Bruce Gilden is known for the shock flash photography that every budding street photographer watches with awe on Youtube. For many photographers who aim to observe without being observed, it can feel as though Gilden has little empathy for his subjects.
Yet when Gilden presented his work at the Martin Parr Foundation, I was soon to realise that there was far more depth to this photographer than is often portrayed in online discussion.
Gilden spoke of the connection between his difficult childhood and his work, explaining how he drew on that background when deciding how to portray his subjects and projects. He demonstrated great empathy for those he photographed, and I got a real sense that he knew the backstory for every photo and every person. Gilden spoke about how he was trying to highlight and expose the lives of those who come from backgrounds similar to his own, that this is a depiction of life on the streets of those cities and not an attempt to belittle or make fun of those he photographs.
Selfie with Bruce Gilden, November 2018
When asked a question about his use of flash on the street, Gilden was frustrated by this “obvious” question and staunchly defended himself and his working practices. Was this a necessary question or was it posturing? The book”Face” demonstrates how he has taken the style from the street and used it to highlight people who wouldn’t normally be featured in a magazine or commercial setting. I would be more inclined to ask that question of those who imitate this style for likes and shares on social media.
The problem that Gilden now suffers is that he will forever be associated with pushing a flashgun in the face of unsuspecting pedestrians. Is it possible for him to present his work without having to defend this single aspect of his method? I fear not.