Eighteen years ago, I began shooting a 20-year documentary about my Uncle Charlie and the rest of my Brooklyn family. This no-holds-barred photographic epic concerns a unique family, my own. It’s a story of two generations and how problems move down the line. We see how my uncle deals with his burden of mental illness, and how he passes that burden to his children.
Charlie never gives them the love they need. He doesn’t hug them, he doesn’t nurture them. He brings crackheads into the house. Everbody suffers from Charlie’s schizophrenia. Charlie and his children live with mental demons, with drugs, and with poverty. We watch these forces wreck Charlie and his family.
I’ve been documenting one family for almost two decades. How else can one trace the long-term effects? We’ve had plenty of prosperity in America, but also twenty years of poverty, schizophrenia, desertion, AIDS, drugs and death. Welfare expenses are at a 30-year low, but where is our level of pain? The elder must care for the younger. No generation has bootstraps big enough to pick itself up over its upbringing.
My interest in photographing my uncle grew out of the deep respect for family that my parents taught me. My mother, particularly, nurthered in me a feeling of special connection to her brother, Charlie, who also is my godfather. Instead of turning away from his mental illness, years later, when I became a photographer, I was inspired to confront and deal with it.
Charlie is a chronic schizophrenic. In 1980, he was diagnosed by Dr. Michael Daras, who described Charlie as “withdrawn subject to delusional ideas [subject to] persecutory thoughts depressed.” He has never been treated for this underlying condition. He is one of the 2.2 million Americans suffering from this neurological brain disorder. He has been unable to hold a job since March 10, 1976.
Carol, Charlie’s wife, left him in 1986, leaving him with their five children. Charlie took on the huge task of raising them alone. We see Charlie and his kids struggling to remain a family. We see foster care, abandonment, hospitalization, departure, and reunion. Everyone suffers from Charlie’s schizophrenia.
Crack has been the most devasting problem for Charlie and his family. Charlie is surrounded by crackheads. Because of his own mental problems, he is attracted to drug addiction. The world of crack is a world where users and those around them suffer.
For many years, Charlie spent his family’s Social Security disability check on drugs for his girlfriend. Just as Charlie never received proper medical treatment, his girlfriend, Blanca, never was treated for her drug problem. Billions are spent on the federal drug war, yet resources for treating and preventing drug abuse are small. My pictures make that disproportionate social commitment visible.
Charlie and his kids are poor. With poverty comes poor education. Three of Charlie’s kids dropped out of high school. The cycle starts again.
Charlie’s story is important because we all have Uncle Charlies in our families, or in our neighborhoods, or in ourselves. The family, with its accomplishments and failings, is a microcosm of society. My from-the-inside documentation of one family can help guide others in charting our future journeys. These pictures can help us understand the American family that’s been left behind.