I wasn’t in the mood to listen to anyone, especially other bankers, other academics, and the educated experts who were my neighbors. I hadn’t been for a few years. In 2008, the financial crisis had consumed the country and my life, sending Citibank, the company I worked for, into a tailspin stopped only by a government bailout. I had just seen where hubris—my own included—had taken us, and what it had cost the country. Not that it had actually cost us bankers, or my neighbors, much of anything.
I was in the habit of taking walks, sometimes as long as fifteen miles, to explore and reduce stress, but now my walks began to evolve. Rather than setting out with some plan to walk the entire length of Broadway, or along the length of a subway line, I started walking the less-seen parts of New York City. Along the way, I talked to anyone who talked to me. I used my camera to take portraits of people I met.
What I started seeing and learning was just how cloistered and privileged my world was—and how narrow and selfish I was. Like most successful and well-educated people, especially in New York City, I considered myself open-minded, considerate, and reflective about my privilege. I read three papers daily, I watched documentaries on our social problems, and I voted for and supported policies that I felt recognized and addressed my privilege. I gave money and time to charities that focused on poverty and injustice. I understood that I was selfish, but I rationalized. Aren’t we all selfish? Besides, I am far less selfish than others. Look at how I vote (progressive), what I believe in (equality), and who my colleagues are (people of all races from all places).
When I first came to Hunts Point, I was determined to be respectful. I knew that HBO had done an early and salacious documentary called Hookers at the Point. Other documentaries had likewise focused on the drugs and the sex work, not on the lived realities of the majority of the residents. So I spent most of my time talking to and photographing the bike clubs, the pigeon keepers, the graffiti artists, and the workers from the nonprofits. My focus changed during a rare, quiet moment in the industrial part of Hunts Point on a Sunday afternoon. The truck traffic was light and most of the shops were closed. Takeesha was standing alone by a trickling fire hydrant, washing her face. She was working, wearing thigh-high faux-leather red boots and leopard-print tights, waving at every car or truck that passed by. She yelled to me, “Hey, take my picture!” When I asked why, she said, “Because I am a sexy, beautiful prostitute.”
Over the next half hour, she told me her life story. She told me how her mother’s pimp had put her on the streets at twelve. How she had had her first child at thirteen. How she was addicted to heroin. I ended by asking her the question I asked everyone I photographed: How do you want to be described? She replied without a pause, “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.”