By the time I got to Bani Walid’s hospital, it had already been liberated.
Graffiti covered the walls outside and rebel soldiers were stepping onto a hanging carpet of Moammar Qaddafi, placed on the floor, so anyone entering the hospital would have to step on the dictator’s face.
I was alone at first, walking through the corridors, looking for things to photograph. This was my third trip to Libya during the war and nothing struck me as unique or different about this place. I’d seen hundreds of scenes like this. I rarely lifted my camera.
As far as I know, I was the only western journalist seen on the ground in Bani Walid that day. People I met were surprised. Not because I was there. But because nobody else was.
Bani Walid, two hours south of Tripoli, was not expected to fall so quickly. It has good natural defenses, fortified high on a hill overlooking a valley below. Loyalist snipers had no problem holding rebels back. They could hit them from up to a kilometer away. Rumor also had it that Qaddafi’s son and heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, was leading the defense of the city, boosting the morale of loyalist brigades.
Much of the attention–military and media–was concentrated on Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown and the place where he would make his final stand. The National Transitional Council had announced that Sirte’s fall would mark the end of the war, regardless of what happened in Bani Walid or the whereabouts of Qaddafi and his family.
I had reached Bani Walid through the owner of my hotel. He was also a rebel, and had been driving ammunition back and forth to his friends on the front. He had asked me why there were no other media there that day. I did not have the heart to tell him–his friends were bleeding there–but the truth was Bani Walid was not a priority for the media.
First of all, it was dangerous. On top of the loyalists’ advantage, the city was spread out, big streets, with buildings far apart, which didn’t provide much cover. Which meant, for example, if you were a western security adviser and your job was to evaluate the risk of sending a crew there, why would you? Sirte was more important and far safer. More importantly, to a photographer, Sirte was far more photogenic. Up close, street by street, urban bang-bang makes better pictures. I shot the fighting there myself a week before. The only reason I went to Bani Walid that day was that it was close to Tripoli and my man at the hotel could take me there in a few hours.
So I lied. I just told the hotel owner I didn’t know why there were no other western media in Bani Walid.
Inside the hospital, there were health posters on the wall. They reminded me of those I’d seen in the hospital in Yifren, an Amazigh rebel town in the Nafusa mountains. They advised women to breast feed and there was an illustration showing how. Some conservative-minded rebel had gone around with a black marker pen and censored the nipple and the breast. This time, though, the building was still fresh. It had only been in the hands of rebels a few hours at most and, other than the carpet, I couldn’t see any details worth shooting. Until I reached the mortuary.
At first I didn’t really understand, but a stranger handed me a face mask and I took it before crossing the courtyard into the morgue. I realized why when the smell hit me. There were maybe ten bodies inside and they had been there for days, flies were everywhere, some of them didn’t look human, just lumps of dark stench.
It doesn’t matter how hard you think you are, how professional, when the smell of death hits your nostrils like that, you have to retch.
It took me three trips of going in, going out, retching, going in again, before I managed to make a photograph of a body. Young guy, rebel, flies around, but not too gory for newspaper picture editors. I went outside to retch. There was a group of young rebel soldiers in the courtyard. They walked into mortuary, came out and fell to pieces. They just broke down. Crying. Men, soldiers, revolutionaries, weeping, screaming, punching walls.
I spoke to a young man. The young dead rebel body inside was their friend. One of their brigade. He’d been missing for days, they didn’t know where he was, or what condition he was in. Now, they knew.
A bearded man tried to boost morale, standing in the middle of the courtyard he shouted “Martyr, martyr,” and fired his Kalashnikov in the air. Other, older, men joined him. The young men just stayed put, crying.
The older men went back into the morgue wrapped up the body in a sheet and took him outside. The body was placed on the tarmac and the older men gave him a gun salute, flashed the V for victory sign and shouted the takbir: “Allah akhbar, Allah akhbar.”
After a few minutes, the men placed him on the back of a Toyota. He was taken away to be buried. In 48 hours, Qaddafi would be dead and there would be other things for these young men to talk about.
