I came to the work of Chris Arnade through his work documenting the social capital of McDonald’s around the United States. In his photos and captions I saw a glimpse of a world I had grown accustomed to: the chaotic and welcoming de-facto community centers springing up in the shadows of American empire. I saw in his pictures a luminosity, a gaze that portrayed the shelter of places like the golden arches instead of mining them for cheap laughs and derision. Long ago I had decided that a mark of character in a person was if they could drink a cup of McDonald’s coffee or a single-origin pour-over with the same amount of grace and gratitude. Arnade, I could sense, was one of these people.
And yet I read his first book–Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back-Row America–with no shortage of trepidation. What he is seeking to undertake is an incredibly complex and complicated task. He sets up the book with an ethnographer’s description of his methods: Arnade makes it clear he is not a journalist, nor a sociologist. He is a middle-aged white man who left his job at Citibank to wander the worst streets of various towns with a large camera attached to his hands. He became involved in the lives of his subjects, buying them food and driving them around and taking pictures of them in various states of distress or ecstasy or boredom or peace and put them on social media–and now this book–for anyone to consume at will. He recorded the thoughts and opinions of a variety of people in what he calls “back row America,” and he writes cyclically throughout the book about the failure of the elites (front-row America) to understand the plight of those left behind in a globalized economy.
There are so many layers to how this could go horribly wrong. Arnade seeks to mitigate this tension somewhat by the lengthy introduction, but I was still on edge throughout most of the book. Without fully acknowledging the power dynamics inherent in this kind of work–crossing-the-tracks narratives–there is a dangerous pull towards arriving at a certain worldview to help process suffering that goes beyond comprehension.
Arnade has become famous on social media for a reason: the images and the conversations he routinely shares are powerful. Flipping through the full-color illustrations sprinkled throughout the book, you will see people with needles stuck in their flesh, parents pushing dirty children in shopping carts, small pentecostal churches where people raise their hands in worship, Somali boys gathered around a table at the local McDonald’s. Each picture is a story that is worth spending a lifetime trying to understand, which makes it jarring to go back to the text of the book. Arnade’s thesis is that all the back row folks really desire is dignity–they are tired of front row elites like himself (he is quick to point out) deriding and ignoring them. In certain sections Arnade fleshes out the particulars for various contexts–factories that have shut down as corporations sought cheaper labor overseas–but as a whole, real policies that systematically keep people impoverished are ignored. Instead, the images (plus the title) reinforce an idea that has already gained traction among certain communities: The problem is the elites, most of whom are liberals who would call themselves good-hearted, and how they present the working poor in the media. And one way to combat this evil is by learning to sit down and listen to each other more.
The thesis felt false to me, for several reasons. One, because it is a talking point that has been co-opted for political gain: white working-class voters, for instance, voted for Trump not because of his policies but because he promised to see them and fight for them and their anxieties. And secondly, I honestly think Arnade got it reversed: through his interviews, his descriptions of interactions with people, his incredibly gorgeous pictures, and even him telling his own conversion story of sorts–I think he fell in love with a part of his country he never knew existed. I think he was surprised by the dignity he found in the places he had always been told to avoid. I think he is on a mission to reveal to a wider audience what he himself has already been converted into: a world where the first shall be last, where the meek are already doing their damndest to inherit the earth they have been given.
Arnade enters into the same territory of some of my favorite American authors and writers. In my twenties, hungering for news from the edges of my culture, I idolized the work of James Agee, Walker Evans, Dorothy Day, John Steinbeck, Dorothea Lange, and Robert Coles, all authors and photographers who observed and wrote–in various degrees of outsider status–about marginalized populations in the first half of 20th-century America. Their works shocked me, moved me, instructed me. And I was not alone–Lange’s photographs, for example, are at least partially credited with raising awareness about the crisis for migrant farm workers in the 1930s. These works sell, and they sell precisely to people like myself: comfortable, middle-class, well-meaning folks. And this should make more of us pause.
For every great, privileged American who sets out to chronicle poverty and loss for the mass consumption of readers, there comes a reckoning. There comes, either from the author or from viewers or perhaps even from the subjects themselves, the necessary corrective. Leslie Jamison writes movingly about the layers of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and how it is more of a confession of his own privilege than a clear-eyed portrait of the poverty of farmers in Alabama. A new book on Lange’s famous Migrant Mother uncovers layers to the picture which became the face of American poverty for decades–pointing out that the famous face was actually of a Cherokee woman born on a reservation, and that she never received the recognition or payment she might have been due for her role in the picture.
Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is in line with these works, and in the modern world pushback to his portrayal of forgotten America has followed him from the beginning, raising questions about integrity and exploitation. I think criticism of his work is necessary, and ultimately I would hope that Arnade himself would wish for a world where an outsider didn’t need to come into a community for a few hours or days to document struggles. One wishes that the people in the pages of this book did have the agency, resources, and economic stability to get their own book deals and followings on social media.
