressed and weary. His long walks through familiar city neighborhoods made him second-guess his profitable, comfortable Wall Street career as a successful trader. Warned not to go to areas like Hunts Point at the tip of the South Bronx—deemed too dangerous, too poor and too black for a white guy—he chose instead to arm himself with a camera and notebook and learn about the people who lived there. A cross-country exploration of “back row” America came next, when he “wanted to see if what I had seen . . . was representative of the rest of the country.” In down-and-out cities from California to Alabama to the Midwest to Maine, Arnade spent time with addicts, prostitutes, the homeless and the jobless. Many shared their stories and allowed his camera to capture much more than their words. One hundred and fifty thousand miles later, the result is Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, a photo-filled chronicle that is both heartbreaking and humanizing.
What makes Dignity so compelling is Arnade’s thread of introspection: As he reached out to strangers, he dug inward, seeking to understand what effect his path to the “front row” of America had on his assumptions, judgments and perceptions. Coming to recognize and shed the blinders of his economic and ethnic class, he found a new capacity for empathy and understanding. In storefront churches, abandoned buildings and, over and over again, inside inner-city McDonalds, Arnade saw the fault lines of the country that had done so well by him. Racism, implacable poverty, failed social services and educational dead ends vanquished the American dream for many of his subjects, yet their resilience often held off utter defeat.
After five years on the road, what has Arnade learned, and what does he think should be done? Equipped with new respect for the “back row,” daunted by the complex issues that created and continue to crush it, he calls for empathy: Listen to and try to understand one another, and try not to judge. Otherwise, “we have denied many their dignity, leaving a vacuum easily filled by drugs, anger, and resentment.”