- - Tuesday, June 18, 2019


By Chris Armade

Sentinel, $30, 304 pages

In a book full of striking images, sometimes the words are most memorable. My mind keeps returning to one poignant self-summary from the first chapter of “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America” :

“I’m an addict, a prostitute, and a child of God.”

That life story in 10 words captures many of the stories in this book, stories of people whose lives didn’t turn out the way they expected, whose experiences have been harder, and who faced their situations with difficulty, need, faith and, well, dignity. Showing the results of bad choices and unfair circumstances with compassion and openness, never condescension, the book walks a fine line.

Theoretical physicist turned successful bond trader, Chris Arnade stumbled into photography amid growing dissatisfaction with how America’s elite handled the 2008 financial crisis. While working for Goldman Sachs, he was bothered by the government bailout and how it protected the financial elite while ignoring other parts of the country.

He started walking, drawn to the places people told him to avoid. Initially that was Hunts Point, a rough area of south Bronx where poverty and drug use were the norm. On these walks, he began taking pictures — of people living on the streets, the forgotten working class, those left behind by globalization. The expansion of both his rambles and his photography became the foundation of “Dignity.” After quitting his job, Mr. Arnade traveled the country for almost two years, stopping in places like Selma, Alabama and Flint, Michigan, seeking out the cities and neighborhoods that you may have heard of, but aren’t supposed to visit.

The result is something part art book, part travelogue and part meditation on contemporary America. Thankfully it isn’t a book about the 2016 election. In a hyper-politicized era, Mr. Arnade provides a counterpoint, depicting a world where happiness and satisfaction do not rely on politics. Through both his pictures and their stories, Mr. Arnade brings us in to this world that is all too easy to ignore since it does not often interact with the one his readers, presumably front-row kids themselves, live in.

As Mr. Arnade sees it, globalization has created a social structure that rewards a certain type of person — intelligent, mobile, educated — with money and influence. Borrowing an image from the classroom, he calls them the “front row,” the kids who knew how to navigate the tests, college applications and summer internships to land the right job and move into the nice neighborhood. As adults, they form friendships based around education and career choices, leaving their hometowns far behind.

For many of the people Mr. Arnade met and photographed, often at McDonalds booths around the country, this sort of life is either impossible or undesirable. As he writes:

“The system isn’t just legally rigged against [the back row;] it is rigged against their entire worldview. It is rigged against people who find meaning from place and from faith.”

People don’t necessarily choose to stay in depressed or disadvantaged areas because of a lack of opportunity. They also stay because of the ties of family, church and community or simply because it is their home. This pushes them out of the present skills economy that “offers only an extraordinarily narrow path to success, requiring one to be uprooted from family and home, and then buy into the front row worldview.” Some of these people can’t get ahead. Some don’t want to, because this is home. The book is sympathetic to both views.

While the title is “Dignity,” it could have been called compassion. Filling every page the repeated acknowledgement that while individuals make choices, their lives are also shaped by many forces outside of their control. If, as the expression goes, they made their bed and should lay in it, individual choices are the sheets and pillowcases, but society provided the bedframe and the mattress. This shared responsibility between the front and back row is one of the most striking themes of the book.

Alongside this is the realization of the limits of compassion. To be compassionate is to give something spiritual of yourself that is harder to replenish than money or time. Surrounded by people with needs, Mr. Arnade struggled with how to respond, be that with the loan of a cell phone, a McDonalds sandwich, or a few dollars. Trying to help burned him out. Eventually, he realized that many of the people he tried to help stayed trapped because of their own decisions.

This frank discussion of the limits and costs of compassion is one of many hard truths found in what isn’t an easy book. That many of these questions are left unresolved is one of its greatest strengths. By the end of “Dignity,” the reader has gone on a journey with Mr. Arnade and his camera. The hope is to return seeing common places as for the first time.

• Erin Mundahl is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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