Ravaged by drugs and alcohol, these women reminded the photographer of his own mother

Bruce Gilden is no stranger to controversy. In fact, many people in the photography world either love his work or hate it; he can be an incredibly polarizing figure. Over the years, his work has been variously lauded for its originality and boldness or criticized for being exploitative. He is also a very prolific photographer, has published numerous books and has exhibited widely; he is a member of the world famous and legendary photo cooperative, Magnum Photos. Gilden’s latest offering, “Only God Can Judge Me” continues in a vein he has been plumbing now for most of his career. But this time, the book feels a little bit more personal for him.

Gilden has long worked aggressively and up close. For most of his career, he has been roaming the streets looking for characters that jump out to him and then freezing them with his flash on black-and-white film. But in the past few years, he has turned to color and has moved closer to his subjects. He has said that as he gets older he gets even closer to them. “Only God Can Judge Me” brings together stunning portraits he made of women caught up in prostitution and drugs. Yes, it is an often-mined subject, but Gilden tells us straight off the bat that the series was inspired by his early memories of his mother. This connection to his earliest memories is what makes this work a little different for him.

Gilden gives more insight about his latest book in this statement:

“As I traveled through America, I noticed the same pattern in many cities: in all the bad areas, I saw white women, generally young and at one time generally pretty, who were drug addicts — and I’m talking serious heroin or crack addicts. Many of them admitted they were sex workers and in many instances they looked like a shell of themselves. This struck me very deeply bringing back memories from my youth.
In all of these women, I see my own mother — ravaged by pharmaceutical drugs, alcohol and her lifestyle — so I went to these areas where they hang out and I started asking them if I could photograph them. This personal motivation is the genesis of my ongoing project Only God Can Judge Me on prostitutes and drugs. I went back again to photograph some of these women in Overtown, Miami and I interviewed them. It’s hard to imagine how much suffering and how little hope their stories contain. We ignore them but they do exist and survive at the “other end of the spectrum” as Trish says.
I want to continue this project and attract attention to them and to what drugs did to them. It’s always interesting when people say that they have trouble looking at these faces. This can happen to anyone’s loved one. Just imagine you have to look at your mother’s face.”

“Only God Can Judge Me” is now available from Browns Editions and can be purchased here.

(Bruce Gilden/Only God Can Judge Me/Browns Editions)

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