In conversation with Bruce Gilden, by Kate Levy

[Photograph copyright Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos. Gilden's contact sheets were used in the video presented at Photoville, as well as in Magnum in Motion, honing in on the fragmented but comprehensive nature of the project.]


Kate Levy met up with Bruce Gilden at the Magnum offices in New York to discuss his most recent essay on Foreclosures, which is part of Magnum's initiative to explore notions of home across the globe. Foreclosures was also a feature at Photoville this June. Stay tuned for more on this initiative from Magnum, and be sure to check out Gilden's Magnum in Motion narrated slideshows, which offer an unprecedented glimpse into Gilden's findings in the four cities he visited during his work on this relavent and plaguing topic. 


Kate Levy: How has working on the Foreclosures project influenced your understanding of home? 


Bruce Gilden: Look. The Foreclosures work just proves what I think is true: thereʼs so many crooks, legalized thievery.

When I started the project I knew nothing. Nothing about foreclosures. I read the sports section; I read a lot of fiction books. But I don’t read anything before starting a project. I like to read about it after doing it.  When I started this project it was pretty far fetched for me because Iʼm basically a street photographer. I use my intuition.

This project started in 2008. Magnum, in a rare instance, got some money and sent ten photographers out to show whatʼs going on in America after Obama. Obama, needless to say, is a huge disappointment. I canʼt stand the guy. In some ways I think heʼs much worse than Bush. At least Bush, you knew what he was. [Obama] talks out of two sides of his mouth, he does nothing, yet itʼs not his fault. Itʼs never his fault. So we got money, Magnum, to show what was going on around America. I was going to Miami to do a project on Haitians, Cubans, Jews, and, to make it interesting, rednecks.

The project had to be done quickly. So I thought, all Iʼm gonna do is go there, maybe go to a church, and thatʼs it. I said, “Listen, Iʼll just end up shooting in the street anyway. Whatʼs gonna show the times of now? Whatʼs different than what I did all these other years, where I was actually just photographing myself? See, I actually photograph myself all the time--my idea of life. My wife said, “why donʼt you do foreclosures?” I donʼt know, I may have even asked her, “what the hell is a foreclosure?” So I looked as to where I could photograph these foreclosures. We decided Ft. Myers, Florida. Why? Because it has a very high foreclosure rate.

I get to Ft. Meyers, and the lady who worked for the New York Times was helping us, because Iʼm very bad at organizing. Once Iʼm there Iʼm fine, and I believe in what I do, but I need help organizing. So I get there, and 2 or 3 people were supposed to help me, from real estate companies, and of course they couldnʼt help me. So now Iʼm there, with nobody, a little bit of money, so we drive around. I find a community that I think is interesting. A little run down, mixed type of community. What I mean by that, is you had new immigrants from all over Latin America mostly, you had old time whites, it was not destitute by any means. You had a nice mix. It wasnʼt in Ft. Myers itself, it was just across the bridge. My assistant and I drove around, trying to find people walking. We asked around, “are you in foreclosure, are you in foreclosure?” And we met this guy; he was such a nice guy. I canʼt remember his name...George. George was the unofficial mayor there. Heʼs an ex-alcoholic, and he was at the Bay of Pigs, I think. I think he comes from a good family, missing his teeth, had a tough life. Now heʼs into the church. He introduced us to other people, and thatʼs how I got into it. The questions I asked were quite basic, because I knew nothing about foreclosure.

Detroit was the next one in 2009. 2010 it was Fresno. 2011 it was Las Vegas and Reno. And the questions got more interesting because I started to read a lot of books on it. And then I found out what was really going on. When someone talks to you, myself included, I can tell you anything I want. You donʼt know if I am lying or not. Iʼve got so many stories I donʼt have to lie. People can tell you stuff and it could be bullshit. In Las Vegas, for example, of course Iʼve forgotten his name, I have his card at home. What was it? Keith. Anyways, Keith used to work for the state of Nevada, he was the guy who heard the stories from both sides, and then he had a few problems for siding with the people on the short side, so he lost his job. I saw him in Reno. Heʼs a great guy. I should call him and thank him. 