In the wake of the euphoric end to the fighting, it’s easy to overlook the cost of what these soldiers have seen. This was a revolution, sure. But also a civil war, with winners and losers. Their sacrifice has inspired their fellow Libyans–the heroic fodder from which a new national narrative can be constructed. But the next chapter–the one in which the country will either move forward, balancing justice and reconciliation, or slide into chaos–will surely be the most important.
I got a lift back to Tripoli that afternoon with some young rebels. They were quiet, somber. They played Feiruz, a Lebanese singer whose mellow sound is customarily played in the morning in the Arab world. I asked, why Fairuz in the afternoon?
After Bani Walid, they said, they wanted to listen to something calm and mellow. We stopped in a field so they could fire off some rounds with their rifles. I had never really understood that practice before, but did now. Unlike me, these guys had no cold beer or girlfriend waiting for them back home. Firing the gun was their release. It made them feel powerful again, reminded them that they were once boys and now were men.
I asked what they were going to do now. One had worked in a factory before the revolution said he would start again soon, maybe even tomorrow.
I asked if that would be weird. He said he wanted to. Besides, he told me, he had his gun.
“I can always come out again if my country needs me.”
Your correspondent sits shivering in a shabby spectacularly overpriced hotel room. It’s cold. Before him crouch broken heaters, huddling together underneath a fan spinning violently overhead. Your humble correspondent needs the fan, because he chain smokes. That’s okay, he tells himself, because there’s little else to do. He’d open up the windows and let the smoke out, but they’re covered. This, he’s told, is a security precaution. But they’re covered with Styrofoam. Which, he thinks, doesn’t seem very secure.
His sister sends him an email warning him not too sleep with local women, it’s frowned upon. He does not think this will be a problem. Outside, the sidewalks shudder with angry generators and American drones hum in the sky.
Work? He’s been trying. Filing, badly, for a website and occasionally shooting what he can for who wants it. But no one wants it and he’s running out of bad ideas for the website. He severely underestimated how difficult reporting news in Iraq would be and how uninterested most of the world would be in it. To report a story, he has to hire or steal a driver from a real journalist. The former’s expensive. The latter, awkward. He’d rather spend the money self-medicating on warm Heineken. And drugs. If he could find some. Every now and then he leaves to be bored with other bored journalists. They sit in compounds trying to think of things to say to one another. Like what smells smell like. Who mispronounced this, fucked up that. Maybe, they should fire their evening chef. Their day chef’s doing just fine. It’s a strange fraternity. A cocktail of altruism, love, dependency, mistrust, cruelty and paranoia. The journalist keeps himself to himself. He’s not sure what to tell these people.
Baghdad certainly looks like a war zone. What with all the soldiers, guns, sunglasses and helicopters above helping throw the grime around. All create a city of dust and checkpoints. And waiting. Everyday waiting. For news. For traffic. For the generators to kick back in and for the power to turn back on. For the soldiers to finish walking by with their ADE 651. Their bomb divining stick. The most dangerous thing in Iraq. The reason why more than 120 people were killed on Tuesday morning.
The journalist, however, has not placed himself in any danger. He thinks. It’s hard to tell. All the threats here are invisible. Or obscured by Styrofoam. Even Tuesday’s bombings had an air of routine to them. A familiarity. A distance. A sterility. No fear here. Not much left. The most dangerous thing the journalist does is drink Iraqi tea, hot wet sugar. Or eat Iraqi baklava, cold hard sugar,. Oh, and the smoking. The incessant constant chain smoking. He’s never smoked so much before. And he’s smoked a lot. He’s smoking now in fact, thinking of better cigarettes.
9th November 2009.
I wanted it to be miserable but New York had never looked so good, at least to me. Light covers the city. Warm eternal light. All around is lingering beauty.- falling leaves, autumn breeze, and New York dresses on New York hips strutting proudly through the city. A farewell march, their swansong, one last seductive swagger before being banished to the closet for winter. So long sweetheart, I’ll miss you. A man crosses Smith Street smiling. Warmly, gloriously, dementedly and with drool sticking to his chin. He’s happy. And I don’t blame him. Today is a beautiful day.
The taxi heads down Flatbush, windows open. Like the parting drinks, loved ones’ dinners and final stoop side cigarettes, I’m trying to savour the taste before getting to that plane. JFK is minutes away, London, hours. But I’m not going home. I think I’m leaving it.
