Bruce Gilden Takes Street Photos Like You've Never Seen Before
JAPAN. Asakusa. 1998. Two members of the Yakuza, Japan's Mafia. The Yakuza's 23 gangs are Japan's top corporate earners. They model themselves on American gangster fashion from the 1950s.
Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven't heard of it, chances are you're familiar with its images, like Robert Capa's coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr's very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum's members are selected by the other photographers, so becoming a member is a gruelling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.
Bruce Gilden is most famous for his New York street photography. These days, that term might conjure up the idea of plonkers with DSLRs taking photos of Supreme-clad youths posing on street corners. But Gilden's signature style of in-your-face street portraiture reveals far more about the world we live in than that. He's taken photos of everyone from NYC locals to Haitian hurricane survivors to Japanese Yakuza members. We spoke to him about having thick skin, the state of modern America, and why Haiti is still his favorite place to shoot. You can see more of his work in VICE here.
VICE: "Street photography" is a term that’s become overused these days, and its meaning has changed somewhat. How you would describe what you do? Is that a term you're happy with?
Bruce Gilden: You know the Fifth Amendment? I plead the Fifth Amendment: "I can’t answer that question on the grounds that it might incriminate me." Anyway, I’ve been called—and I would call myself—a street photographer. But, in reality, what is a street photographer? Does that mean anything that’s taken or done in the street? To me, street photography is where you can smell the street, feel the dirt. Maybe that’s a bit of an unfair definition, but that’s what I feel.
I think it’s a very urban thing for me: my style is street photography all the way through, but are my pictures of Haiti really street photography? Even I have trouble defining that as such. But maybe they could be, because it’s about style. I can get really parochial about this. A good photograph for me is one that works in the frame and has strong emotional content.
HAITI. Port-au-Prince. Cemetery. 1988.
Your style of photography is very up-close and personal, which I imagine could cause problems. How do those dangers and risks compare to those taken by other photographers who are, say, embedded in a warzone?
Well, look, when you’re embedded somewhere—or you’re allowed to be somewhere to take photographs—it’s always easier in some respects. People are mistaken about one thing: the closeness. If you work close and have a flash, that doesn’t mean that people are going to get more or less upset at you than if you were 12 feet away. You need a good bedside manner. What I mean is that you have to be comfortable, you have to know yourself. I look everybody in the eye. If you weren’t comfortable and you’re ten feet away and weren’t using flash, someone could look at you and say, "Wait a second, that guy’s taking a photo of me and he’s sneaking it!"
People assume something that isn’t always correct. Now, I’m close to people, I use a flash. Sometimes I’m so close that people don’t even think I took their picture—they’ll say, "He didn’t take a picture of me, did he?" But the thing is, as far as having problems, you can have a problem whenever you raise your camera.
So you don't run into many problems?
I haven't had that many because I’m comfortable in doing it. Having said that, you always have a little fear in you: somebody could physically attack you. It’s not easy to lift a camera and take pictures of people who you don’t know. You don’t know how they’re going to respond, and that’s true whether you’re ten feet away or three. Maybe he’s walking with his lover and he doesn’t want a picture of him because his wife might see it. You never know.
Now, having said that, I play percentages at everything in life. If I feel the percentage is on my side, I’m comfortable. If I feel they’re not on my side, I’m not comfortable. For example, seven or eight years ago I went to Lima, Peru. I went on the street in one barrio and there was nobody about. I left. I never took my camera out of the bag, because I knew in two minutes it was very possible that someone would be coming down the street with a machete saying, "OK, give me your camera." I trust my gut. That doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes, but if you’re comfortable, people feel it; if you’re uncomfortable, people feel it.
1984. USA. New York City.
Apart from Lima, are there any other areas you found particularly challenging to work in?
I wouldn’t call it challenging, but a little annoying. In Paris, you’ll always have one person who comes over and gives you the, “Why’d you take the picture, why’d you take the picture?” Sometimes we’ve had cops come over. And this isn't going to a war or working where people are doing heroin on the streets—which I’ve already seen—or dealing with lowlifes, I’m just talking about ordinary people here. Parisians tend to be a little “intellectual” and it becomes a whole exercise for them, so it gets me a little flustered. What I mean by "flustered" is that I don’t have much respect for it. I just say, "OK, get a cop." I’m not going to get into a whole dialogue because, for me, I don’t agree with their premise. I do agree that you could ask me why I took a photo, but it depends how you ask me. You don’t treat me as a piece of shit; I’m not going to take it. You have to have a tough skin to be a street photographer.
