A new book project with its motivation seated in a painful personal past, Only God Can Judge Me, by Bruce Gilden looks deeply into the faces of women afflicted with unfortunate personal circumstances, such as homelessness and addiction. In the faces of these women he finds mirrors of his own mother’s difficult past. Here, in his own words, Gilden explains why this body of work resonates with him. Only God Can Judge Me was published, 2018, by Brown’s Editions of London.
As I traveled through America, I noticed the same pattern in many cities: in the bad areas, I saw women, generally young and generally pretty who were drug addicts – and I’m talking serious heroin or crack addicts. They were a shell of themselves, and many of the women that I spoke to confessed that they had resorted to prostitution. This struck me very deeply, bringing back memories of my youth. In all of these women, I see my own mother – ravaged by pharmaceutical drugs, alcohol and her lifestyle. I found myself drawn to the areas where these women hung out, and I began asking them if I could photograph them.
This was the genesis of my Point of No Return project, which later became Only God Can Judge Me. For me, this project is very cathartic because it took me my whole life to finally be able to deal with what happened to my mother. She committed suicide and I didn’t do anything to help her. It’s something that’s always been in the back of my mind, embedded in my subconscious. What happened to my mother resonates deep into myself, and to this day I still cry over it. Only now do I find that I have the courage to face it. In the portraits I take of these women I find echoes of my mother’s story.
When I’ve spoken to women with an addiction, I don’t proselytize, I ask them, especially the young ones, “Boy, how do you get into a position like this?” I say, “I know you’re gonna stop when you wanna stop, but you know you’re really playing a losing hand. But I guess you know that already.” And, of course, they go on because they’re not listening to me. The drugs overtake everything. I understand that.
I’m glad I’m doing the project, not only because it’s something that’s very close to me but also it’s something that has to gain visibility. It’s always interesting when people say they can’t look at these faces. But now just imagine that you have to look at your mother’s face.