It’s not unusual for a child to put an adult on a pedestal, from which that person must inevitably tumble, but few have probably fallen as far as Marc Asnin’s Uncle Charlie. In Asnin’s childhood memory, his favorite uncle was a tough, muscular, tattooed guy with a gun — someone to look up to in Bushwick, Brooklyn in the ’60s. What he saw through his 18-year-old eyes was an anorexic, catatonic shut-in. Rather than turn and flee, Asnin says he was “inspired to confront and deal” with this shockingly diminished man — his mother’s brother — to whom he had the storied connection of godchild.
In 1981, Asnin was a student at the School of Visual Arts who simply loved making pictures when he began to chart his uncle’s unraveling and its corrosive effect on his wife and five kids. At the time, Asnin didn’t consciously set out to produce a project, nor did he grasp the complexities of what he was undertaking, but he felt instinctively that his camera might bridge the gap between his youthful perception and the stark reality of the person before him.
Twenty-seven years later, Asnin has amassed a raw, unflinching album of smoldering black-and-white images that tell a story of mental illness, poverty, drug addiction, profound isolation, and how the cycle continues through generations.
Asnin records and displays — with his uncle’s express permission — a bleak, painful, and sometimes excruciating side of family history more often swept away: Uncle Charlie reclining against his crack-addicted girlfriend as she sucks on a makeshift pipe; a gaunt Uncle Charlie hunched in a doorway, resting his head on the jamb, his son scowling and holding up his middle finger; a small white pill nestled in Charlie’s deeply creased palm; Uncle Charlie’ emaciated son Joe, swathed in covers up to his chin, as he lay dying of AIDS. “Time gives more intimacy. You get to see things evolve,” observes Asnin, who is represented by Redux Pictures.
|© Elbert Chu|
|Asnin photographed in 2008.|
For the most part, Uncle Charlie, a diagnosed schizophrenic, has embraced the process. When Asnin was awarded third place in Life magazine’s 1987 New Photographer’s contest, and published a page of images, his uncle saw it as a way to be heard. “He thought it would change his life, that someone might adopt him. He thought people would see what he had to put up with and what had been done to him,” he says.
Over the years, Asnin has become less critical of his uncle as he has learned of Charlie’s loveless upbringing by an abusive, womanizing alcoholic and low-level Mafia wise guy. The series captures the thematic parallels between father and son of addiction, alienation and extreme loneliness. In one image, Uncle Charlie sits in front of a window in his darkened apartment, unclothed except for socks and shoes, smoking and holding a handgun. In Charlie’s own words that accompany images in a searing 1992 Mother Jones magazine feature, he says to his children, “You are going to come visit me and see me sitting in a chair like you used to see grandpa.”
While Asnin has produced other difficult and disturbing photo-essays, including a feature on hatemongering Skinheads, photographing family presents unique and sticky emotional territory. “It has been complicated dance to keep the project going,” he says. He is currently estranged from his cousins, whom he concludes are deeply unhappy with his plan to publish a book, and embarrassed by the images, which have appeared in numerous magazines.
“It sucks that a major consequence of the project was the disintegration of my relationship with my cousins. Unfortunately, it was part of the process,” Asnin says.
While his subject lives in his own backyard, Asnin sees no distinction between himself and more geographically diverse documentary photographers. “I’m no different than [James] Natchway doing Darfur,” he says. “I didn’t create their lives, I documented them.”
Second-guessing himself is not a consideration. “I can’t look back because without the photographs, I wouldn’t know Uncle Charlie the way I do,” says Asnin, who is not interested in talking too much about how the project has affected him. “That’s just intellectual masturbation. My story is not about my trip. It’s a documentary about my uncle, his children and his past before I knew him.”
When the book is published he hopes people understand that poverty and AIDS have not disappeared and that this is a family that had social woes. More important to him though, is that the book serves as an eye-opening example of the devastation that comes from parental neglect, abandonment and substance abuse. “My goal is that some people read this book and think, ‘I’ve got to stop participating in this [behavior].’ “
Time, and the intensity of bearing microscopic witness to Charlie’s life, has made it clear to Asnin that his childhood perception of his uncle as hero “was just a fantasy.” But his gut instinct was on target when he first decided to approach his godfather through the lens. “[The project] is my deeper way of connecting with him,” says Asnin. “I will never stop photographing Uncle Charlie.”