Bruce Gilden’s shallow, narcissistic work and methods, thankfully come into the limelight. I respect Stacy Kranitz’s self-awareness and self-confidence to have written about it:
The past few days have been hard,” wrote Kranitz on Instagram on June 7th. “I have been on assignment with another photographer, Bruce Gilden. He and I are at odds with the way we make our work. I watched him make portraits and aggressively enter my shot to get his own, while telling me ‘this is my shoot, you are just here’ I listened as he said disparaging things about people, I listened to his dissatisfaction with people being to [sic] ‘plain’ and late last night I could no longer stand by and continue to feel good about being bullied. He humiliated me in front of a group of church goers and I feel that I may have taken a stand at the wrong moment. That I was not being considerate or mindful of my surroundings either. I don’t hate Bruce or his work but I think turning people into what you want them to be, turning people into ‘self-portraits’ of yourself is complicated and dangerous especially in a place with a history of extraction.
Gilden’s is a group of near hyper-competitive, hyper-masculine, and over-self-obsessed generation of photographers who have horribly influenced the entire photography community in many ways. His blather, boosterism, bombast and bulls**t has for too long been taken as something interesting, amusing, and frankly, voyeurishly fascinating. It isn’t. Its a bore. He is a bore.
But of course, ‘clickbait’ VICE loves his stuff because its voyeuristic – the people he photographs are done to exaggerate, or highlight, or manufacture them to appear ugly, shocking, deviant, demented, distorted, laughable, sick, scary – i know people will be angry that i may say this, but the fact remains that he photographs the shockingly different, the bizarre, the mutated faces and we love looking at them because of these very characteristics. he captures our worst nightmares so that we can then laugh at them. or remind ourselves that we at least look normal. Lets be clear: this is pure upper class voyearism, and Gilden is a purveyor of goods that excite the curtailed, limited and unimaginative minds of the rich and comfortable. This is the ‘journey’ into the ‘dark reaches’ our own worst nightmares, and the way Gilden ‘creates’ the people he captures – looking for extremes, the shockingly, the bizarre, the damaged, is laregely to appease an audience that wants to laugh, be amused, to gawk and stare in disbelief. Gilden’s work does what once traveling circuses – with their The Bearded Lady, The Snake Man, The 8-foot Nubian Monster side shows used to: they seduced us with the deviant, and titilating. Naturally, Gilden struggles to find the faces he can transform into ‘freak shows’ and works really hard to find the, and he reaslise no irony, or hypocrisy, in the fact that the works he produces are not for the people he photographs. They are for those who are looking for some entertainment, and have the time and leisure to indulge in it.
As Roger May asks:
No amount of contrived language, heady MFA-speak, or artistic vision can make up for any of that. I don’t care what agency you work for. In the end, it’s the people who allow us into their lives that matter. People aren’t theories. We have no feedback from the people pictured. Will they receive copies of the magazine so they can see how they’re composed, framed, and displayed? Was it made clear who the photographers were on assignment for?
Bruce Gilden – a man who for the last 20 years has just been performing himself – surrounded by acolytes – and increasingly cuttnig himself off from the actual work around him. He sees only himself in all that he surveys, and keeps coming back with the same image again and again and again. Never wondering. Never asking. Never questioning. Never opening to something new. VICE has exploited Gilden’s circus performances before (see: http://www.asimrafiqui.com/tsh/?s=bruce+gilden). This entire method of working – of trampling past people’s lives, individuality, history, dignity, complexity, struggles and sorrows, while blathering on about your own self-importance, and your own need to ‘get’ your photo, is simply dissappointing to see and experience. Its revolting actually. It fills me with great sorrow to watch it, and even greater sorrow to see that as a community and industry, we somehow seem to celebrate it.
Of course, titilation, controversy, producing provocating works that offend and annoy, is fantastic ‘click bait’ material, as evidenced by the fact that I have now spend 15 minutes writing this post. We are driven to faux-controversies and provocations and editors at VICE are of course, producing this crap for precisely this reason: showing a train wreck produced by a train wreck is a near guarantee of a successful media piece – it generates gossip, bitching, complaints, and that is all this is really about. And of course, this comes to the photo editors – the one group of people in the photo industry who are rarely seen or criticised for their choices and their intentions. Why did the VICE editors chose Gilden – the most callous and exploitative of photographers – to go into a vulnerable, poor, marginalised, demeaned, dehumanised community in the first place? What nonsensical justications did they offer themselves as they made this choice? Or, did they laugh as they prepared the brief, and gaffaw with joy at thought of how Gilden would tear through this community, and find the ‘freaks’ that he so loves to find? Did they chuckle with glee at the possibilities such a incompatible mix would create? I have a feeling that they did. The train wreck they had hoped for, actually happened!
Photojournalism seems to be stuck in fear. Increasingly, it seems to want to show that which a minority of rich, comfortable, banal middle class and/or wealthy people want to see, or think they see. Michael Shaw was sensitively noticed this in recent piece he wrote called ‘Hyper-Capitalism and The Pictures of Our Time’ where he pointed out:
More and more, I’m seeing wealth and power — in specific photo stories, and even more so, in the increasingly random presentation of news photos — as not just a recurrent theme, but as connective tissue. I often talk about the editorial nature of news photographs, as presenting their own commentary — just doing it without words. If hyper-capitalism is becoming the issue of our time, however, I’m tempted also say that more and more images, especially in these random news photo galleries, are presenting a moral counterweight.
In fact, one can go beyond this and argue that more and more, the perspective that photojournalists and photo editors are taking when speaking about world – devastated by an economic depression, continued destruction of social programs (euphemistically labelled ‘austerity programs’), destruction of the comments, erasure of democratic spaces for debate, massive layoffs, and growing destruction of national sovereignity, they are adopting the prejudices and proclivities of the well-to-do classes. We are seeing a wealthy person’s idea of the world we live in – the idea that there is no other way of being, that the poor are poor because they are weak and have no discipline or ambition and so on.
We are more likely to see photographs of the behaviours, preferences, corruption, pettiness and cheap materialism of the ‘corrupt’ rich, than a detailed, nuanced and structural view of the struggles of the poor. And even when the world is spoken about – whether it is about environmental destruction by industry (falsely referred to as ‘climate change’), or democratic abandonment (as in Greece), or the growing economic marginalisation of communities (false referred to as an ‘economic crisis’ when in fact we know that it is a financial markets fiasco based on theft, greed, lies, nepotism, collusion, corruption, cronyism, pay-offs, and gangsterish back-office deals that mislead millions and stole their wealth), the structural realities of the causes of the problems are strenuously avoided. We write as if the world can only be what it is, and that there are no real reasons for it other than inevitability. More and more, photographers are just going out there and coming back with merely photos. They rarely speak, and they dare not question. We can speak about economic inequality, but never point the finger to specific policies that have encouraged it. We can speak about the destruction of Detroit, but never hold accountable the politicians and corporations that colluded in its destruction. We can speak about immigration, but never point the finger at the deals that rely on it and encourage it. Its as if we just want to see the world as a series of ‘in the moment’ pathologies.
And this way of seeing the world is also an editors choice. And our media is a corporate, elite-run media. Our journalists, and photojournalists, are members of a certain class. And speak for a certain class. And it is a class that is uncomfortable with the hard realities of its delusions, and the dark sources of its comforts. Today this is strikingly clear in the way politicians like Corbyn in the UK and Sanders in the USA, have been mocked and attacked by mainstream media. The desire to protect and preserve our privileges in intense. Works such as Gilden’s feed into these desires and prejudices. They say nothing, but they show that from which we must protect ourselves.