Iconic Image: Bruce Gilden on Two members of the Yakuza

Iconic Image: Bruce Gilden on Two members of the Yakuza

By Rachel Segal Hamilton IdeasTap 14/08/12

For this month’s Iconic Image, we hear from acclaimed street photographer and Magnum member Bruce Gilden. Bruce reveals the story behind one of his best-known shots and tells us why he likes photographing mobsters…

The guys in this picture are Yakuza – Japanese racketeers. 

This photo was taken in 1998 in a coffee shop in Ginza, a rich area in Tokyo. I had wanted to go to Japan since 1972 when I saw a wonderful show called New Japanese Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Twenty-five years later I got two grants, one from the French government and one from the Japan Foundation, so I wound up doing a book

Someone introduced me to their friend, who worked with them. I had to have a translator, a friend of mine who is French but speaks Japanese, because they didn’t speak any English. We told a few stories. My father was a tough guy so I learnt you don’t ask too many questions. They were lighting a cigarette so I asked, “Can you hold that please?” to make sure I got a good shot. 

I took about five or six pictures. I used a Leica M camera with a 28mm lens and a flash. I had a feeling it could be good because the subject interests me but also because it was close and strong and they’re powerful looking. This is one of my favourite images of my life. And it’s my opinion that counts, not everybody else’s! For me, a good picture has to work across the frame – that’s number one – and number two it has to have a strong emotional content.

At the time I was also working on motorcycle kids. I wanted to follow them until either I died or they died because they’re interesting. They’re also gangsters – or on their way to [being] gangsters, they’re only 17 or 18 – but the translator lady I had helping me made a big mistake so that was the end of that one. I’m interested in tough guys because of my father. And I relate well to them. If you know any real tough guys, let me know!


Bruce’s advice for young photographers 

Follow your heart. Don’t listen to what anybody says to you but you have to be able to appraise your talent. If you know what you want to photograph and you work hard and it’s in your soul to take pictures of something that you’re passionate about, you have the chance to be pretty good.

Be stubborn and strong-minded. It’s not easy because you may not have any success ever or you may not have any success until you’re 45. If I look back on myself when I was a kid – I always thought I could beat everybody. That’s being tough inside. It’s like they say: tough times don’t last, tough people do.


More Iconic Image:

Peter Marlow

Martin Parr

Steve McCurry


Bruce Gilden was talking to Rachel Segal Hamilton.

Image: © Bruce Gilden / Magnum Photos.

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