People really got screwed. What went on in this country was legalized thievery. They used to have an act called the Glass-Steagall act. And then they took that away. When they took it away, it gave free reign--everyone could be in bed with everyone. I just finished a book called Age of Greed by Jeff Madrick. I finished it about four days ago. Madrickʼs talking about these guys who were the ones making up the credit ratings, and the companies were telling them if you get these customers for us weʼll give you an x amount of percentage. How do you have this? Then, throw in sub-prime, predatory lending, and give people houses with no down payments. There were triads, Moodyʼs gave AAA ratings to so many bad loans. People were buying them unsuspectingly. You have Alan Greenspan. Heʼs a schmuck. This guys an asshole. I didnʼt know anything about him. Then when I first went down I saw this show, House of Cards on MSNBC . He says that everyone will regulate because itʼs in their best interest, then he turns around and says that all of this is human nature and we’ll be having this same conversation in the same situation a hundred years from now.” Itʼs a joke. And how do you give the people who made these loans, their companies, their bonuses before the loan comes through? They get their bonuses right away just because they sold a paper to somebody else. These guys are making 200 million dollars a year. Some guys make a billion dollars a year, and everything is falling apart around them, theyʼre lying to everyone, yet no one is in jail. And you are telling me this is okay? It goes on again and again. Some of the solutions that people say is the banks are too big to fail, and we have to bust up these banks. But the government canʼt let these banks fail, because if we let them fail, the economyʼs really gonna tumble, all over the world. 


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Copyright Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos. 


KL: How do you bust up the banks anyways? 


BG: Well you have to put laws in. They deregulated them, that comes from the depression era, the Glass-Steagall law, and now you have to tell the banks they canʼt do it anymore. You have to re-regulate. Remember after the crash, all the taxpayerʼs money we gave them. But who lends somebody money, that much, without knowing what they are going to do with it?I had all of this down pat in my brain because I had to ask questions, but I am still fascinated by this subject. I find the books on this subject interesting, and the subject fascinated me; its like reading true crime. 


KL: Lets talk about Detroit. Everyoneʼs got this idea about whatʼs gonna make Detroit better. While you were there, did you come up with any theories of your own? 


BG: I donʼt think Iʼm like that. I deal with whatʼs in front of me, not the future. 


KL: You think about the problem, not the solution, is that what youʼre saying? 


BG: No. I get impressions, they come at me. There are a lot of things wrong with Detroit. When I first went to Detroit I thought I was in Berlin after the war. It looked like a total bombed out city. I was on a block. I counted the houses. 70 houses on the street, 63 empty. No lights at night. Hookers would go behind the houses to do their jobs. It was scary. 


KL: You were scared? 


BG: No. It was scary. I wasnʼt scared. I got stuck between 2 cars in another place. Iʼm not dumb. Iʼm street wise and Iʼm also aggressive if needed. These houses, thereʼs filth all over them, garbage on the floor, old photographs, kids who play there could get a needle. Nothing is cleaned up. A lot of people live like animals. Not all of them. This guy I met who I interviewed for the Magnum in Motion video said to me, “Why do you think Iʼm out here at 11 o clock in the Morning cleaning up leaves? I wonʼt go out in the night here. Iʼve got a rifle next to my bed.” I like Detroit, actually. Downtown is empty. Totally empty. 


KL: You go in to Detroit, do you have your camera with you?  


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Copyright Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos


BG: Yeah. 


KL: How do you make it so the people you approach with the camera donʼt get pissed off? 


BG: Iʼm charming 


KL: Have you had any run ins? 


BG: I donʼt want to talk about that. People ask me that all the time. Iʼll let it out when I want to let it out. I will say that if you know what you are doing you know what you are doing. Most people donʼt know what they are doing. You have to know how to read a situation. You have to know when to fold your cards. I trust my nose and I go by percentages. 


KL: Whatʼs the difference between a person who believes Detroit is on the up and up...because Iʼm sure youʼve met some people who were optimistic about Detroit coming back, and the people who see the full disrepair Detroit is in? 


BG: Well, maybe it is [on the up-and-up]. I donʼt know. Detroit didnʼt get the way it was now. Itʼs been this way since the ʻ60s. I was amazed in Detroit. Detroit had, at one time, the highest standard of living for Blue Collar workers in America. Whatʼs sad about it is that a lot of the houses in disrepair are nicely built houses. Theyʼre like grande dames who have faded. She puts the makeup on to cover up all the wrinkles, but it doesnʼt really work because sheʼs 82 years old now. I saw a nice house, brick, beautiful, and they couldn’t get 20,000 for that house. It wasnʼt always an ugly area. I photographed someone a few blocks away. Where Berry Gordy lived, the guy who owned Motown. I have no opinions on whether Detroit is too far down. I do that know politicians are crooks. 


KL: How did you have to change your approach, to get to know people rather than shooting on the street. 


BG: In a lot of commissions I do talk to people. You have to get X amount of photos in a short period of time. A lot of people say my houses are like my people. They are simple; there is no post-production. I like something a little decrepit. That was interesting about Fresno. Some of the developments are just quite average.[Kate takes a picture with a small, disposable Rollei-branded cardboard black-and-white point and shoot with a rechargeable flash, bought at the ICP bookstore 


BG: When you are taking a picture, donʼt be so stiff. Anyways, the developments--some werenʼt finished. Some were finished and totally empty. Thereʼs a place outside of Fresno with tons of developments. I travelled about a half hour, 40 minutes around Fresno. You have developments that are empty, developments that are partially empty, developments that were started but never completed, and amidst all of this, brand new developments that are just being built.

