In the Shadow of Power: Poverty in Washington, D.C.

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Two silhouetted figures seen through doors.

Teenagers in their cells at Oak Hill Youth Center, a juvenile detention center for D.C. youth. On November 28, 2005, an 18-year-old confined in Oak Hill died after a brawl with fellow inmates. The correctional center has a reputation for bad management, poor living conditions, and drug use.

June 2005.

© Kike Arnal

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People sleeping in front of an illuminated building.

Homeless people sleeping on a Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk near the National Gallery of Art. They are warmed by the heating vents of large buildings nearby.

August 2003.

© Kike Arnal

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People sleeping under a theater marquee.

Homeless people sleeping at the National Theatre, a national landmark, located only few blocks away from the White House.

November 2004.

© Kike Arnal

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Men viewed through a chain link fence.

Homeless men enter the night shelter on Irving Street in northwest D.C. Access to this shelter starts at 5 p.m. and men have to leave before 9 a.m. the following day. To be allowed inside, the applicants must undergo a search for drugs and weapons at the door.

October 2004.

© Kike Arnal

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A group of teenagers outside of a limousine near the Cathedral.

Students from the exclusive National Cathedral School arrive in a limousine to attend the school’s Christmas party.

December 2004.

© Kike Arnal

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Men working on a road.

A construction crew works on a street close to the Capitol. Washington, D.C. is experiencing rapid gentrification.

October 2003.

© Kike Arnal

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Homeless people in front of a statue.

Homeless people at the Daniel Webster Memorial, close to the central and trendy neighborhood of Dupont Circle.

October 2003.

© Kike Arnal
Kike Arnal

Kike Arnal is a still photographer and videographer based in New York City. Originally from Venezuela, Kike has covered stories in the Americas, Asia, and Europe. His photographs have been featured in the New York Times, Life, and Mother Jones, among other leading publications. He has directed and produced video documentaries, including Yanomami Malaria, a film for Discovery Channel about a malaria epidemic among scattered populations of indigenous people in a remote area of the northern Amazon. Currently, Kike is completing a book of photographs illustrating the social contrasts and complexities of Washington, D.C., and beginning a video documentary about life at a D.C. hospice.

Artist Statement

Kike Arnal

I first came to know Washington, D.C., during an assignment in 2002 to photograph the city’s decaying public library system. The problem, I soon realized, was part of a much larger pattern of urban neglect, and the next year I started an in-depth photographic study of Washington. The poverty I encountered in many of D.C.’s inner-city neighborhoods reminded me of the marginal barrios back in my home country of Venezuela and elsewhere in South America. As an outsider, it was stunning to see such conditions in America’s capital, perhaps the most powerful city in the world. While its monuments and government halls are icons of U.S. supremacy, the homelessness, violence, and poverty that exist in their shadow reveal another America, one of economic inequality and racial disparity. 

With a population of roughly 550,000 people, the District of Columbia is a small city by world standards. But it is a city of extremes, of great power and severe deprivation. Washington has the country’s highest rates of teen pregnancy, infant mortality, and HIV infection. Over 20 percent of the city’s residents, and 30 percent of its children, live in poverty. 

Washington’s explosive growth during the past few years contrasts starkly with these statistics. With more affluent people flooding the housing market, long-time residents have been forced to move to surrounding communities outside the city, such as Prince George and Montgomery counties in Maryland.  In too many cases, families have wound up on the street with no place else to go. As in most international cities, Washington encompasses a growing gap between the haves and have-nots. 

Many Americans and international visitors alike seem to have an incomplete understanding of Washington, a center of global influence that has failed many of its own communities. No doubt the situations I have documented can be found in nearly any major city, but in the seat of power of the richest nation in the world, such images are all the more troubling.

Kike Arnal, September 2006

Moving Walls is an annual documentary photography exhibition produced by the Open Society Foundations Documentary Photography Project. Moving Walls is exhibited at our offices in New York, London, and Washington, D.C., and includes five to seven discrete bodies of work.

Since its inception in 1998, Moving Walls has featured over 175 artists whose works address a variety of social justice and human rights issues that coincide with the Open Society mission.

Are You a Photographer?

Prospective candidates for inclusion in Moving Walls should check back in March 2014 for details on the next call for submissions.

Plan a Visit

The Moving Walls 21 exhibit is open free-of-charge to the public from January 29 through October 3, 2014.