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Prop trading to documenting prostitution: A banker quits for the creative life

When Chris Arnade quit his job at Citigroup last July to pursue his passion of photography full-time, he had 20 years’ experience and was working in one of the best paid roles on Wall Street – prop trading. Without those many years of lucrative pay, he never could have done it. That and an attitude toward money that's more parsimonious than that of many working in finance.

“I’m living off my savings, but I’ve never really spent a lot of money relative to my income,” said Arnade in an interview. “I drive a car with 150,000 miles on the clock, I don’t wear a watch and I’ve never felt the need to go to a restaurant where eating becomes a work of art.”

In July last year, Arnade left Citigroup to start his photography project ‘Faces of Addiction’ in the impoverished Hunts Point area of New York. His series features intimate, and occasionally disturbing, images of people dealing with homelessness, drug use and prostitution, and combines them with their personal stories. These can beharrowing and highlight the struggle of life in the slums, but Arnade’s subjects also provide touching insights of resilience and positivity.

Michael, a 35-year-old transsexual heroin addict and her story of prostitution and unsuccessful attempts to get clean, feature prominently in Arnade’s work. More positively, Vanessa, who worked the streets of Hunts Point to feed her drug habit, has now given up heroin and has a home and a boyfriend who looks after her.

“When I am clean you know what I miss the most? The excitement. The adrenaline of running from the police. It’s more of a rush than drugs,” Michael told Arnade.

Arnade still has friends on Wall Street and stays in touch with ex-colleagues, but now finds it harder to sympathise with their problems.

“There are so many unhappy people working on Wall Street, either because of a bad bonus, or perceived lack of status in the organisation,” he said. “If my homeless friends in Hunts Point can still find moments of joy when they’re living with poverty and addiction, then what do people working in banking really have to complain about?”

He left trading in part because he knew the boom years were ending. Prop trading desks were being squeezed by new restrictions under the Volcker rule, which looked to ban this type of trading by commercial banks.

“I could sense the end was coming, so I put my hand up for redundancy,” he said. “I wanted to go – I’d survived various crises working on an emerging markets desk – because the industry has fundamentally changed since 2007-08 and I no longer wanted to be part of it. I wanted to create something, not just look at my savings account grow and help the bank generate more profit.”

Arnande has a PhD in Physics from Johns Hopkins University. He and his wife had a combined income of $20k a year before he took a trading role at Solomon Brothers in 1992. “My starting salary was $103k, with a bonus many multiples of that. My boss at the time, who had worked on Wall Street for 30 years, told me that this was the only time I’d ever be happy with my bonus. Wall Street bonuses are all relative – if you’re not earning more than your colleagues, you’re never content.”

It would be easy to paint a picture of Arnande as someone who ditched greedy investment banks to pursue something worthy, preaching to those in the industry about the errors of their ways. However, while he says that working in trading was more about the “intellectual challenge” than the money, he has yet to rule out a return to Wall Street.

“I’ve done well financially, which has helped my three kids, but trading was always about a way of applying mathematical theory than just a way of making money, and I’m still fascinated by that,” he said. “I’d like to work in risk management, but I don’t think the large investment banks are taking it as seriously as they should. I think hedge funds are doing it right, so that would be an option.”

Faces of Addiction: Takeesha

Takeesha, who is addicted to heroin and has been working the streets since the age of 12, describes herself as "a prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God."

Faces of Addiction: Moses and Roy

Roy has been homesless for 22 years and lives under an expressway bridge. “Why do I live outside? Freedom. Freedom to drink, freedom to not live by the rules of others.”

Faces of Addiction: Michael

Michael, a transsexual and lifelong addict, has been something of a guide for Arnade through Hunt Point and has featured strongly in his work.

Faces of Addiction: Beauty

Beauty's mother was addicted to crack who pimped her out on the streets at an early age. Arnade says that she is different: "She smiled almost all the time, a genuine optimism driven by hope not youth."

Faces of Addiction: Vanessa

Vanessa is one of the few positive stories in Arnade's work, having kicked her heroin habit and got off the streets. She now lives with her boyfriend.

Faces of Addiction: Sonya and Eric

Sonya and Eric, both heroin addicts, live in an abandoned building with about eight others, and a cat called Moba who recently had twins.

AUTHORPaul Clarke
  • am
    10 April 2013

    THANKS! Go on observing & letting us learn. I am so glad to read your transparency & friendships with all U meet! Congtatulations, amg

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