A Wall Street trader quits his job to roam the toughest streets of the Bronx.
Four years ago, a Wall Street trader named Chris Arnade wandered into Hunts Point, a Bronx neighborhood nestled in the poorest Congressional district in the nation and often referred to as New York City's red light district. He didn't know why he was there, but he had his camera, and he started snapping photographs.
Then he came back. Again and again. Soon he started writing about what he saw there, posting both images and text on Facebook, Flickr, and Tumblr, and capturing the cycle of abuse, drugs, and sex that kept people chained to the neighborhood.
His work -- about the weapons carried by prostitutes; about abuse from pimps called Payroll, Mosquito, and Escrow; about oral sex, the currency of the desperate -- shocked many of his Wall Street colleagues, and occasionally, his three teenage daughters.
In early 2012, the New York Times featured his work. But in the past several months, much has changed: He quit his job with Citibank and now spends about five days a week with the Hunts Point crew, often working with journalist Cassie Rodenberg. His subjects have ceased to be merely subjects, he says, and they've pulled him down a twisty, intimate path from which he believes he cannot escape.
"I think what frustrated me most about the Times article was that it made it look like this is a series on prostitution," he said, "when it's in fact a series on addiction. But I would say now it's even more a story about abuse, mostly sexual abuse."
His writing, like his photos, has stayed crisp and unencumbered.
"I'm following a few subjects much more deeply," he said, "into the hospitals, into the jails, the prisons, the court system -- as well as just getting more and more access to people, in terms of going into their houses, getting more about their back stories. Most people no longer think I'm an undercover cop."
His critics call him exploitive: a privileged white man preying on poor people, mostly women. Journalists sometimes knock his methods: He doesn't hesitate to pay a prostitute $20 to take her picture, or to hand $10 to an addict in withdrawal.
To Arnade, though, what matters is how his subjects feel.
This month he visited Daphenie Hill, 22, a homeless prostitute serving time at the jail on Rikers Island.
When he arrived, Hill wrapped her arms around Arnade. Leaning over a tiny wooden table, dressed in a shapeless gray-green prison uniform, she described her first encounter with him. "I was scared," she said. "Why should I open up? But after Chris posted my picture on the Internet, I felt amazing. People commented and made me feel like I could accomplish a lot. After that, they knew my pain."
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