A house with empty lots on both sides near Broadway, which was once a thriving commercial artery for the Camden-Philadelphia area
Something has gotten into Bruce Gilden. The Magnum photographer has always preferred to take pictures “close,” working not by classic fly-on-the-wall documentarian methodology but by getting so up in the action that there’s little chance anything can be lost in the distance between point A (subject) and point B (lens). But recently, he’s been getting even closer, obsessively collecting images of faces made as close as the frame will possibly allow. And the thing is, he can’t explain what the fuck has gotten into him except by reaffirming his favorite personal aphorism: “The older I get, the closer I get.”
Few photographers are more familiar with the urban underbelly than Gilden, who has spent much of his career documenting the fringes of society worldwide and “tough guys” born in tougher circumstances. So, for the True Crime issue, VICE sent him down to Camden, New Jersey, the city that was declared the most dangerous in America after it surpassed the violent-crime rate of Flint, Michigan, in 2012. There, Gilden spent time with Camden men who had two things in common: They all served time, and they all wanted to see their broken city fixed. Guys like Anthony Dillard want to bring “some industry back to Camden.” Guys like Niger Ali organize “programming for the youth.” Guys like smooth-talking Gary Frazier Jr. are running for public office, and Jermaine Wilson simply wants to bring people into the workforce. These are faces of checkered pasts, of rehabilitated presents, of the tricky shades of gray in between.
See, in Camden, your relationship to crime, whatever it may be, is an inextricable part of your identity. Posing for a picture becomes an exercise in presenting some version of not who you are but who you are not—or, sometimes, who you’re not anymore.
Homes slated for demolition in Camden’s Parkside neighborhood, near the Campbell Soup Company headquarters
Niger Ali Sr., 37, incarcerated for 15 years, now a community organizer who works with at-risk youth
Anthony Dillard, 40, incarcerated for 17 years, now makes “Made in Camden” T-shirts and sells them to residents
Jermaine Wilson, 39, incarcerated for 11 years, now a staff member at a busy temp agency that secures jobs for former inmates
Gary Frazier Jr., 38, incarcerated for three years and three months, now a political organizer who is planning to run for Camden County freeholder in November 2014
Diamond Thomas, 43, incarcerated for ten years, now throws an annual music festival in the Camden waterfront area