[See also, the work of Alejandro Cartagena, for work on this topic of unfinished suburbanization.]


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Copyright Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos


Now come on. Youʼve got to be kidding me. There is all this housing that is available. Why do you build new developments? In Detroit, people keep stealing the piping from all of these unfinished houses. How much does this cost the government and tax payers? The piping constantly gets stolen. Fuck me once, shame on you; fuck me twice, shame on me. 

[Kate takes another picture.] 

What are you doing? You are being sneaky. When I want to take a picture of someone I put the camera to my face. Iʼm not sneaky. They all ready know Iʼm taking the picture, right?  


KL: What was it like to shoot color? You have said that you see in black and white. Was it the first time? 


BG: It wasnʼt my first time; my first time was right when I started photography. But I havenʼt since then. 


KL: Why did you shoot color in Haiti? 


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Copyright Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos


BG: You want the real answer? Its because the project in Haiti was funded by Leica. I had a digital camera and now they make a monochrome, black-and-white. But then, it was a color digital camera. I also intended to do the structures in Haiti in color because I thought theyʼd be quite beautiful, like pieces in a museum, because the houses in Haiti, or temporary structures rather, are made in a couple of days, with many different types of material. They canʼt get all one material. Itʼs everything. These were like pieces that should be in an art museum. Thatʼs why I shot color. But the problem with color for me is that I donʼt want to start seeing in color. 


KL: Why? 


BG: Itʼs a different mentality.  


KL: Whatʼs wrong with having two separate mentalities you can pull from? 


BG: Well you donʼt want to do it at the same time, do you? When I see something I react, I see it in black and white. When you see something in color you think, “oh that guyʼs got a red shirt, sheʼs got a nice red this or that.” 


KL: And that becomes the trump over the actual content, or form?  


BG: Exactly.  


KL: It makes for weaker content in the pictures... 


BG: I donʼt want to say weaker pictures. It just changes the modus operandi. Maybe Iʼm a black-and-white photographer due to black and white television. Having said that, there are some things that do work better in color. For most though, this is not true. 


KL: I want to know, when you talk about loving your subjects, well, see, I shoot on the street, I get really close to people... 


BG: You?  


KL: Yeah. I do, however, use I really conspicuous camera. A Nikon D3s. 


BG: If you are three feet away from someone, or two feet away from someone, I donʼt give a shit what camera you use. Use half the size of this camera, or a truck. Whatʼs the difference? 


KL: So my question is, whereʼs the line..where does compassion meet revealing, digging out something someone hasnʼt necessarily given you permission to take? 


BG: I donʼt even think about that. Its about who you are. What inspires you. I donʼt like to take pictures from far away. I feel thatʼs like stealing. I prefer to be in your face, “I took a picture. Okay.” Because the picture I am taking, those people in the pictures are not those people, theyʼre symbols for what I see. Everything I do in that vein is who I am.  I was a good athlete, so I position the flash in the left hand, or where I have to. I have a lot of energy. I like crowds. Well, I donʼt really like crowds, I like to be alone a lot, but I like to shoot in them. I know how to do what I want to do. Itʼs comfortable for me. If you are not comfortable in what you are doing, whatʼs the point of doing it? For me, a good picture is one that is framed well, and has strong emotional content. 


KL: Has it ever fucked with you, obviously people have said to you that you are invading their space... 


BG: A lot of people smoke cigarettes, donʼt they? A lot of people smoke cigars. Maybe I donʼt like the yellow dress you are wearing. I donʼt think its how close you are, I think its how you conduct yourself. Iʼm very visual. Also, my background enables me to do what I do and have less aggravation then most people. Iʼm comfortable with doing it. You could get the wrong person, and anything can happen. I think if you are street smart though, the odds are more in your favor. Youʼd be surprised in what you can do if you believe in it, and if you are comfortable doing it. You canʼt say you canʼt do it unless you try. I know people who work from ten feet away, they get in more arguments then me, with no flash. Itʼs how you carry yourself. You have to carry yourself a certain way. Not the same way that I carry myself with my house, my cats, but confident. You have to believe in what you are doing. I believe in photography. Itʼs a tough mistress, but you canʼt fool yourself. You canʼt con yourself; you can con the world but you canʼt con yourself. You know when you do well and when you donʼt do well. You have to keep the passion, thatʼs the hard part for me. I have the passion. I have less time for bullshit. My life is geared to doing this, my daughter, my cats and my wife. Thatʼs what I like to do. The rest Iʼve cut out. I go to bed early; I donʼt drink, no drugs. You can drink and do drugs, thatʼs fine. But for me, Iʼm an athlete. You have to be disciplined. You have to want it. 


