Bruce Gilden & the Absence of Empathy

Bruce Gilden & the Absence of Empathy

I used to believe that photojournalism represented a platonic ideal of veracity, but this naïve notion has eroded. The cause of this loss of innocence isn’t limited to the high profile manipulation that has dogged the industry, but also the realization that the camera is nothing more than a point of view. Aim it in one direction or another. Take a photo now or later. Select one image over another to display to an audience. There is a fundamental “truthiness” to photojournalism that is inescapable.

Yet, one thing that hasn’t changed for me is the belief that the photojournalist and photojournalism should strive to practice and convey empathy. While the casual observer might believe that photojournalism’s raison d’etre is to display the news, I would disagree. News, when not being salacious, informs of us the human condition, and should ideally strike a chord of empathy within us. A typhoon in Saipan has the same devastating effect as a hurricane on the eastern seaboard. Poverty in Africa is as tragic as malnourished children in Appalachia. A win by the local cricket team is as momentous as the Knicks winning a game (rare, indeed!).

Despite the commodification of photos in the digital age, an image can still stop us in our tracks. As we’ve seen with the spat of police-related video, images can alter our perception of events and dramatically alter public discourse as it did with Eric Garner in Staten Island and Sandra Bland in Prairie View, TX. Even photos of the black-maned lion, Cecil, spurred a dramatic discussion of hunting, conservation, and animal rights.

Earlier this year, critics took the media to task for portraying the Baltimore protests as a war zone following the murder of Freddie Gray. The initial photos and video footage suggested a city at siege, and thus the media narrative reinforced a stereotype of “thuggery” in the inner city. Photos by Baltimore resident Devin Allen suggested a much more nuanced situation through his Instagram. There were protests and violence, but also vigils and people cleaning up their neighborhoods. Allen’s photography showed great empathy and allowed the audience to connect to the tragedy in a way that smashed cars could not.


Appalachian photographer Roger May recently penned an article entitled “Taking Liberties, Taking Shortcuts, and Taking Advantage of People” in which he lambasts a Vice magazine photo essay on Appalachia photographed by Bruce Gilden and Stacy Kranitz. You might be familiar with Gilden’s aggressive, in-your-face style of photography, which is as shocking as it is unflattering.

I confess to being previously enamored of Gilden’s style – if nothing else, I have respect for people who do “their thing” for years and years. But after reading May’s article, and seeing Gilden’s images shot over a paltry two days, the love affair is over. Gilden’s images are nothing more than caricatures. His essay is a visual freakshow that says little about the place or the people, and more about creating provocative clickbait. If his intent is to trigger disgust, then mission accomplished. But how to explain the introduction to his essay?

“Appalachia is beautiful. The mountains and the forests make it so. But the region’s topography has a strange effect on those who call its habitable valleys, crevices, and crannies home. Most of the towns exist, to some extent, in isolation. Sure, roads and technology connect them to the outside world, but when you’re inside, they can feel like landlocked islands. The result is that God is everywhere. That is to say, you encounter religiosity everywhere, not just because of the population’s devotion but because that devotion has nowhere to go. It’s born into the world, only to bounce off the mountains and echo right back to Main Street. The pot has nowhere to overflow, so every person in Appalachia has a relationship with God, intentionally or otherwise. You could say the same thing about these pictures.”

Following this bit of flowery prose, we’re immediately confronted with this image of a middle-aged, sunburnt woman at the Harlan County Poke Sallet Festival, which does nothing but reinforce a hillbilly stereotype. This is not photojournalism.

Photo by Bruce Gilden

Photo by Bruce Gilden

May provides counterpoint with a crowdsourced photo project entitled “Looking at Appalachia.” Steven Speranza’s photo show a place of beauty.


Andrea Morales’ image has faint echoes of an impoverished area, but also a place of transition.


Photo by Andrea Morales

Photo by Andrea Morales

Gilden has a point of view, for sure, but he also seems to have an agenda that has little to do with the people or places that he’s photographing. Instead of trying to connect the audience empathetically, he triggers a different type of pathos in me. One that has me shaking my head at yet another pathetic attempt to capture Appalachia.

