/Book Review: Chris Arnade’s “Dignity”

Book Review: Chris Arnade’s “Dignity”

“When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” —Matt 9:11

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Those who have followed Chris Arnade on Twitter or Flickr will be gratified that his new book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America has arrived. I bought it and it’s excellent, both in prose and in its photographs. It’s also very well produced on heavy, glossy stock, as befits a work that is, at least in part, a photobook. From the back flap, Arnade’s bio:

Chris Arnade is a freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Time, The Atlantic, The Guardian, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal, among many others. He has a PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins University and worked for twenty years as a trader at an elite Wall Street bank before leaving in 2012 to document addiction in the Bronx.

In a word, Arnade is “smart.” I’ll let The Economist describe the background of his book. From “A Wall Street trader’s photographic journey to ‘back row’ America

Eight years ago Chris Arnade, a physicist turned Wall Street trader, ventured up to Hunts Point, a rough and isolated section of the South Bronx, armed with curiosity and a camera. A habitual walker, Mr Arnade had begun to feel a sort of moral restlessness in the wake of the financial crisis. In his view, his industry was responsible for—yet largely insulated from—the effects of the recession.

He realised that he knew far too little about the many Americans who were much poorer than his social circle. So, in the Bronx, he began talking to people and photographing them. What he encountered “wasn’t what I was told I would find—it was welcoming, warm and beautiful, not empty, dangerous and ugly.” Thus began a 150,000-mile, multi-year journey through unthriving America—urban and rural, black and white, from Lewiston, Maine, to Bakersfield, California, with many waypoints in between—that Mr Arnade has woven into “Dignity”, his deeply empathetic book….

“Dignity” is “about” inequality in much the same way that James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”—a seminal study of tenant farmers in Alabama, illustrated with stark photographs by Walker Evans—was “about” the Great Depression.

His photographs—of addicts and street scenes, invalids and sports events—are uncaptioned, which lends them an everyman air. But they are intimate and unflinching. He quotes people at length, letting them define themselves on their own terms. “Everyone wants to feel like a valued member of something larger than themselves,” he writes. In his telling, back-row Americans find this sense of belonging in places “that [do not] demand credentials”, whether it be church, family or people who share their drug habit.

Ah, credentials. This post will really not be a review of Arnade’s book. Rather, I will quote extracts from the book, and briefly comment on upon them. (The extracts were really hard to create; Arnade’s prose seems to lope along, but there’s not a lot of redundancy in it, save as needed to make a point; the front row/back row trope recurs throughout, for example.) Before concluding with a few remarks in lieu of a review, I’ll make a few remarks on the photographs, which are excellent and important (but alas not really reproducible here).

Front Row and Back Row

Quoting Arnade, from pages 44–46:

I spent most of my life focused on getting ahead by education [paging Thomas Frank]. Putting education first and going to college and then grad school were expected, so I applied myself. I left my rural town and got into elite schools… I was hardly alone. My office, my neighborhood, and most of my adult friends were like me and like the residences of most succesdful neighborhoods [paging Richard Florida] across the country, ones filled with bankers, professors, and lawyers….

In many ways, we were akin to the kids who sat in the front row, always eager to lern and make sure the teacher knew they were learning. We wanted to get ahead and we did. We were now in the front row of everything we did, not physically but hierarchically…. The shared experience and the rules necessary to succeed had left us with the same worldview…. We were mobile, having moved many times before, and we would move again. Saying put was a sign of failure…. We believed in free trade, globalization, and deregulation… If certain communities, towns, and people, suffered in this, it was all for the greater good in the name of progress.

While our front row neighborhoods filled with bespoke and artisanal stores, those left behind, literally and figuratively, were left to cope with the new landscape we had created.

If we were the front row, they were the back row. They were the people who couldn’t or didn’t lwant to leave their town or their family to get an education at an elite college. [They wanted] to graduate from high school and get a stable job allowing them to raise a family, often in the same community they were born into.

Instead the back row is now left living in a banal world of hyper efficient fast-food franchises, strip malls, discount stores, and government buildings with flicking flourescent lights and dreary-colored walls festooned with rules. They left with a world where their sense of home and family and community won’t get them anywhere, won’t pay the bills, And with a world where their jobs are disappearing.

I don’t know if this neoliberal hellscape explains Trump, but it does contextualize him, and in a way that the cool kids who invented and promoted of the term “economic anxiety” as a derisive characterization for what could possibly motivate Trump voters besides racism are unlikely to be able to do. I also wouldn’t be surprised if McDonald’s corporate just hates all this, and thinks of robots as possible way of cleansing their stores.

I myself was a front row kid, although I literally sat in the back, so I could slouch in my desk.[1] So, as I keep saying, front row kids “are my people.” Here is a photograph — not one of Arnade’s — whose composition makes the front row/back row distinction about as literal as it can be made:

So I have to explain which row is which?


NC readers may find these political views refreshingly familiar. Sage from Bakersfield, an older black man, “starts a long speech, delivered not so much with passion but with a sense of exasperation, as if this is something he has been thinking over and over and he is sure is important but nobody else really cases about.” Pages 94-95:

White-collar crime is the biggest crime, but nobody gets thrown in jail for that. Nobody gets prosecuted. Not only don’t they get any of that, they get a big check from the president. Barack Obama tells us he is one of us, says, “Look at my skin, I am one of you,” but he doesn’t help anybody when they are down except you bankers. Nobody helps us out here. We get thrown in jail. This here is a crooked society, and they wonder why we run from police. We ain’t blind. People we have in office are criminals and protect their big friends who are also criminals. We out on the streets, voters, we suffer. Nobody has a heart in this country. Step into a homeless shelter and see how the system doesn’t care about anybody hurting. Reality hurts. Nobody likes to face reality.