London seems foreign. A foreign capital of a foreign country of foreign values. New York made me. Time to leave.
“C’mon folks, pick a line” says the well-dressed moustache to the passport-clutching mass before him, “It’s New York, don’t be shy.” Yes. Don’t be shy. Be bold. Remove all fear and doubt. Be you. But stronger than the you first thought you could be. Go forth. Succeed. Succeed, I said. Or fail. But fail spectacularly Goddamnit! Kicking and scratching your whole way down. C’mon. Let’s go Yankees. Fuck the Yankees. All of it. It’s all New York. And I’ll take it to go. With me. Wherever that may be.
Welcome aboard Sean. Hello. You’re small, Sean, even for a two-year-old, but I have a feeling you’re a loud one. You’re a screamer, aren’t you Sean? I can tell by the way your screaming in my ear. It’s okay. Let it out buddy. I may even join you.
Wake up, we’ve landed.
Forgotten sights, a cold grey dawn. Forgotton smells, spilled milk on the inside of a Vauxhall Corsa. Welcome back.
I step into his office and humanity explodes. People everywhere. Moments everywhere. An ocean of smiles, frowns, scowls, and yawns drowning the sidewalks. Since 1981, he has worked these Midtown streets and he’s walking them now as he always has, a step or two faster than everybody else, with an eye on everybody else.
Then he sees her. Twenty yards in front of him, a face-lift in the crowd. A slow moving cartoon of a woman with heavy make up and a shock of peroxide in her hair. She looks like old money and, despite the cosmetic surgery, old-age. A character. He moves towards her, fast, biting his bottom lip with concentration. She’s close now, a few feet away; he steps to the right, looks up and pauses as if lost in thought. She’s about to pass his shoulder. And then it happens. He attacks. Turning and swooping into her face. Right in her face. FLASH. She gasps, his camera clicks and a hand shoots to her startled heart.
“I’m the one who shudda jumped,” he says to me, all Brooklyn, with a mischievous grin and a nudge to the ribs, “you see her?” By now she’s gone, staggered halfway towards Broadway, and on we go. Through the crowds of Midtown we continue, him shooting strangers, up close, with a Leica in one hand and a remote flash in his other, me taking notes. He is Bruce Gilden, street photographer and member of Magnum, the Aston Martin of photo agencies. From the slums of Haiti to Yakuza drinking holes of Japan, Gilden has worked around the world receiving some of photography’s most prestigious awards. He has just finished two potent non-fiction essays, one on white supremacists, the other on foreclosures and a dreadful decaying Detroit. Yet his work is by no means widely acclaimed.
His aggressive, insistent and invasive approach to New York street photography has left many street photographers, who often pride themselves on being invisible, aghast. Also, he uses a flash. An act that venerated Magnum founder, Henri Cartier-Bresson, once equated to “rape.”
Take a tour through photography magazines, forums and blogs and you’ll find some pretty divided opinions on Gilden and his flash-in-your-face-Midtown-street-photography-style that continues to drive his fame, or depending on your point of view, his infamy. Some call him a “jerk,” a “thug,” and a “very nasty person.” This anger has even seeped into his very serious and very sensitive work on Detroit. He’s a man who “only sees the uglyness in people and i out to exploit them” [sic] according to one online commentator following the release of Magnum’s multimedia Detroit foreclosure story. Just take a look at his work, says David duChemin, photographer and creator of forum Pixelated Image:
“Black and white, garish images of people reacting to an aggressive man with a battered Leica. His subjects look like characters, which is what he calls them, and I just don’t get much more from it other than he’s got his own agenda, no regard for the opinions of others or an ethic of his own.”
“I don’t give a shit, okay? I’m as crazy as the day is long,” Gilden says as we turn the corner onto 50th Street. He’s 5 foot 11 inches but walks through people with the presence of a much larger man. A giant. “ Look, I’m good at what I do, if you don’t think I’m good that’s your problem, okay?” Gilden tends to speak fast, without delay, and I stumble writing and keeping up. He slaps a palm to my chest. “Careful. We don’t have the light,” we wait, a truck passes, we carry on.