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Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 12 comments for this article
  1. Gavin Gough at 11:22 am

    I’m sure there’s a good argument for there being sufficient room for all styles and approaches to photography, but when it comes to Bruce Gilden’s approach, I’m always left feeling that his work says a lot more about Bruce Gilden than it does about anything else.

    It’s always struck me as a particularly self-indulgent and selfish way to work with little in the results to justify the means.

    I’m pleased that somebody has the conviction to suggest that the Emperor has no clothes.

  2. Eric Kayne at 1:39 pm

    I wonder if anyone ever confronted painter Francis Bacon with the same argument. Of course Gilden’s photos are about himself. Why should he be restricted to boundaries set by a newspaper ethic of what photography should be and what it should mean? This whole argument is a false analogy.

    In my opinion, Gilden makes expressive, compelling images and owes no apologies. I don’t hear anyone crying the blues over images he made of the Yakuza some years ago. They’re not shown in the most flattering light either, but it’s okay because they’re gangsters? I’m glad he treats subjects with the same palette, regardless of nationality or social status. Why should he switch it up just because he’s in Appalachia?

    • Vincent at 10:10 am

      Well the difference between the Yakuza photos and these is that the Yakuza still look powerful, they are still potentially problematic in terms of eroticisation and stereotyping, they aren’t literally flattened down into a pancake of physical flaws.. with no story or character. Same with FACE set in West Brom in the U.K., the Appalachia photos are lacking can’t context , any 3 dimensions , any agency. His words about this place is based entirely on his own judgemental assumptions and does not actually show in his work at all. It falls flat.

      Photos are different to painting, they have the baggage of a colonial past of racialised, classified categorisation and exploitation. They have the burden of representation, he is not saying this is fake, he is saying this is real, these are the people , this is what they look like, how they look is who they are, their skin is their story. Essentialising them and making them into things to be categorised.

  3. Jonathan at 1:47 pm

    Here is another wonderful counterpoint to this type of work.

    It brings together visual journalists in an educational setting to learn how to tell stories about individuals, in hope of giving an insight into into what makes up a community.

    You quickly learn it’s hard to further a stereotype once you learn individuals stories.

  4. Bill Ferris at 2:37 pm

    Thank you for this thought-provoking editorial. I’ll set Mr. Gilden aside for another day but would like to comment on your position that photojournalists should aspire to convey empathy for the subjects in their images. I respectfully disagree and would argue that approaching photojournalism with this as a goal is contrary to the purpose, value and ethics of the profession.

    Approaching a shot with the goal of effectively conveying the facts or reality of an event such that your audience has a deeper understanding of the story, is essential. However, a news story is worthy of coverage regardless of the degree to which you or your audience empathizes with the subject. In fact, there are many newsworthy events where the feelings of the person or people at the center of the story are irrelevant.

    I would agree that, when covering a story where the emotional condition of the subject is relevant, the goal should be to convey empathy: an understanding of the subject’s feelings. The photographer’s feelings, ultimately, are irrelevant to good news reporting. The story isn’t how the photojournalist feels or thinks about the subject. That would be editorializing, which had a place in journalism but is not the purpose or value of reporting.

  5. Bil Brown at 2:01 am

    Dont kill the messenger.

    Your points are well taken, as is the article you reference – and being from Kentucky originally, a publisher and a photographer as well as a poet and writer, it was the first thing I thought: what the fuck are they doing??

    This is and important article, and one that I think reflects VICE more than it does Gilden or Krantz and Magnum. Why send an auteur urban photographer and a artist who’s work is interested in the suburban surreal to Harlan, Kentucky?

    Because VICE wants to exploit them.

  6. Paul at 3:58 am

    the unconscious problem many street photographers have with Gilden is that he’s a constant reminder that they lack balls. Rather than confront their own lack of a spine, they criticize his style

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  8. Joseph Gamble at 8:45 pm

    Interesting points here. Reminds me of the reaction that HCB had when he first saw the work of then Magnum nominee Martin Parr. The work seemed exploitive and less like the humanistic documentary work that had long defined the agency. Gavin Gough’s point that the photos are more about Gilden than any specific subject is well argued.

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