What endears Arnade to me and will make me follow his work for the next long while are the people he finds so mesmerizing.
What endears Arnade to me and will make me follow his work for the next long while are the people he finds so mesmerizing. I have met and fallen in love with similar but ultimately unique people like the ones he finds and photographs in places like Ohio, New York, Maine, Alabama, and Nevada. I appreciate how he includes the interactions where it is clear he is viewed with suspicion from the locals. One of the most moving parts of the book came in a section on racism where Arnade visits Selma, Alabama. Locals tell him “no picture in Alabama ever did a black man a favor” and that “Selma ain’t like that movie. There everyone is shown working together and putting the past behind them. But the reality is that Selma has been left behind.” This section works because it is surprising, subverting a narrative I had already crafted in my mind. The mental images I had of Selma did come from a glorified past meant to make me feel good about the present. Arnade’s shots of run-down apartment buildings and interviews with locals doing back-breaking work sorting bricks in Selma forced an inner confrontation–was I willing to listen to the actual experts, the people who lived there?
In other places Arnade leans more into the narratives that have picked up traction in conservative spaces. He has been branded gleefully as a liberal who is now being schooled by the real experts, the working-class. While Arnade offers important correctives to liberal wishful thinking, he keeps his cards close to his vest when it comes to actual policies and politics. He rightfully shoots down the idea that poor people should just move if their town is dying, pointing out that history, family, and community are important ties that the upwardly mobile have forgotten. He rightfully punctures the idea that the north is more progressive and less racist than the south. He works to combat stereotypes about addiction in his own way, pointing out the levels of pain people are in. But in this book, he neglects to delve meaningfully into the actual policies that create and uphold hierarchies, or the underlying values of the American Dream and upward mobility that indict more of us than we would like to believe.
A central question of the Bible–both the old and new testaments, in different ways–is this: who is my neighbor, and what is my responsibility to them? Writers who have shined a light on marginalized communities wrestle with this responsibility in different ways. James Agee was famously guilt-ridden, anxious, self-loathing, and tortured, convinced he was doing it wrong (yet writing 400 pages and publishing it anyways). Dorothy Day wrote to fellow Catholics about their personal responsibility for the poor, and she proposed solutions that would bring about a world where it would be easier to do good. Arnade is wrestling with this question in his own way. His solution–to listen to people–is one that he at least is taking seriously. But is it enough for those of us reading? I’m not convinced.
It is not clear where I would fit into Arnade’s worldview of back row folks and front row folks. I had access and opportunity to education but have consistently made choices to not be upwardly mobile. Because of my faith, I wanted from an early age to be in relationship with the people that Jesus seemed to be obsessed with: the poor, the sick, and the sad. For over 15 years I have lived in neighborhoods that Arnade might have driven through and photographed. I take my kids to the local McDonald’s more often than I care to admit, listening to them shriek as they scrabble all over the beat-up playplace. Our neighborhood doesn’t have many public parks or community centers–just skyrocketing rents, jobs that don’t cover the basic necessities, and the lowest-rated schools in the state. I have lived in these spaces long enough to know that I only understand this world in part, and I have the ethical responsibility to think long and hard before I project my own assumptions and worldview onto others. I walk the line between desiring to show others the reality of life on the fringes of a capitalistic society which values money over people and actually committing long-term to honor the people I live next to, send my kids to school with, and eat french fries with on the regular. Even though I have been here for years, I still remain someone who has crossed the tracks, who wanders through the neighborhood part starry-eyed do-gooder, part judgmental observer.
I am in love with my neighborhood because I am in love with the people, how resilient and complicated they are, and how they teach me how wrong I have been about the world. They have proven to me what Jesus said in his most famous sermon, the one on the mount: “blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.” After reading Dignity I went back to the photographs (which I am sure I will return to again). And I prayed the beatitudes over the people pictured within, those souls already infused with the dignity that comes from being made in the image of God.
These communities speak prophetically to us who are comfortable: they remind us that all is not well in the world.
Dignity is a good first step for those seeking out stories from the margins, but it remains squarely in the territory of an outsider exploring the complexities of their context. Arnade’s love for the people he meets is evident, but will it be enough for the reader, removed by geography, experience, and proximity to suffering? Shalom, says indigenous theologian Randy Woodley, only happens when the most marginalized in a community are flourishing. This is precisely why these communities speak prophetically to us who are comfortable: they remind us that all is not well in the world. It also brings to mind the bigger picture we are working towards, a world that is on earth as it is in heaven, where all are working together for the good of all–a distinctly Christian vision. It will take proximity and policies, it will involve entering into the suffering of another. And one day I do hope to see a world where the inherent dignity of us all is illuminated and celebrated, where the prophets among us can finally receive the flourishing they have so long been seeking.