“I’m good. I worked hard at it – that doesn’t mean worked hard equals ‘your good’- I have a niche. And the niche is me.” He pauses for a second, maybe less, and grins. “ One time I had a fist fight. Right here. I had a fistfight. I’m very territorial, y’know, I don’t move out of people’s way if they’re not paying attention. ”
We walk on. “I gotta tie my shoelace,” Gidlen announces to the street. He hands me his Leica and flash, ties a single knot and then he sees one- a man in a suit, a couple of bodies away. He’s tall with a shaved head and blue eyes, Gilden steps to him. FLASH. No response. The suit doesn’t speak, pause, or blink. He just carries on walking as if nothing happened. “Most people are relaxed,” Gilden says, “ like, 99 good and one bad, the one bad, y’know, he makes up for the…” FLASH. A lady in a red wig and blue anorak, he comes in from her right momentarily trapping her against a clothing store, then continues. She carries on without looking back. “The only people who get mad,” he says, “are those with something to hide.” Gilden believes he can tell who somebody is just by looking at them. Which helps, because he doesn’t just shoot anybody. He may shoot black and white, but it’s colour he’s after. Characters, he says, like himself.
A former editor at Magnum who has known Gilden for years believes that Gilden is a magnet for these characters, they come out for him, it seems, they’re drawn to him. When Gilden works the street he has the air of a wise fisherman- he even dresses like one, with a khaki canvas hat and a vest with deep pockets for his gear- and can spot a character through a crowd 50 people deep. It’s all in the details, he says, “You can’t teach that.”
He speaks with an attention to details too, splitting up sentences with a few words to add colour and definition to the make up of someone, even family. Whenever mentioning his wife, for instance, he’ll say “whose French.” Like: “Since I met my wife, who’s French, I’ve been reading a lot.” Or “my wife, who’s French, laughs at me when I write something,” and “my wife, who’s French, says I have no patience – she should know what patience is when you have to walk the fucking streets.”
Gilden stops to shoot a silver-haired-reptilian-Dean Martin-type-character; he’s as broad as a vending machine, wears a sharp looking suit and has a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The flash didn’t go off and this guy’s too good to let go, “Hey! I gotta get one more,” he tells him. “Be serious, you’re smiling! Don’t Smile. The lounge lizard obeys. FLASH. “Thank you.”
Once Gilden finds a character he likes to get in close with his 24mm lens and shoot however he can. It wasn’t until he was in his 40s, he says, when he figured out why he takes pictures the way he does: “It’s to get back at my father, he says, “because if somebody stuck a camera in his face, like I do with a flash, he would have knocked them out.” Gilden’s father- 5 foot seven inches, 220 pounds, thick grey hair, big cigar and pinkie rings- was “a mafia-type,” he says, “a Brooklyn racketeer.” He was an overbearing figure, verbally abusive, and Gilden, rough and rugged on the high school sports field, would feel trampled and lacking in confidence at home. Spectres of his father appear in Gilden’s photographs – heavy men in hats, bruisers smoking cigars, Yakuza in Asakusa, skinheads in London, tough guys – Gilden sticks a camera in their face, with a flash. But a photographer should not dwell on such things, he says, “if I was conscious why I was taking photos the whole time I wouldn’t be any good. It would be… Oh God she’s ugly. Right behind you. Can imagine that coming at you? You’d have nightmares.”
Today, Gilden may be 62 – “and a half” – years old, but he pounds the gum-spattered sidewalks of Midtown with the forceful assurance of teenage rebellion. It’s his neighbourhood, the street, and he’s playful and mischievous speeding through the crowd, FLASH, FLASH, FLASH, always keeping an eye out for his characters- “She’s good, and him, the little chauffeur gnome. Guy was a gnome…
…This guy looks like he has a fake suntan on. Yellow. Either he got that or hepatitis. Get that man to a Doctor!” Gilden talks fast and walks faster. His wife, who’s French, says that was one of the first things that attracted her to him and his colleagues and friends continue to be amazed by his energy and bombast.