KL: Can you talk about Magnum a bit?


BG: No. 


KL: Do you feel like its a place of home? 


BG: I donʼt want to talk about Magnum 


KL: Okay. Do you feel like you were integrating yourself in the community at all when you were in Haiti? 


BG: Hey, look...Wait, this is the kind of comment that could be misconstrued so I wonʼt say it. Look, I take pictures. Thatʼs what I do. To all the people that say, theyʼre about this, theyʼre about that, they are about everything. Let them give up their cameras and spend a couple years of their life and help the Haitians. Look at all the NGOs there...oh, they do a lot. They drive around in their SUVs. None of the money gets to the people. Very little of the money given has gotten there. I donʼt beat to their drum. I donʼt care what people say. I go, I take pictures. I tell people how much I care for the Haitians. If I can help them, I will. Itʼs not my lifeʼs work. It may sound harsh but it isnʼt. I had a double hernia, but I wanted to go after the earthquake. I was in Japan doing a book, and I didnʼt want to go after the tsunami, but I wanted to be in Haiti. I identify with them. Theyʼre the underdog. I identify with the underdog. They mean something to me. Thatʼs I think is what is important.

The first time I set foot in the country, I asked my ex-wife, “Where have I been my whole life?” I knew Iʼd have a love affair with them. And I do. I donʼt go seeking things. Iʼve given prints to auctions. If the other people care so much, why donʼt they reduce the prices of their prints? Everybody cares. “I care I care I care,” until the next week, something else happens.  But in a way, Haiti has been down so long, they donʼt now what up is. Thereʼs a lot of things I can say but I won't. Iʼm in a lot of these places at night, havenʼt seen a lot of white people there, theyʼd be deathly afraid. Iʼm comfortable there. I call myself an honorary Haitian. I smile. I make people laugh there. I make so many people laugh. Thatʼs what itʼs about. Some people get mad, but I make a lot of people laugh. How many people can say that? I have a sense of humor. What are you gonna say after that one? Most jews have a sense of humor. Youʼre Jewish, right? Without a sense of humor, what do you have? I donʼt mean as a Jew. As a person, you have to have a sense of humor to walk through this world. There are a lot of bad things in this world, from foreclosures to Haiti, to so many things. People get taken advantage of. You put the leaders in and they rob; they steal from you. Who do you trust? Same shit, different faces. Iʼm a Machiavellian. Absolute power corrupts, absolutely. I read a very interesting book by an Irish guy. Itʼs a 900 page book on Africa. It deals with many countries in Africa since independence. The best dictators are horrible. The worst, you canʼt even believe. Itʼs man, you know. Its about survival of themselves, ourselves. 


KL: So the best we can do as man is to have a sense of humor about ourselves. 


BG: Yeah, but you also have to be serious. You canʼt change things you canʼt change. You can die a martyr. I mean unless you are really living it and canʼt take it anymore. Like in Haiti, I think the people have to do something, like maybe an insurrection. 


KL: What do you mean?  


BG: Raise up. But who would they put in anyway? 


KL: The people who think they can do something about something are the oneʼs most likely to become dictators. 


BG: Right. Whatʼs the difference? Thatʼs my whole point. Theyʼre the oneʼs organizing it. I might give a workshop in Haiti for 5 or 6 people. They think that they wouldnʼt believe how I work. Itʼs really different. 


KL: When you say you do a workshop, you mean teach photography?  


BG: Psychology. 


KL: Psychology?  


BG: Its a photography course, but its a psychology course.  


KL: Who do you teach? People who live there?  


BG: No. I take people with me to see how I work.  


KL: So what about teaching residents? 


BG: I think it would be interesting. Iʼve seen some of the pictures the kids do and they are really good. Iʼd need a translator. This lady I know speaks Creole, and Iʼm bad with languages. I think that Iʼd like to do that to see what the kids can do. But, thereʼs no money. So you give a kid film in their camera, how do you keep it going? Thatʼs the tough part. Any place you go, you see, there is someone from the country taking photographs. In South Africa, years ago, Ernset Cole. I donʼt know if there is anyone like that in Haiti. I think they have a lot of material there to work with. Thatʼs how I went there in the first place. People didnʼt take anything great, but they were able to take pictures there. Iʼve been to Haiti 22 times. I went there the first time in ʼ84. 


KL: The year I was born.  


BG: What month?  


KL: February.  


BG: Youʼre a pisces?  


KL: Yeah. What are you? 


BG: Iʼm a libra. Iʼm more virgo though. I had a girlfriend who’s a pisces. She was a mess.