Tragedies in close-up

21st February 1997 at 00:00
Bruce Gilden is pacing the streets of Bath in a loose outdoor jacket and a pair of Nike trainers. A slim Leica camera in one hand and a flash in the other, he scans the oncoming shoppers like a pickpocket, looking for a face with a story behind it.

As a shifty-looking middle-aged man in a belted gaberdine mac walks towards him, Gilden shapes to go one way, sending the man on to the pavement to avoid him, then backtracks a step. In one movement he stoops to the left and, rising, clicks the shutter release, sending a burst of flash into the man's face. "Thank you," Gilden exhales in a thick Brooklyn accent. The victim, briefly startled, doesn't stop. It's an in-your-face, paparazzi style of photography: the whole manoeuvre takes less than two seconds - more like a boxer's uppercut than the work of an artist, you might think. But his Haiti show, at the Royal Photographic Society in Bath, tells a different story.

Bath is not his kind of place. Haiti, the volatile former French colony that shares a West Indian island with the Dominican Republic, is right up his street.

The pictures, none of them cropped, combine strong graphic compositions with a powerful sense of character and story that doesn't seem possible at the speed he works. They reflect the paradox of a country that is 80 per cent Catholic but 100 per cent voodoo; that has turned its back on the police state of dictator "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son "Baby Doc", but can't quite shake off all of the mindset.

Thus in one shot a suspected Tonton Macoute (the Duvalier regime's feared secret policemen), his hands tied with hand-made rope and held in praying position, is being brought to the US marines, who have been sent in to stabilise the country. On the way his captors are humiliating him by slapping and pushing their thumbs into his head. Though the taunters wear modern T-shirts and vests, their arms create a maypole effect, suggesting a timeless ritual. But the blur created by Gilden's favoured technique of using fill-in flash and slow shutter speeds keeps the sense of movement.

Gilden's subjects faint at funerals; doze without bothering to retrieve a bared nipple showing in the sun; dance daubed in animal blood and mud at a voodoo festival; lounge on the street watching the flies tickle the abandoned body of a dead man.

But there is an elegance too, Freemasons wearing their sashes and pin-striped suits to the graveyard, the swish of a poised woman's skirt as she walks. In one picture "The Yell" (see left), the two sides of Haiti come together. A woman in bright lipstick and a crisp funeral frock is falling sideways, screaming grief to shadowy onlookers. Her arm is held up by three hands - one belongs to a sad man behind her in a suit and Windsor-knotted tie, the other two seem to be playing it like a guitar.

Gilden has a Dickensian eye for larger-than-life characters and a love of harsh shadows which create a film noir style. He leaves the black edge of the negative on his prints "to keep the energy in".

The first thing people ask when they hear how he works is whether he gets punched in the face a lot. He says that he never had any trouble in Haiti but has to be more careful in New York. "It's not easy to put the camera in someone's face," he says. "But I think I'm closer to a true portrait. Robert Capa said if the photo's not good enough you're not close enough. That's been my inspiration from the start."

Until March 31 at the Royal Photographic Society, The Octagon, Milsom Street, Bath, tel: 01225 462841. Pounds 2.50, discount for school groups. Haiti is published by Dewi Lewis at Pounds 25

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