6:58am

Sun December 29, 2013
The Sunday Conversation

Quitting Wall Street To Tell A Prostitute's Story

Originally published on Sun December 29, 2013 9:12 am

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

Chris Arnade spent 20 years working on Wall Street, but after the financial crisis of 2008, he found himself increasingly disillusioned with his profession. So, in the summer of 2012, he quit and began walking the streets of New York, camera in hand.

Arnade was drawn to the Hunts Point neighborhood in the Bronx, known for its crime, drug trade and prostitution. There, he met Takeesha, a prostitute, outside an old monastery with a high, barbed-wire wall a block long.

"It was a Sunday afternoon, and she called me over and saw me with my camera and had seen me before, and asked me to take her picture," Arnade tells NPR's Jennifer Ludden. He did, and then chatted with her at length about her life and how she ended up on the streets.

Takeesha's hard story and her honesty had a tremendous impact on Arnade. "She was raped by a relative at 11, had her first child at 12, and was put out on the streets by her mother, who was also a prostitute, at the age of 13." Takeesha has been on the streets now for almost 25 years.

"When I finished up talking to her for that hour and a half ... I asked [her] how [she] wanted to be described," Arnade remembers. "She said, 'As who I am: a prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.'"

Arnade says Takeesha has always been very supportive of his photography, which he's published in a series called Faces of Addiction. "One of the things that's been told to me, I forget who exactly told it to me, was 'Being a homeless junkie, I often get offered people who want to buy me lunch. But very rarely does anybody ever ask me who I am.' "

The photography project has challenged Arnade's beliefs — particularly his atheism. "I walked into Hunts Point and naively thought that I would see the same cynicism towards faith that I had, and I saw the exact opposite."

Takeesha says the person who gives her hope is God, and in the crackhouses he visits — abandoned buildings at three in the morning, with no electricity or plumbing — he almost always finds a bible. "You have to respect how people get to their beliefs, and why they get to their beliefs."

Arnade hopes people look at the people he photographs for several seconds at a time, reading their stories and thinking about inequality. "There are people in this world ... who have very little. Not due to their own problems, not due to their own failings but to society. Everybody, homeless, prostitute and a Wall Street trader is as valid as anybody else."

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Transcript

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CHRIS ARNADE: I was spending my days with what society considers the winners and certainly, monetarily the winners. I was, you know, working on Wall Street and at nights I was spending my nights with what society considers the losers. And the losers were no lazier or no less gifted, weren't any dumber. They were just dealt a very bad hand.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

That's Chris Arnade. Before quitting his job a year and a half ago, he was a trader on Wall Street. But he found himself increasingly disillusioned with his profession following the financial crisis of 2008. He began walking the streets of New York, camera in hand. Arnade was drawn to the neighborhood of Hunts Point in the Bronx, known for its crime, drug trade and prostitution. He started talking with the people he met in over time and over time they invited him to take their photos.

He calls the series, "Faces of Addiction," and he shared with us the story of one person he's photographed. Chris Arnade is our Sunday Conversation.

ARNADE: Hunts Point has a monastery. It was built in the 1860s and has a high barbed-wire wall that runs the length of a block. And in front of the wall and monastery was Takeesha. She is a prostitute. She is someone I now know very well.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and she called me over and saw me with my camera and had seen me before, and asked me to take her picture. And I did, and we spoke for an hour - hour and a half and we talked a lot about her life, about how she ended up on the streets. And the story impacted me immensely, not only in terms of how rough a story it was, but also how honest she was about what she was doing with her life now.

LUDDEN: I'm looking at the picture of to Takeesha here. She's middle-age, maybe a little older - I can't tell. She's got a looks like a see-through lace, kind of negligee standing next to a garbage can. I'm not quite sure. Her legs folded, her arm across to one knee looking at the camera.

ARNADE: Yeah. She's 38. She was raped by a relative by 11, had her first child at 12. And was put out on the streets by her mother, who was also a prostitute at the age of 13. She has been on the streets since then, almost now 25 years. When I finish up talking to her for that hour and a half, I generally always ask people one question. I ask them how they want to be described. And she gave me one sentence. She said as who I am: a prostitute, a mother of six and a child of God. And, again, the honest and the directness by which - just was very striking to me.

LUDDEN: And how do you think she feels about being photographed and knowing that you're sharing these photos and they're out there?

ARNADE: She has been very, very supportive. I would never publish a picture of anybody who doesn't want that picture published. I told her quite honestly what I was doing, quite bluntly what I was doing. I came back the following week. I showed her the picture and the write-up I had done and she was very proud of it. You know, one of the things that had been told to me - I forget who exactly told it to me was - being a homeless junkie, I often get offered people who want to buy me lunch but very rarely does anybody ever ask me who I am and what or - I'll put it bluntly - give a (bleep) about me. And knowing that someone out there is caring about them or thinking about them matters a lot.

LUDDEN: You have written that you were an atheist and then that was kind of challenged as you started meeting these people that you're taking photographs of. What happened?

ARNADE: I have a Ph.D. in physics before I went to Wall Street. And I think science is great at doing things like building bridges. I don't think it's great at explaining life, certainly not good at explaining how people are built. I walked into Hunts Point and I guess naively thought that I would see the same cynicism towards faith that I had. And I saw the exact opposite. Takeesha says the person who's watching her or gives her hope is God. You know, I'm often in crack houses at three in the morning. And these are abandoned buildings with no electricity, no plumbing. And you'll find the Bible almost in every one of them. And that Bible, the rosaries they carry, the bible gives them hope. You have to respect how people get to their beliefs and why they get to their beliefs.

LUDDEN: When people see your photographs of the prostitutes and drug addicts there in the Bronx, what do you want them to take away?

ARNADE: I want them to look at the person, to look at the picture for five seconds, six seconds, just a stare, and then use those moments to read the person's story and to look at them as another human being and to remind themselves that there are people in this world - people five minutes away from where very wealthy people live who have very little, not due to their own problems, not due to their own failings, but to society. Everybody - homeless, prostitute and a Wall Street trader - as valid as anybody else.

LUDDEN: Chris Arnade is a photographer and columnist for The Guardian newspaper. There's a link to his photos on our website, NPR.org.

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LUDDEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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