Chris Arnade may have returned to the roots of what has always been most important to him.
He grew up hardscrabble middle-class, where the choices were between new clothes and car repairs on the one hand, and a good education, on the other. He went on to become a successful Wall Street trader, but in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash left that career behind to try and capture the stories of downtrodden but hopeful men and women across America.
I’m not saying that this was courageous or that his life today is exemplary. (You can draw your own conclusions about that.) But there may be ties between where he came from, how he climbed so far up the ladder, what he realized once he got there, and how he’s chosen to live and work ever since. The moral arc we’ve taken since childhood is worth considering—particularly its pull on us to return.
When I came upon Arnade’s story recently, the facts of his past seemed to make powerful suggestions about the ways he’s decided to set his priorities today. Of course, it’s always perilous to select and then connect up the historical dots to your current realities, because hindsight can prove almost anything when it tries hard enough. But the values that you acted on as a child are always in dialogue with your current priorities, and it seems to me that Arnade’s story demonstrates the gravitational forces that are always at play in this kind of correspondence.
Arnade’s family stuck out in its corner of the rural South because of its well-known views on civil rights. His father was a Jewish academic who had fled Nazi Germany, while his mom was a socialist activist. Arnade played sports in high school and learned how to handle a gun, but recalls being ridiculed as a n—lover. Unlike the world of his family, is hometown of San Antonio, Florida was conservative, Catholic and a bit more down-on-its-luck.
His parents raised him along with six other siblings. While neither big families nor limited possessions were unusual in San Antonio, the Arnades used their limited resources to take their kids on far-flung research trips that opened them up to the wider world and ultimately to send all seven to college—opportunities that were almost unheard of in their community.
Beyond his family’s politics and commitment to education, Arnade’s upbringing made him something of an outsider in another way. He was neither his family’s youngest nor its oldest child. As he said later:
“Being caught in the middle you end up something of a watcher. You never fit in entirely.”
It was almost like being an immigrant, caught between his old country and his new one.
Arnade went to college at Johns Hopkins and ended up getting a doctorate in particle physics. He parleyed his comfort with numbers into a Wall Street job, selling emerging market bonds. Arnade made a lot of money and for the first time had a comfortable life, but several disruptions were soon to follow.
In the years between 2008 and 2012, the stock market crashed, the banks that lost billions for regular people were bailed out by the federal government, his mom (who had her own views about his career) died of cancer, his proprietary trading desk was closed under new regulations, and his fellow traders were complaining that Obamacare had raised their taxes.
It rankled Arnade, and during this time, he seemed torn to his co-workers. One reported that he’d leave work to take half-day walks, reporting back later that he’d taken pictures of poor people and those who had recently arrived in America. This is how Arnade describes that transitional time in a piece he wrote for Quartz:
“I had a very good life. So did the people around me. . .
We were the front-row kids, and we felt we had done everything right. We had studied hard and gone to good schools. Most of us had parents who supported us. Our schooling got us good jobs that allowed us to live in nice neighborhoods.
Many of us were geeks, educated in the sciences, and steeped in clever rational arguments. With a PhD in physics, I was part of the wave of rocket scientists that changed Wall Street.
Buttressed by our math, our spreadsheets, our data, and our obsession with the rational, we had a confidence that grew into hubris as we entered and changed more and more industries, from baseball to finance, politics and journalism.
That hubris should have dissolved following the financial crisis in 2008. Our unchecked faith in numbers, and in ourselves, had proved disastrous. We should have admitted guilt and rethought the things we were certain about. Instead we focused on bailing ourselves out and moved along as if little had happened.
It was during this time that I started photographing New York City. I would go on long walks to escape the stress of my job in the aftermath of the crisis. I started letting my decisions be guided by unquantifiable things like empathy and curiosity rather than probability.”
When I confronted a similar career pivot, I had a refuge in the Coast Guard that was as far away for me as Arnade’s poor and immigrant sidewalks were from Wall Street. I thought about everything that was wrong with where I’d been, but never trusted enough to let my empathy or curiosity play much of a role.
With “big firm lawyer” behind me, I tried to plan my way to the future. (How much does my next job have to pay so I can cover my expenses? What values are most important to me? What do I want to be when I grow up?) My sense is that Arnade never analyzed the particles in his physics like I tried to do; his was more of a backward drift in the direction of his heart.
The job that gradually emerged for him was documenting the stories of poverty, addiction and finally, wherever there was a forgotten corner of America struggling for dignity. To find these stories Arnade travels the back roads, sleeping in his van or cheap motels. His wife was alarmed at first by his change of focus and loss of income, but she became his collaborator as he posts his visual chronicles on his Flikr account, in essays created for The Atlantic, or in videos about the aspirations of Trump voters.
Arnade seemed to be looking for the truths that had been masked by his upscale life.
In a 2013 interview on NPR, he recounts how one homeless junkie told him that do-gooders often “offer to buy me lunch. But very rarely does anybody ever ask me who I am.” So Arnade started asking.
After one conversation, he asked the call girl how she wanted him to describe her in the picture he had taken. “As who I am,” she said. “A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.” Encounters like this challenged his outlook. “I naively thought that I would see the same cynicism towards faith that I had, and I saw the exact opposite,” he said. Since their optimism seemed revelatory, he thought that it might say something to others too.
According to The Wall Street Journal story where I first learned about him, Arnade’s new career “is an attempt to reconcile his multiple identities.” Maybe. But it certainly includes a return to what he thought was most important to him as a kid. In that NPR interview about his new job, Arnade says: “This is more comfortable to me. This is what I grew up with.” And in what was described as a view from the back row interview, he had this to say:
“I often use my favorite example, which is McDonald’s. I grew up in a white working-class town, so for me, it’s kind of rediscovering what I already knew. But McDonald’s, which is viewed with contempt [by the front row], is actually a center of community, it’s where people gather. McDonald’s is not a joke.”
Of course, his kind of route is never a full circle. Everyone changes along the way, and the back row isn’t known for writing in The Atlantic, The Guardian, or being interviewed and profiled as often as he is. But Arnade has become a kind of megaphone for the values of his heartland, where residuals of respect, reverence, and outrage over injustice remain. It’s not only what he knew and felt was important back then, but his processing of it by that outsider’s perspective in all the years since.
Moral foundations are first established in childhood. They don’t determine what follows, but are always a part of the continuing conversation that conscience plays inside our heads.
Most people find it hard to look at themselves from a critical distance, decide what they should or should not do, and go on to act accordingly. What does my basic decency require me to do here, they wonder. One way to liberate the conversation from the confusion that surrounds it is to ask: what would the child in me do?
—just like Chris Arnade might be asking.