That makes me think of your project in Japan with the Yakuza. How did you become familiar enough with them to shoot those photos?
I felt comfortable taking those pictures. That was the main thing—not the access. Some of the people I photographed may or may not have been Yakuza, and I didn’t know if they were or weren’t. I took the pictures because I felt comfortable. A few times I was able to take pictures because I was introduced to a couple of people. In all my time in Japan I was only with the Yakuza for maybe five days, and when I say five days I mean an hour, maybe, per day. But I never felt threatened when I was with them.
Even when I wasn’t introduced and saw them on the street when I was alone, it felt right. I never even had to ask myself, “Should I take this picture?” For example, I went to the Yasukuni temple—the big right-wing temple that celebrates WWII. I didn’t know anybody and I was taking pictures of the right-wing political groups. Then one guy came over and, because he spoke English a little bit, asked what I was doing for his boss, who was curious. So I explained to him and everything was fine. They were gentlemen to me. Same with most of the people in the book in Japan. I didn’t know those people and I didn’t ask anything. They didn’t even enquire, they were cool.
HAITI. Port-au-Prince. September, 2011. Hut city across from the presidential palace that was first constructed by survivors of the January 2010 earthquake.
You mentioned Haiti before, which is somewhere you’ve been back to again and again. What is it that draws you there?
There are several reasons, I guess. The first time I went to Haiti was in 1984, so I would have been 38 years old. I’d never been to a country like that in my life and I picked Haiti because there was a direct, non-stop flight from New York—three and a half hours. Today, Haiti is the second poorest country in the world and, at that time, I don’t know what the ranking was, but it was the poorest in the Western hemisphere. Another reason I chose to go there is that they had a Mardi Gras and, historically, people were able to photograph there. When I arrived I remember saying to my ex-wife, "Where have I been my whole life?" because, when we were driving in from the airport, all these people were running in front of my car near the soccer stadium and I said, "Wow, this is unbelievable."
I fell in love with the country from the beginning. I love the Haitians. I’ve been there 22 times now for a total of a little over a year of my life. I just feel comfortable there. It’s not that there are shots appearing everywhere you go—you have to work for your shots, you have to think about it. There is only a certain amount of time that you can photograph around the abattoir or outside the cemetery, then you have to find something else that works for you. My last three trips to Port-au-Prince, I started to photograph the makeshift structures that people lived in after the earthquake. In the last of these three trips, I shot in color.
USA. Detroit, Michigan. March 2009.
Another project I was interested in was Foreclosures. As someone who’s spent so much of their career photographing the "everyday American," what did that project mean to you? And what do you think about the state of America these days?
At the origin of the project, in 2008, Magnum was able to get some money for eight or ten of us photographers to spend two weeks somewhere in America. We were thinking possibly that Obama’s time would be like Kennedy’s time, comparing it to the Magnum: America in Crisis book that we did in the past. At that time, I really knew nothing about foreclosures, even though I'd done a two-day story for the New York Times on a guy who would buy houses from homeowners whose properties were underwater.
I was going to go to Miami and do work on the Jews, the Cubans, and the Haitians, but my wife said to me, "Why don’t you do a project on foreclosures?" So we looked up where one of the highest rates of foreclosures was, and one of them happened to be in Fort Myers, Florida. So I went to Fort Myers and what I saw and what I heard from the people there made me really angry at the system, because the whole foreclosure thing is totally legalized thievery orchestrated by the government, the banks, and Wall Street. Then I continued working on this project in Detroit, Fresno, California, and Reno, Nevada until 2011. I have a book on that coming out in September.
Do you ever, like some other photographers, have an agenda or a political angle in your work?
My pictures are me. Whatever I take a picture of, it’s me. It’s about how I feel and I don’t have to think about it. You’ve got to photograph yourself because, if you know yourself, no matter how different what’s in front of the camera is, you’re still going to be able to smell the street or feel the dirt in the photograph. There are a lot of things wrong with this world, and I feel that, so that’s what my pictures are about. I always liked the underdog—the guy who’s not the average person—and I see a lot of pathos out there.
Click through to see more photography by Bruce Gilden.
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