The Patriot Post® · Shining a Light on 'Back Row' America
Chris Arnade’s photos reveal an America that is battered but standing, atomized but holding on.
I want to end this dramatic year writing of a man whose great and constructive work I discovered in 2016. He is the photojournalist Chris Arnade. I follow him on Twitter, where he issues great tweet-storms containing pictures and commentary about America. (His work has also appeared in the Guardian and the Atlantic.) He has spent the past year traveling through much of the country taking pictures of regular people in challenging circumstances and writing of their lives. He is politically progressive and a week before the election angered his side, and some media folk, by foretelling the victory of Donald Trump. The people he met were voting for him. Many saw the America they’d grown up in slipping away. They wanted a country that was great again. They experienced elite disdain for Trump as evidence he might be the one to turn it around.
Mr. Arnade received a Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins in 1993 and worked 20 years as a bond trader at Salomon Brothers, through its end as Citigroup. He left Wall Street in 2012 and started taking long treks through New York City, 10 miles and 20. “I was a numbers guy,” he said, a professional who lived on data. Now he wanted to see things. “Eventually I started taking pictures and talking to people about their lives,” he said by phone from his home in upstate New York, where he lives now with his family. “Looking back, for me it was an evolution of trying to … stop being that arrogant Ph.D. kid who knew it all.” What he saw was “injustice.” He wanted to see “if what I found in the Bronx was true in other parts of the U.S.”
And so his 2016 trek. By this weekend he will have traveled 58,000 miles throughout America in his 2006 Honda Odyssey. He went to small towns and cities through the northeast and down South, through the Midwest and the Rust Belt, through forgotten places with boarded up town centers. He met retired welders and drug addicts and valorous families getting by with nothing. He saw modest and embittered people who’d seen the places they grew up in disappear. He met Minnie McDonald and her granddaughter, Madison Walton, visiting the graves of Minnie’s daughters in Montezuma, Ga. He met five little kids in Selma, Ala. “Do you like Selma?” he asked. All were quiet. The littlest said, “Noooo.” Why? “Too many shootings, too many deaths,” said another. Penny Springfield, a middle-aged white woman, met Mr. Arnade in the empty church where she’d buried her son Johny, who died from an overdose.
Outside an apartment door in Bristol, Tenn., Mr. Arnade spies “the great Triumvirate,” a pair of brown work boots and, neatly tucked inside, a Bud Light and Marlboro Reds. David Sanders studies the Bible every day in the McDonald’s in Johnson City, Tenn., underlining and annotating. Priscilla in El Paso, Texas, walks twice a week over the bridge from Juarez to clean houses. “It is good work — any work is good work.” He met a black couple with a van full of relatives and friends in Saluda, S.C., who were grabbing a bite at McDonald’s between services on Sunday morning. “I asked, ‘Between services?’ ” They said, “Yes, we attend 3 churches on Sundays. We do all we can for the Lord.”
Sometimes Mr. Arnade would sleep in his car. Sometimes he’d stay “at hotels that either charge by the hour or the month.” He’d arrive in a place and ask “What’s the place you shouldn’t go, and that’s where I’d go.”
In his work you see an America that is battered but standing, a society that is atomized — there are lonely people in his pictures — but holding on. Two great and underappreciated institutions play a deep role in holding it together.
The first is small churches, often Pentecostal and Evangelical. They’re in a dead strip mall or on a spur off a highway and they give everyone an embrace. “Any church that has a sign that says We Welcome Everybody, that’s where I go.” He looks for the ones “that are often literally on the edge of town.” One in Alabama was a former Kentucky Fried Chicken. “It’s clear they don’t have a lot of money. They tend to be more welcoming because they’re used to people walking in off the street.” Though a stranger he is often hugged. He has been invited to speak from the pulpit. “I am a bit of an outcast being a progressive who finds a lot of value in faith beyond just my faith, but faith in others. We progressives, we only seem to celebrate faith among poor blacks, not poor whites.”
The other institution that helps hold people together is McDonald’s. Mr. Arnade didn’t intend to discover virtue in a mighty corporation, but McDonald’s “has great value to community.” He sees an ethos of patience and respect. “McDonald’s is nonjudgmental.” If you have nowhere to go all day they’ll let you stay, nurse your coffee, read your paper. “The bulk of the franchises leave people alone. There’s a friendship that develops between the people who work there and the people who go.” “In Natchitoches, La., there’s a twice-weekly Bible study group,” that meets at McDonald’s. “They also have bingo games.” There’s the Old Man table, or the Romeo Club, for Retired Old Men Eating Out.
I’ve written of the great divide in America as between the protected and the unprotected — those who more or less govern versus the governed, the facts of whose lives the protected are almost wholly unaware. Mr. Arnade sees the divide as between the front-row kids at school waving their hands to be called on, and the back-row kids, quiet and less advantaged. The front row, he says, needs to learn two things. “One is how much the rest of the country is hurting. It’s not just economic pain, it’s a deep feeling of meaninglessness, of humiliation, of not being wanted.” Their fears and anxieties are justified. “They have been excluded from participating in the great wealth of this country economically, socially and culturally.” Second, “The front-row kids need humility. They need to look in the mirror, ‘We messed this up, we’ve been in charge 30 years and haven’t delivered much.’ ” “They need to take stock of what has happened.”
Of those falling behind: “They’re not lazy and weak, they’re dealing with bad stuff. Both conservative and progressive intellectuals say Trump voters are racist, dumb. When a conservative looks at a minority community and says, ‘They’re lazy,’ the left answers, ‘Wait a minute, let’s look at the larger context, the availability of jobs, structural injustice.’ But the left looks at white working-class poverty and feels free to judge and dismiss.”
I asked Mr. Arnade if he’d been influenced by Walker Evans, the photographer of the Great Depression. No, he said. “I try to take conventional pictures of unconventional people. I try not to get too artsy because it’s unfair to people.”
I asked how he describes his work. I see it as an effort to help America better understand itself. He said he was trying to show that “Everybody is kind of working in the same direction, trying to get by, get a life that provides them with dignity.” In this, he suggests, we are more united than we know.
Happy New Year, everyone. May we do work worthy of the moment.
Reprinted by permission from peggynoonan.com.