“Faces of Addiction”: Understanding Addicts Through a Different Lens

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“It’s very easy to simply run with your crowd, to not explore the amazing diversity and perspectives that are offered. It’s also very easy to ignore others. By not looking, by not talking to them, we can often fall into constructing our own narrative that affirms our limited world view. What I am hoping to do, by allowing my subjects to share their dreams and burdens with the viewer and by photographing them with respect, is to show that everyone, regardless of their station in life, is as valid as anyone else.” -Chris Arnade

“Vanessa” by Chris Arnade

Welcome to South Bronx, a poverty-stricken area of New York that many prostitutes and drug addicts call home. The notably large numbers of drug users, criminals, and prostitutes have come to characterize the area, particularly the red light district Hunts Point. Chris Arnade, a photographer living in Brooklyn, aims to represent these people in quite a different way. “Faces of Addiction” is a collection of portraits that zooms in on the individuals of the Bronx. They are given a face, a voice, a history, and, most importantly, an opportunity to testify their human existence.

The stigma cemented to the word addict comes to define drug users, an involuntary but tightly fastened shroud over their identity. And reciprocally, these people come to define themselves in the same way. Arnade asks one man named Supreme the question, “Who are you?” His response: “A doped up junkie.” But Supreme knows what that means to most people. He raises a middle finger to the camera and says, “That’s for all the people judging who I am.”

A prostitute named Sunshine pulls her shirt down to reveal a tattoo that says, “Thug Misses.”

Another named Camille was asked to describe her life in one sentence, and she replied, “Miserable.”

But, just as Arnade attempts to uncover, there is a depth to these people beyond their rough exterior. “An honest person. That’s what I am. An honest person,” says Cynthia, a drug addict who walks the streets to support her habit.

“Shelley” by Chris Arnade

Few associate an addict with hopeful aspirations, but Arnade didn’t forget to ask what they wish for themselves in the future. Many just wanted to get clean, but others saw themselves successfully functioning in the career world. Pam is a mother, writer, drug addict and prostitute who says, “My dream is to publish the books and be able to use the money to support my paraplegic brother in-law.” Others see potential in their own strengths, like Janet: “I am smart and sensitive. I trust people. I am a good person. I want to be a singer, romantic love songs. I got to get clean first.”

Despite drug charges, prostitution arrests, and losing children to the state, these people don’t quite match the criminal prototype they are often tied to. In describing the quality of life they blindly chose in their younger years, the homeless and drug addicted look back from their 30s and 40s in miserable hindsight. “If people can read what I have gone through, if it can help them not do what I did, then it’s a great thing. Hopefully someone can learn from me,” says Ariel, a mother recovering from crack and heroin addiction.

Beyond the scars and scabs lies an inner humanity that Arnade delivers to us through “Faces of Addiction.” Sympathy becomes a contagious lens through which we view these populations, one which does not judge, generalize, or blame. It complicates the definition of an addict and brings the label newfound diversity and individuality. Perhaps it does not change modern images of drug addiction, but it certainly changes the way we perceive it. The photos say what the words cannot, and the stories provide personal depth that can only be suggested through the sad, blemished faces.

Just as so many reviewers have said, these photos “capture the humanity” of the misunderstood and demonized populations who have fallen victim to the grips of drug addiction.

To view “Faces of Addiction,” visit Chris Arnade’s Flickr and Facebook.

See also: Interview with Addiction Photographer Claire Martin

Chris Arnade, Photographer (photo by Jorge Quinteros)

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