As I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s, Uncle Charlie was my hero, my godfather, a big, tough tattooed guy with a gun. Charlie Henschke was someone I looked up to and everything a boy in my world wanted his uncle to be. You could say I was attracted to the wise guy in him. Now, looking back, I realize it was more my fantasy than reality; he really wasn’t there for me. Then, in the early 1980s when I finally sought him out, I was shocked to see what condition he was in. Anorexic, frail and in a catatonic state, what appeared in front of me was my “dark hero.”
Thus, Uncle Charlie, who was hopelessly immersed in his life just “waiting for Godot”, became the subject of what would become my twenty-two year journey photographing him and his family. It soon was clear that my pictures were evolving into a document of their struggles with poverty, and that this poverty and pain resulted from mental health issues that had existed in our family for generations– from Grandpa Joe to Charlie—and still being passed down to Charlie’s kids today. As time went on, my project grew into a more complex collection of images, containing not only the customary photographs of birthdays, graduations, and weddings, but also the everyday and seemingly insignificant moments that make up the majority of our time and our lives…taking a drag on a cigarette in the kitchen, killing a hot summer night on the stoop, shaving in the mirror. Uncle Charlie’s dominant and oppressive personality resonates throughout, blanketing the family with an ongoing and inescapable sense of gloom. The problems of poverty that the family deals with are exacerbated by his mental illness; they become inexorably intertwined.
As my project completes its 30-year journey, Charlie, more isolated from his children than ever before, is again housebound, in his room by the window. Charlie’s oldest daughter, Mary, once told him, “You’ll wind up a lonely old man.”
Charlie says he’s never had a friend, he’s never been a friend and that his life was always a momentary thing with people. One of his famous lines he often muttered during my two decades of photographing him was, “Nothing’s changed. I’m come full circle. I’m still waiting for Godot.”
It seems I have been wondering forever who I was in Uncle Charlie’s life. Did his sister create the only friend he ever had? Was I the person he was waiting to share his life with? Why had he chosen me as the one he would open up to and share his darkest and the most intimate moments with? Why not let any of his wives, and especially, not any of his five children inside? Ironically, Charlie has never expressed what he felt about our relationship.
As for me, maybe I’m still dreaming the boyhood dream I had that he is my “big, tough tattooed guy”. So these questions remain: “Was I one of those momentary person in his life? Was a bond created between us? Was this photographic odyssey fueled by my need to figure out what Charlie meant to me?”
Did Godot finally arrive for Charlie and me?
Marc Asnin is an award-winning documentary photographer. His photographs have been published in numerous publications including Life, Fortune, The New Yorker, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, FRENCH Geo, La Repubblica, Le Monde and Stern. His work has been exhibited in museums and galleries in the United States and Europe: MOMA Baltimore Museum of Art, Blue Sky Gallery Museum of the City of New York, MOSCOW MUSEUM OF MODERN ART and is in several permanent collections, including the National Museum of American Art, the International Center of Photography, the Museum of the City of New York, the Portland Museum of Art,and the Zimmerli Art Museum Schomburg Center. His photography has received numerous awards, most notably the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, the Mother Jones Fund for Documentary Photography Grant, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.