Journey into hell: Photographer Marc Asnin captures the demise of his former hero, Uncle Charlie

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"1981: I looked for a tough guy to emulate. A mentor of the streets, I found Uncle Charlie, tough and tattooed. He was a real tough guy he epitomised everything I wanted to be. A lifetime later, instead I found my wise-guy godfather of my childhood broken, a fragment of my Brooklyn boyhood a newly found dark hero."

So reads the foreword to a newly published book, by the renowned Brooklyn-born documentary photographer, Marc Asnin. Uncle Charlie is an extraordinarily raw and intimate photographic biography of Asnin's uncle and godfather, Charlie Henschke, charting his relative's struggle with poverty, mental illness, unfulfilled ambition, loneliness, drug dependency and crime.

It is also a slow deconstruction of the photographer's youthful hero-worship of the older man. The images are disturbing, brutal, baffling and tender: Uncle Charlie sitting in the chair he spent years sitting in, at his window, smoking, isolated [pictured left]; Uncle Charlie's son, Joe, dying from Aids; Uncle Charlie, tattoos out, in bed with his gun; three-times-married Uncle Charlie, receiving oral sex from his crack-addicted lover.

Asnin spent 30 years photographing Henschke, now 72, before putting the images together in a book. It has changed his relationship with his uncle who, Asnin writes in the book, says he will see his nephew "in hell for what he's done". His cousins, the surviving four of Henschke's five children by his second wife, Carol, won't have anything to do with him.

The project began as a college photography assignment called 'Personal Expression': in 1981, Asnin was 18 and at art school in New York. He wasn't, he explains, typical of the students there. "A lot of those kids were very arty," he says. "Soft. And I was definitely this Brooklyn kid. Where I grew up… listen: I come from the opposite world. I'm creative, I'm a photographer – but I definitely don't come from a community where people were soft."

It was a community more like, as Asnin puts it, the one in the film Goodfellas – but Jewish (as Asnin's family is) as much as Italian. "Maybe Jews in Europe weren't doing the Godfather thing, but in America there's a famous book called Tough Jews, about the history of Jews in organised crime. It's the opposite of the Woody Allen thing."

He continues: "When I was a kid, all I wanted was to be a tough guy. My uncle was the icon of toughness to me. I'd go to see him in Bedford-Stuyvesant [Brooklyn] where he lived; it was like a ghetto, white people wouldn't go there. I'd get in a car with him and there'd be a gun in the glove compartment. I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

"In those days it wasn't cool to be from Brooklyn, not like today. Then, if you had tattoos, you were a tough guy, not a hipster."

But Asnin's childhood couldn't have been more different from his uncle's life. His mother, Esther – Henschke's sister – had, he says, the "chutzpah" to extricate herself from the bleak environment in which she and her brother grew up. "Charlie," says Asnin, "didn't."

"My father was a professional. He was an advertising photographer; he was a pretty tough person but he had a different image. In those early days when you were a photographer you would go to work in a suit; he'd go on the subway to Manhattan to the ad agencies in his suit. My father was friends with Wilhelmina [Cooper], a really famous model, and Eileen Ford – of the Ford modelling agency. My father was definitely, what they'd say, 'bettering himself'. In those days, you needed to shed your Brooklyn."

And so while his art school classmates were "exploring their sexuality, or whatever 'personal expression' meant to them", Asnin chose to study his uncle. "I decided to look at my uncle as someone who was poor, who lived in the inner city. Asnin, via his aunt, asked if Henschke would agree to the project. "And he was into it."

The image Asnin had of the cool, tough guy he looked up to began to unravel. "My uncle started telling me these really wild stories that I would come home and tell my mother – things about my grandfather or whatever. And my mother would say, 'Oh he's just fucked up. Don't listen to him. He just makes thatf shit up'. Eventually my mother broke down and cried and said, 'All that stuff Charlie's telling you, that's all true. But I left that behind. I built a new life'. Then the floodgates opened up."

Asnin also interviewed his uncle extensively – and Henschke's words, often stream-of-consciousness, form the text of the book. What unfolded for the photographer was "a gradual understanding of my uncle, my godfather's life. That this was an incredibly complicated, wild, interesting story. And over the years I just kept photographing him and he started telling me everything."

Henschke had a tough childhood; his father, Joe, never worked, and made Charlie and his sister Esther do illegal things for him, like running numbers – a sort of illegal lottery – and took them along while he hustled in bars. Esther, Asnin's mother, got out around 14 or 15. "She told my grandfather she wasn't going to participate in that life anymore, so it all got put on Uncle Charlie. He never had the strength to break that cord with my grandfather."

Henschke was also endowed – or perhaps just cursed – with, as he puts it himself in the book, "a class brain". He was offered a scholarship to one of New York's most prestigious schools for gifted children: his father didn't let him take it up. Instead, he got a job at a factory and gave most of his wages to his father to feed his gambling habit. He'd sometimes go without eating. Perhaps a precursor for the anorexia he developed later in life.

In 1959, Joe Henschke had a massive stroke: "And that was the end of the street for him. It was decided that my mother and grandmother would work to support the family – in those days there was no healthcare. Charlie, it was decided, would take care of my grandfather which, as he says in the book, really fucked him up." Joe sat in his window chair and drank himself to death.

"I didn't know that when I was a kid… but it became obvious after 1969, from conversations I heard my parents having, that he had to go to the hospital – or nuthouse as they called it in those days – because he had a nervous breakdown when my grandfather died. No one really discussed the whole story. The real stories didn't come out until I started this project."

And how does Uncle Charlie feel about it all, now the book has been published? "When I gave him a copy he said, 'It's everything you said it would be'. But my uncle thought that his notoriety, him being published, would change his life. That someone would buy him a house. That didn't happen. He has talked about how I'd benefited from his misery – I won the Life magazine award, I was on the Today show – and it has definitely been a theme of contention that I got more than he did."

Henschke has said he'll meet Asnin "in hell"… Is he really that angry about his portrayal? "On any given day he could have a different feeling towards me. The underlying thing though, I think, is that for 30 years he was interested because he shared those stories and, for whatever reason, it just happened to be that I was the guy he shared that with.

"I've been asked: did you ever hate your uncle? And I've said, 'Yeah, sure, all the time – but there were many days I loved him a lot'. I tried to tell his story. I tried over the years to be a good godson to him."

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