A Stark Three Decades Documenting an Uncle’s Troubled Life

The Photo Blog
Dec. 3 2013 3:24 PM

A Stark Three Decades Documenting an Uncle’s Troubled Life

Marc Asnin
Uncle Charlie and his “Saturday Night Special” in his bedroom at 23 Troutman St., Brooklyn, N.Y.

Marc Asnin

For 31 years, photographer Marc Asnin documented his maternal uncle, Charlie Henschke, creating a raw and unflinching series he edited into a book titled Uncle Charlie, published last year by Contrasto.  

It’s a journey that began during Asnin’s freshman year of college, when the photographer-nephew still felt hero-worship for his uncle and discovers the many problems his uncle faced. 

As a boy, Asnin admired his uncle and his rebellious nature: Henschke was tattooed, kept a gun in his glove compartment, and knew the streets. Although Asnin knew everything wasn’t perfect behind that façade, the complexities behind the image began to emerge as the project advanced.

Marc Asnin
Uncle Charlie at home with his hero, President Kennedy. Voting for Kennedy was the first and only time he ever voted in his life.

Marc Asnin

Marc Asnin
Charlie in the living room of 23 Troutman St., threatening to hurtBrian, his younger son, over an incident during which Charlie accused Brian of being anti-Semitic toward him. Charlie warns Brian that if it ever happens again, he’ll pay dearly.

Marc Asnin

Marc Asnin
Charlie and his new gun, which he bought off the street. Charlie says he needs it for protection from crime and drug activity on his street. Charlie’s wise-guy father, Joe, sat by the window after his stroke in 1959 and stayed there through 1969, drinking himself to no return. Charlie has said many times there is no denying the parallels between his life and his father’s.

Marc Asnin

In 1976, when Asnin was 13, Henschke stopped working because he couldn’t stand the pressure. He was diagnosed in the 1970s with schizophrenia, and he struggled with an addiction to Valium. He also had two failed marriages, the second of which produced five children, Henschke’s Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn was sinking deeper into poverty, and the crack epidemic blighted his neighborhood in the late 1980s. During that time, Asnin said Henschke relied on Social Security, lived in a tenement, and had a series of relationships with women who had drug problems. “He told me many times that the reason he never did [hard drugs like crack] was because it would rob him of the one thing he had, which was his intellect,” Asnin recalled. Having watched his own father spend 10 years drinking himself to death, Henschke himself rarely, if ever, drank after his wife Carol left him. 

The book, which features Henschke’s commentary on his own life, is startlingly honest. Although Asnin warned Henschke that he might not want to share specific parts of his life, Henschke refused, saying, “No, that’s how I feel, and I want everyone to know that, including my children.”

Marc Asnin
After his second marriage dissolved, Charlie started a new relationship with Blanca, a woman 25 years younger than him. In this photo, Blanca is smoking crack.

Marc Asnin

Marc Asnin
"So I met Blanca in, I think, 1988—that’s depressing, six or seven fucking years with her," Uncle Charlie said. "When Blanca showed up, it helped me get out on the street, but it didn’t cure the panic disorder. It helped me to socialize and meet other people, which I had not done since 1970."

Marc Asnin

Those children ended up hating Asnin and the project, while Henschke himself is quiet about the result. “I think deep down he’s very happy about his book. He’s never going to express that to me—that’s not who he is—but he’s definitely happy,” Asnin said.

Part of that happiness came from having a bit of celebrity status since the publication of the book, such as when he goes to the doctor’s office, people exclaim, “Unbelievable, Charlie! You’re in The New Yorker!”

Asnin, who won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in September for this work, is exhibiting images from Uncle Charlie through Dec. 28 at Galerie la Petite Poule Noire in Paris.

Marc Asnin
Charles, Uncle Charlie’s oldest son, kissing his father before bed.

Marc Asnin

Marc Asnin
Uncle Charlie and Carol, his wife of 19 years, shortly before she ended the marriage and moved out.

Marc Asnin

Marc Asnin
Uncle Charlie hanging out with his two daughters on the stoop of 23 Troutman St. soon after Carol left him to raise their children.

Marc Asnin

Marc Asnin
Uncle Charlie getting an examination at Woodhull Medical Center for treatment for his eating disorder. While the majority of those who suffer from eating disorders are women, about 10 percent of men also do.

Marc Asnin