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Photographer's Note by Kike Arnal - Introduction by Ralph Nader - Foreward by Fred Ritchin

Photographer's Note
By Kike Arnal

In November of 2002, I was hired to photograph the decaying public library system in Washington, D.C. During the week that I spent there, I was stunned by the poverty I saw in parts of the city. My limited knowledge of Washington had come from common images of the White House, the monuments, the splendid Capitol. This stereotypical view receded as I drove from one poor neighborhood to another. Some locations in Southeast Washington reminded me of the marginal barrios back in my home country of Venezuela. How could it be that the capital of the United States had sectors comparable to slums of the “third world”? As a photographer, I wondered why this jarring reality was little documented by the news media, when you could easily find stories about poverty in countries like India and Brazil, just to mention two.

In March of 2003, I started an in-depth photographic study of Washington. My original intent was to create a series of images that would sum to a more honest assessment of the city than its carefully constructed public persona. My ambition was to portray the entire social spectrum, but my attempts to access elite social circles proved to be one of the most difficult parts of the project. I also had great difficulty trying to photograph public schools and hospitals. It seemed that neither the well-to-do, nor city government bureaucrats cared to be included in a book that might illustrate symptoms of a dysfunctional democracy. It is never easy to photograph people in despair, like the woman and her children who had just lost their home, or an HIV positive man who knew that he was about to die. But I found them much more open than many with entrenched interests in crafting their own image—and that of a gleaming capital city.

During a period of three years, I traveled to Washington from my home in New York, spending several days each trip. I walked the streets and talked to residents, approached dedicated workers at non-profit organizations, and searched for ways to access and photograph shelters, hospices, schools, people’s homes. By the end of the project, it seemed to me that most of the people in Washington, both American and foreign, could not see beyond Capitol Hill, the cool bars in Adams Morgan or the fancy stores of Georgetown. Residents of neighborhoods like Dupont Circle or Cathedral Heights expressed ignorance about what life was like in quadrants of the city beyond Northwest. I also had the impression that people in economically depressed areas like Anacostia, in Southeast D.C., knew little or nothing of the amazing museums on the National Mall, of the power discussions taking place at the capital or of the free concerts and other events that usually take place west of the economic class divider that is the Anacostia River.

Photographing Washington did not endear me to the city. But I felt privileged when people opened up to me and shared their stories. I felt especially fortunate during the time I spent at Joseph’s House, a hospice for people dying of AIDS. My experiences there caused all of the others to line up in relative significance. Washington, D.C., is truly a world symbol in ways most people do not understand. It is my hope that the work in this book might expand that understanding.