Reportage

The Controversial Mr Gilden

In Ethics, Street Photography on August 15, 2015 at 5:43 AM
Gilden has always been a controversial figure.
Vice Magazine recently published Gilden’s photoessay titled ‘Two Days in Appalachia’. Controversy followed the publication of Gilden’s photographs and Gilden’s modus operandi is yet again under question.
PhotoShelter’s Allen Murabayashi has published an interesting piece at PhotoShelter Blog that encapsulates all the protagonists involved  in the ongoing controversy.
Gilden’s work has always had an element of  ‘does the end justified the means’?
His work is raw and unforgiving not unlike the man himself.
Roger May’s questions if Gilden has empathy or indeed if that his work has a complete absence of empathy – is a good one. I hear some empathy in Gilden’s rhetoric in the way he speaks about the people people he photographs during the short film linked in the interview. Observing Gilden photographing on the streets of NY, I see him range from zero empathy and peak at a modicum of empathy. At one point he is telling a passing woman to put her scarf on so she won’t get cold then almost in the same breath commenting on another woman’s boots as “fucking ugly”. In part this displayed empathy or lack of it could be attributed to the random task at hand – street photography.
two-days-in-appalachia-0000687-v22n7-600-1435773723-size_1000Harlan, Kentucky, Saturday, June 6. Destiny, Amber, and Serenity at the Harlan County Poke Sallet Festival.
© Photograph by Bruce Gilden 
I think the comments (in the comments section below the Vice interview)​ from r​etired Social Worker Sharon Hurley a native Appalachian are incredibly insightful. They remind us all as photographers about how credible or not our documentation of people can and isn’t once our pictures are published.​ Sharon says, “His work is not reflective of the softness and peacefulness of life but of the harshness. Technically, his work is excellent and evokes reaction. Obviously, he does not care that the images he presents is not representative of an entire community whether it is in Japan, Detriot , London or Appalachia​”​.

two-days-in-appalachia-0000687-v22n7-765-1435773764-size_1000Saturday, June 6. Tammy at the Harlan County Poke Sallet Festival. © Photograph by Bruce Gilden

​Back to the video featuring Gilden: Gilden is heard saying that he finds some of his photographs beautiful. Further that if he didn’t photograph these people they would go unnoticed. Indeed, he recounts a conversation with one of the women he has photographed in the most unforgiving way. He says that she says (after he shows her the photograph he made of her) that she thinks he made her look beautiful in the photograph.
So is his work devoid of empathy? As always the question is both complicated and subjective.
And within the preceding context of complexity and subjectivity — personally — I questioned whether Gilden’s photographs leave the people he has photographed with their dignity uncompromised? Of course, dignity is also a complex and highly subjective notion. Though and said objectively most people are innately aware when they have not treated another person with requisite respect.
Interestingly, dignity and empathy are at times interconnected. It could be suggested that it is difficult to leave the people one has photographed with their dignity intact without first showing them empathy.
~JP
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