Flash powder, made from a composite of metallic fuel and an oxidizer, requires ignition to create a bright flash — one that film can capture, and one that allowed photographers to take photos anywhere without sunlight. Flash powder is what allowed Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant to the U.S. and a resident of New York’s Lower East Side, to take photos of the dark alleys and tenement rooms in the slums of New York City. Vermin and crime were everywhere, and Manhattan’s immigrant population was, before Riis, both figuratively and literally in the shadows.
His most famous photo was called “5 cents a spot,” which captured several people crowded in a windowless room, sleeping on the floor with clutter surrounding them. The light from Riis’s flash powder revealed the nooks and crannies of poverty, the chiaroscuro of dirt and bedraggled cloth on skin illuminated by a burst of fire from the gizmo that shocked the subjects being photographed. The upper classes, meanwhile, were shocked by the destitution.
His book was titled How the Other Half Lives, and he was the first to document such a thing, as the opening flap of Chris Arnade’s book Dignity notes. Arnade’s book gives the reader a similar portrait of America today. Except we aren’t shielded by the limitations of archaic technology: The images come in color instead of shades of gray and black, showing every hue of pain, resignation, escapism, hope, and violence. The author’s narration sometimes seems more like extended captions than like literature, but it’s Arnade’s photos that do much of the talking.
The book is larger than average and doesn’t comfortably fit the hand. The cover features a photo of a white couple, evoking American Gothic in its artistic regionalism. It was taken by Arnade in a McDonald’s, the setting for many other photos throughout his book, and a community center in many of the towns he visited across the country. Dignity is jarring in its unsanitized reality, the mundane image on the cover managing to draw the reader in. Like the inside content, the introductory photo is unassuming, but make no mistake: Dignity is not a leisure read. It requires the reader’s deference; the same kind that Arnade wrote with.
Arnade’s presence throughout the book is established immediately, and so is his sense of culpability: He not only “checks” his privilege, but candidly explains it. He is, as he reductively explains, the “front row”: Ex–Wall Street banker, holds a Ph.D, owns a lofty apartment in an expensive part of New York City. His descriptions matter-of-factly distinguish people like him from the “back row.” But he never condescends, perhaps the most laudable feature of this book.
Dignity is not merely a Humans of New York extension that offers up a vanity project designed to confirm the expectations of champagne socialists and limousine liberals who find the cherry-picked tales of every profile endearing, poignant, or critical. Arnade’s book is unorthodox, as far as contemporary American slum photography goes. The photos are not taken in manicured parts of New York, on Central Park benches, or in the shelter of subway stations. They aren’t taken during the window of time after an illicit act — shooting up heroin, street-walking — that ensures the photographer comfort while allowing him the trophy that is testimony from a tweaker or whore. Surely such images are a compelling addition to any photo collection that wants to elicit pity while confirming victimhood narratives for those who can swiftly scroll away with a stroked ego. But Dignity leaves its readers examining their consciences instead.
Arnade achieves something similar to what Riis did when his light entered the dark, uncharted territory of the slums. Dignity reinvents contemporary poverty tourism. New York City’s Hunts Point, a fixation for Arnade and the place that pulled him into this project, is the introductory scene, and the setting for the first series of photos, but Arnade doesn’t only tour and collect his souvenirs. He acknowledges the failure of American institutions, as reported to him by those suffering from it. One can imagine the exchanges that must’ve taken place between Arnade and the subjects of his photos: people shooting up, or women wearing fishnets. Was Arnade the fly on the wall, assuring people, “Pretend I’m not here” as men and women hunt for a vein to slide a needle into, or as parishioners in Bakersfield pray in church? Sometimes, his subjects pose for him, whether in the street, at church, or outside McDonald’s.
Once you look, you can’t divert your eyes. This book isn’t about Trump, as the author asserts, but the reality of the gap between the front and back row in not only opportunity and privilege but values. The series of photos captured within churches, ones constructed from closed strip malls and houses, are accompanied with the struggles of those in the other chapters: drug abuse, poverty, familial strife. What separates Dignity from other documentations of American poverty is that it accounts for the role of worship, an act that is often considered anti-science and naive by the front row. God isn’t only a feature of these people’s routines, but a central, motivating factor that saves many of America’s poor. Most notably, a woman Arnade spoke to in the Bronx asks to be described as “a prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.” Many people he spoke to describe having been lost and hopeless before being saved. One could imagine how these statements could be disparaged by those who know better, the people who tell the “thoughts and prayers” crowd to shove it.
It’s critical that trauma and injustice be photographed, whether in war or in American slums. All the time encounter stories that miss the emotional appeal of photo, or that stop short of capturing the disturbing details that force us to pay attention to the drug and suicide crisis. Dignity gives a face to the back row that suffers as statistics that the more fortunate can turn their eyes from, because numbers aren’t flesh and blood with pockmarked faces and track-marked arms.