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Once a physicist: Chris Arnade

Chris Arnade is a documentary photographer who works among homeless addicts and prostitutes in Hunts Point, New York.

Chris Arnade

How did you get into physics?
I was something of a "math kid", and I got my undergraduate degree in mathematics. Then I wanted to do cosmology, which led me to Johns Hopkins University because they had the Hubble Space Telescope. But the launch of the telescope got delayed, so I drifted into particle physics where I quickly realized that 95% of the physics is done by about 3% of the physicists, and I wasn't going to be one of them. So after I got my PhD in 1992, I went to Wall Street. I wanted to be in a field where I was interacting with people more, and there was an immediacy about finance – you solved x, and then three days later it produced y – that appealed to me.

How did you start photographing people? 
I spent almost 20 years in finance and for the first 10 of those years, I loved it. But as the industry changed, I became disillusioned, and around 2006 I started going on long walks through the city to relax, taking my camera with me. Eventually my path took me to Hunts Point, which is a tongue of land that sticks out into the water. The boundary where it connects with the mainland is cut off by a highway, so it's kind of an isolated community. There's something very small-townish about it, and I come from a small town, so the minute I was there I felt comfortable. I started immersing myself in the community of homeless addicts in Hunts Point, photographing their lives and cataloguing their stories. My goal was to humanize a segment of the population that is usually only seen in an unfavourable light.

Do you ever feel unsafe? 
Not from my subjects. I believe that if you interact with someone in a non-judgemental fashion, with no expectations – well, that disarms a lot of people. But I have taken a lot of risks, partly out of naivety and partly from just not caring about my personal safety. It wasn't that I was suicidal; it's just that I was kind of fed up with what I'd seen in the world up to that point, and the mood I was in when I started was one of "whatever, who cares?". I have faced dangers from the drug dealers in the neighbourhood, but they know me now, they know what my gig is and they know I'm not there to bother them. The absurdity is that I've probably felt more uncomfortable in dealing with the police than with anyone else.

What's been the most moving experience you've documented? 
If I had to pick out one event that just emotionally crushed me, it would be the death of one of the addicts, Millie. The last three years have been an immense learning experience for me. Every new month is like peeling back a layer and seeing something deeper and more tragic beneath. Every layer showed me how unfair and how dehumanizing life is to addicts and how the system treats them with utter injustice. I'd seen that in the police; I'd seen it at the hospitals; I'd seen it in the criminal courts and jails; and I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that death was the same. Millie was the first of the people I knew closely to have been confirmed dead, and after some searching, eventually I found out how she died and how she was buried. Now, I am an atheist, and my rational, physicist side says, "Who cares how someone's buried? Once they're dead, they're dead!" So the fact that Millie died on 6 January in Lincoln Hospital, the fact that her body was unclaimed for two weeks before she was moved to the medical examiner's office, and the fact that she was laid there for three months before being buried in a trench by prisoners on Hart Island – which no-one can visit, and where 800,000 other bodies are buried – shouldn't have affected me in the way it did. Because, you know, she's dead, who cares? But it was just another in a string of dehumanizing ways that addicts are treated. Someone once said to me that you don't really die until the last story is told about you, and it is so much harder to have stories told about you if people can't visit your grave.

What would you change if you could?
Get rid of the war on drugs. We criminalize addiction in this country, so the first thing would be to treat drugs as a public health issue and not as criminal behaviour. But the problem with poverty is that while we all want it to be solvable with a magic bullet, there are so many different small things that feed into it. From the way we fund schools to access to healthy foods, it's overwhelming the number of negatives you face if you're poor.

Any advice for today's physics students? 
Don't forget about people. As a physicist, you can escape into numbers, but sometimes when you do that, you're escaping life. Physicists have a tonne of things to offer, and there are thousands of careers out there that require thinking analytically. That perspective is very much needed in fields such as sociology, social work and teaching . There's never a downside to getting a degree in physics, but students should have the flexibility to realize there are other careers that need that mindset.

Read more about Chris Arnade's work on his blog,

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