Quitting Wall Street to photograph America’s poor

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Arnade earned a PhD in physics, then made millions on Wall Street as a trader. He became increasingly disenchanted with Wall Street. In 2006, he set out on 20-mile walks exploring poor neighborhoods that people claimed were violent.

He told Press Play that he saw a lot more community and dignity there than people typically think, but also more frustration and inequality.

He left his job in 2012, and travelled the country taking a photos of poor, overlooked people — often at McDonald’s, in a front yard full of weeds, and outside Goodwill.

These scenes were familiar to Arnade, who was raised in a small, working class rural town in Florida.

Arnade suggested the view from Wall Street makes it hard to understand life in much of America.

“I and a lot of other people like me, we tend to look at things in the framework of numbers and statistics, and forget about the people involved. That was certainly the case on Wall Street, where you could justify what you were doing because it was just numbers on a spreadsheet,” he said.

“And so part of what I was doing was realizing that was a mistake, and going out and actually meeting the people, and listening to them, instead of saying from afar ‘I know what’s best for you because I have the books and I have the spreadsheets.’ And instead going there and saying, ‘Okay you tell me what’s best for you.’”

Arnade recalled a teenager he met in East LA. A 15-year-old girl sat behind him each night in McDonald’s, where he went to type up his notes. She was Mexican-American, and she came into McDonald’s to use the internet because her parents didn’t couldn’t afford WiFi. She attended a local community college — instead of a more elite school that she would have liked — because she was her mom’s translator. Her mom needed her.

“This idea that we should all leave, all get out, why is that our only measure of success? What about a child who stays to be with their family?,” said Arnade. “We have built this one idea of success, the one I followed: Go get an education, go get your PhD, go make a lot of money, and keep moving from place to place. But I think there’s a lot of people who not only are not built for that, but don’t want that.”

Courtesy of Chris Arnade (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Does Arnade think he’s helping the people he photographs? He doesn’t know.

“I do my best to try to treat everybody I meet as equals, and write about them as people who deserve to be heard. To the degree that that ultimately helps them, I don’t know. I certainly hope it does. I certainly hope it doesn’t harm them. I don’t think I know enough to go into a community and tell people what to do,” he said.