All true. Though one might wonder why.


NC readers may find these religious views less congenial. Frank, Johnson County, Tennessee pages 115-116:

“When we ate it was food we got from the mess hall or hunting. One month all we ate was cake mix, because he [his father] brought a large mess of that home. He was too proud to ask for help.”

“I was always called dumb by everyone, my teachers, other students. Pretty soon I dropped out of school. I been working all my life, but not knowing your ABCs, you have to work harder, because that is all the work you can get. I was a big guy, and I made it the only way I knew how, with my body. But you know what they say: The harder you work the less you make.

I drank and smoked some weed. I did drugs to feel happiness and joy and forget all my pains and problems…. I felt so dumb; nobody wanted me. They was a lifesaver. I would have killed myself without them. I tried a few time, put gun to my head, but thought of all the people I had to raise.

I broke my neck in ’93 and they started pushing pain pills on me, and soon I was hooked. I am shamed by my dealing and buying of pills. Shamed. That isn’t who I am.

Then I got saved at fifty. It changed me I had never felt worthy of before of being saved. I was too dumb. Now I understand I am worthy of the Lord. When you are told all your life you’re dumb, unworthy, you start believing it. God changed that for me.

Marx’s quip about religion being the opium of the people seems to me (I’ve moved from agnosticism to Episcopalianism to atheism to a vague form of animism) both very right, and very wrong. It’s hard to see how DSA, for example, could appeal to back row America without an account of religion.


Arnade once more, pages 38-9:

In Hunts Point [in the Bronx], I found myself going to McDonald’s every day because everyone did. It was an essential part of my new [addict] friends’ life. Without a stable home, they needed clean water, a place to charge a phone, a place to get free WiFi. McDonald’s had all those, and it also had good cheap food. (“Coffee with fifteen packs of Sweet’N Low, pancakes covered in syrup and sugar. Extra syrup. An addict’s breakfast.”)

They started their day in the McDonald’s, often around noon, cleaning up and sometimes shooting up in the bathrooms and, since the bathrooms didn’t have mirrors, putting on makeup in the sideview mirrors of cars in the parking lot. Then they spent hours off and on hanging at a table, escaping the heat or the cold.

McDonalds’s was a space where they could be themselves on their own terms. It was a place to momentarily escape the drama and chaos of the streets, a place that allowed them to rejoin society on the same terms as everyone else. They needed and appreciated that far more than I did.

McDonalds’s wasn’t just central to my friends, it was important to everyone in the neighborhood. It was always packed with families and older couples, especially on weekend mornings. In the evenings, it was filled with teenagers or young couples going out.

There weren’t really many other options. McDonald’s was one of the few spaces open to the public that worked….. McDonald’s was Hunts Points de facto community center, and if I wanted to understand Hunts Points, I had to send time in McDonald’s.

On Arnade’s 150,000 journey, his method was to first stop at McDonald’s in every town he visited. Arnade also makes a point of saying this:

While wonderful and well-intentioned non-profits serve Hunts Point, whenever I asked anyone where they wanted to meet or grab a meal, it was almost always McDonald’s. When I asked why not the nonprofits or the public parks, the answer would be some variation of “What is that?” or “They always telling you what to do. The nonprofits came with lots of rules and lectures about behavior, with quiet or not-so-quiet judgment.

Thinking of DSA then, or any entity that wants to organize, arranging meetings in the belly of the nonprofit industrial complex might not necessarily be the go-to play.

The Photographs

Finally, the photos. The only interview I’ve been able to find that focused on them is from Tony Foto. That side reproduces the first spread in the book:


And this spread:


The Economist, above, called Arnade’s photos “intimate and unflinching.” They also, it seemed to me, could not be taken in any other place and time than America in the neoliberal era. They are also more subtly composed than they might first appear. Arnade comments on their making:

One of the most difficult things to do as a photographer is to not “artify” or add too much drama to your pictures. To take simple photos that respect, not transform, what you find.

Complexity is easy. Simplicity is hard:

For a long time I fought the realization that much of poverty takes place amidst the banal. Partly because of what I had seen before, via the more traditional and famous photos of poverty [Agee, mentioned by The Economist above], which rendered it dramatic and the subjects broken. Sharply contrasting black & white, wooden homes, weathered faces, clichéd poses, whatever, you know what I mean. I thought maybe that was how it was supposed to be photographed.

But the reality I found was more like the interior of McDonald’s, or the decidedly bland architecture of low-income housing projects. It was cheap corporate – an attempt through bright colors to hide the shoddy or uncomfortable environment, or through countless grey tones, to not offend anyone.

Cheap corporate, combined with desperate — and very often successful! — attempts by the back row kids to break through the greyness with vivid color and form (as Arnade’s photos show, over and over).


I think that Arnade’s front row/back row trope is useful — The Economist, hilariously, whinges that Arnade’s view of the front row kids is insufficiently nuanced — in that it separates, as it were, the wolves from the scapegoats. I think all of us can think of examples in our daily lives where the trope works. However, Arnade does not give an account of those who own the systems he describes. Trivially, if there is a factory owner or even a landlord in the book, I didn’t find one. Are they front row or back row? Less trivially, where is the 1%? Did they ascend to their lofty perches only by acquiring credentials? As with Sage’s rant, the drivers that make for these human conditions seem absent.


[1] Just think! If I’d been able to stay on track, I’d be an Associate Professor in some small humanities college, drinking heavily while remaining functional, and with a wife and kids who hated me, all while not knowing why. “George and Martha, sad, sad, sad.”

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