“Now I gotta tie my other shoelace,” he says, “ I think I don’t tie my shoelaces so I gotta take a rest a rest every once in awhile, nah, I’m just stubborn, I don’t like people telling me what to do, y’know? Let’s go this way.” We turn onto 5th Avenue. “My wife, who’s French, is always telling me to double knot my shoes. She’s not the first one, Greg, my assistant, he tells me too. The mother must be glad if she brought any boy home.” Come again? “The ugly girl.”
Fifth Avenue is good for Gilden. Almost every corner has characters and possible characters for him to shoot – eccentric businessmen, swine flu preventing face masks, square- shouldered security guards, tourists toppling under point and shoot cameras set to the improbable task of capturing sky-scraping skyscrapers- it’s all for him. Gilden continues to photograph and no one seems to mind, often people smile, because it’s hard not to find Gilden endearing. He’s likeable. A colleague who was with him for his recent white supremacist shoot in Arkansas says that there too people responded to him openly and affectionately even after Gilden told them he was a Jew.
A chubby guy on a cycle rickshaw sees Gilden’s Leica and strikes a pose; he’s wearing a silly hat and plastic fairy wings. “The guy’s an angel,” he says walking straight past him. “Fattest angel I ever saw.” Gilden doesn’t shoot exhibitionists or posers; he’s looking to capture something genuine and sincere with his photographs, there’s purity to his work, a strong human element. His recent images of white supremacists have this quality too. The photographs aren’t of caricatures, but people. Even when they are disturbing they are human and compassionate. One image in particular comes to mind, a blonde-haired boy in uniform baring his teeth while a domineering bespectacled patriarch claps a heavy hand upon his shoulder.
“Guess what? My shoelace got open again,” he tells me. “Y’know what? You could do this whole article with the interruptions of shoelaces. You could have that instead of chapters, with little shoelaces as an interlude. I think that’s cute. But, hey, don’t listen to me it’s your article.”
We’re standing on the corner of 57th Street and 5th Avenue talking about England. “You got a bunch of assholes in England, that’s for sure,” Gilden says while a homeless advocate asks for change behind a white picnic table. “ I get on better with the English than the French, because they’re rougher y’know? Not that you don’t get rough French… One sec.” He’s spotted something and moves fast. I look up to see three men strolling south. At their head is a short solid tree- trunk of a man. He has the look of a tyrant, with dark despotic eyes and an expensive tailor-made suit. A minder towers over each of his shoulders, both very tall, both very serious. International gangster types. Bad guys. Villains. Gilden heads straight for them, almost running. He knocks into a woman on the way, she gasps. “Sorry,” he says, eyes still focused on the task ahead. He takes a few quick steps to the left. And he’s there. FLASH. Heads turn. Hairs stand up.
“You are not allowed,” says a voice in an unclear accent. It’s the tyrant. He steps to Gilden with an olive fist clenched to his side.
“I’m allowed,” Gilden flatly tells him. The tyrant steps closer, inches away. “You are not allowed.” Gilden doesn’t move. “I am allowed, “ he shoots back. One of the tyrant’s minders, a tall slick 40-something-Tony Curtis- looking-individual approaches telling Gilden in a different, but equally indistinguishable, accent that he cannot take pictures. Gilden ignores him. He speaks straight to the tyrant, “Do what you want. Get a cop, I’m allowed,” he says firmly.
“You are allowed?” the Tyrant says, reaching into his inside pocket. “Okay, I will show it to you which way you are allowed.” He pulls out a cell phone.
“Let’s do it,” Gilden tells him.
“I will do it,” the tyrant says, “ I will arrest you.”
“Yeah? DO IT!!” Gilden shouts. The Tony Curtis character raises his hands. “Don’t make publicity,” the tyrant says in a strained voice, “I will–”
“–You’re ALLOWED TO TAKE PICTURES,” Gilden snarls over him with all the righteous indignation he can muster. “Don’t tell me what I can do in this country.”
“YOU’RE RUBBISH!!” The tyrant yells.
“Oh! I’m rubbish,” Gilden says, “well, YOU’RE WORST RUBBISH THAN ME.” The tyrant spasms and lets out a short and incomprehensible bark.
