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.
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.”
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!”