By now, the other minder, a soaring Egyptian looking man with a neatly trimmed moustache, is walking towards Gilden like he’s about to do something. Gilden doesn’t move and the minder is almost on him, but then something happens. He hesitates. He looks down at Gilden, his Leica, his fishing hat, his untied shoelace and a flash of confusion crosses his eyes. Who is this guy? Gilden stands his ground. The minder steps back. Irate and still clutching his phone, the tyrant retreats to giving Gilden a warning before walking away: “Where you will step, I will following.”
Gilden isn’t paying attention. He’s turned to the small audience of perplexed onlookers that has gathered around him, “Oh I’m rubbish he says. I’m rubbish.” The Tony Curtis looking minder has stayed on He asks Gilden:
“Why can’t you just be cool and say ‘okay, I don’t have to take the picture’?”
“Okay, I apologise,” Gilden says, “but I apologise to you and not to him.”
“But — ”
Gilden speaks over him, “Look, I don’t like being called rubbish okay?”
“But,” the minder says, “because you confront him he gets upset.”
Gilden smiles. “This is the street,” he says.
Calmly the minder raises a finger to make a point, “ I know you have a right, but he doesn’t like to have his picture taken. You should respect that.” Gilden nods in agreement.
“If only I would have known that before,” he sighs, “I wouldn’t have taken his picture…. But, hey, I got his picture already so what can I say?” He shrugs and there it is again, the mischievous Gilden grin. The minder is silent. “Look,” Gilden tells him, “I’m an artist type, not a newspaper guy. I don’t care who he is, what he is.”
“I see,” the minder says, “you want to capture the image when nobody knows it. So you take it by surprise.” Gilden nods a little taken aback that this guy gets it. “If you would have asked him first,” the minder says, “he would have had the chance to say, no, he doesn’t want to.”
“Nah. That’s not my style.”
“ I know,” the minder says. They part ways. Gilden almost gets a smile out of him.
We’re walking really fast now, heading towards Times Square. “Fucking guy, I was getting mad,” Gilden says. He’s full of vigour, taking a lot of photographs, “when I get mad I get better,” he tells me. “I work from negative energy,” FLASH he’s crouched low on the sidewalk shooting a tall balding man with hunched shoulders.
“Can’t believe that fucking guy called me rubbish,” he says to me standing up. “You’re allowed to photograph on the street okay? It’s an art form okay?” It’s been a few minutes since his encounter with the tyrant and he’s still riled up. “That kind of guy could be a pain the ass for me though, because he calls up two heavy guys, they could beat the living shit of you,” I stop to glance over my shoulder. He puts a hand on my arm,“ I’m looking for him, don’t worry.”
“Nice camera!” says an arty middle-aged man in tortoise shell glasses. He’s wearing a vintage camera around his neck.
“Yeah? You too –whadda ya shoot?” Gilden asks.
“Nouns,” the arty man replies.
“Nouns? What the fuck are nouns?”
“People, places and things.”
“Woah! You’re too slick for me,” Gilden smiles, “Good luck to ya.”
The adrenaline hasn’t left us yet and we’re both still thinking about the tyrant, we should be crossing over 48th street, but Gilden is preoccupied. He stops.
“Why do you think I do what I do? Why do you think I stand up to people like that?” I struggle to answer. “Because they think they are better than everybody else and I fuck em where they breathe. They think they have the money and they think they can get away with it. That’s what annoyed me about the foreclosures thing – the government, the banks, it was a total scam and we let them get away with it y’know? I don’t mean America, I mean the world. ” He looks me in the eye and jabs a finger into my chest, “I have that sense of morality okay? People say I don’t, but I do.”
He keeps jabbing his finger to make his point, “I don’t look to soften it okay? I look to punch into the fucking solar plexus because that’s who I am. If I was weak they would have gone nuts on me. But I’m not weak. I’m 62-and-a half-years-old, I have an irregular heartbeat, a double hernia fractured knuckles…. And I hate people like that. Okay?”
Okay. I believe him, I do. We walk towards Times Square, where visual noise meets human traffic. Pigeons swoop, vehicles honk and policemen swagger. Outside Hotel Renaissance an old man steps from a limousine in black tie. Gilden nudges me, “Let’s see if he gets mad. Ready?” FLASH