It’s fairly safe to say that photographer and filmmaker Robert Golden sees things a little differently to many people. After a long career and an enormous body of work he still brings an uncompromising intensity and depth to his subjects, and although his unique eye is obvious when looking at his photography and the films he has made, it is the way he lives his life that stands out. Shouldering a keen sense of justice he stands ready to do what is right, whether that is choosing to only eat locally sourced food where he lives in Dorset or ensuring that the young people in a film he is making in Bosnia are fairly represented.
Growing up in America in the Vietnam War era it was always going to be that way and his political beliefs ensured a rocky road through his University education. Although he had won more awards for his photographs than any other high school student in the country, in University, becoming active in the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements, his success incurred the wrath of one right wing teaching fellow and resulted in him being ‘kicked out’. He decided to study for a year in London at the London School of Film Technique and only then returned to finish his degree.
However even after three years of working successfully in New York, and selling his studio at a healthy profit, he was drawn to travel abroad again. He remembers the final moment that made him decide to move on. “I was really lost” he says. “I had been in so many street battles, so much struggle – some with camera and some not. The stuff I saw was just unbearable. The final moment in New York that made me leave was when I was arrested walking down the street in Soho, just for having a moustache. The cops picked me up, held me for about 7 hours and then just said f**k off. It was just intimidation, but because I had a moustache and long hair I must be against the war.” Ironically, shortly afterwards, deciding the look was now becoming just a fashion statement for many people, he decided to shave the moustache and cut his hair, and was subsequently attacked in a supermarket by a man who mistook him for a ‘businessman’, part of the establishment. “And so I sat there surrounded by the whole mess of baked beans thinking, I hate it” he says. “I hate this struggle. I hate America for what it’s doing. I hate the war in Vietnam for what it’s doing and I hate Nixon.” With the direction his life was to take it is truly ironic that this turning point in his life was on the floor of a supermarket.
However regardless of the torment his drive and natural talent soon helped him pave a career as a prolific photographer and after doing dozens of book covers, book illustrations and commercials he was approached by an advertising agency and asked to do a short film as part of a campaign for a client. The move from stills to film wasn’t easy. “The conversion between being a stills photographer to being a director is quite difficult. Film and stills have photography at their heart but it’s not just about photography. With stills you’re talking about one frame and what is internal to that frame, whereas with film, you not only have that, you also have the whole question of story telling, rhythm and movement. I cut my teeth on it. Someone said that a commercial is to a feature film, like a haiku is to a novel. And it’s very true. You have to be incredibly reductive. You have to understand the intention of every shot. It’s a very refined skill. I’d call it commercial art.”
He is also quick to highlight the talent of the people around him at the time. “Because I had done so much food, I naturally became more and more a food guy. When I was doing the books there were food stylists. In terms of people, the quite unknown food stylists are the real heroes. They are brilliant the way they can make food look fabulous and stay under the lights. They really understand the chemistry of food. My joke is you never want to photograph kids, cats or soufflés. And I discovered a way to shoot soufflés, which was that we cook them until they’re absolutely perfect and then, of course, eventually they fall down, so we put them out in front of the camera when they’re absolutely perfect, film them as they fall and then reverse it and see them as they blow up. Through that time I learnt a lot about food and cookery. In those days everything had to be perfect. For example taking different materials and making them look exactly like ice cream, because ice cream has a melting point. These days things are a lot more casual than in the past, the idealisation has gone.”
By the end of the 90s Robert had made about 600 commercials and decided to create a series of documentaries celebrating the culture of food around the world. He financed it himself and sold the resulting series, Savouring the World, to 35 countries – although not the UK. Although the BBC wanted it at some point he remembers they offered “a derisory amount of money.”
But having done that series it became clear to him that, universally from country to country, people were all saying the same things – their lives were changing. As they struggled to do what their parents and grandparents had done before them they could see the future for their children was under threat. “There was a sense of fear in people” he says. “And what was interesting was that it was universal. When we came back, I was very moved by all that and started doing research to understand what globalization was doing. It meant the destruction of communities, traditions and customs, and of course central to all of that is the food culture, having been central to everything that humanity has ever done. And on the basis of that, a couple of years later, we decided to make the series Savouring Europe.”
If Savouring the World was a celebration of food around the world Savouring Europe was much more political. Stunning cinematography is coupled with a script that highlights the dark realities of small communities who suffer under the growing power of global forces. The result is a haunting series of films that have a profound message. “I realised much more deeply and profoundly what was going on in the food industry and how central food is to our total way of life” he says, “but also to political as well as economic stability. I realised how transnational corporations are in essence extraordinarily evil – in the sense that the same corporations are responsible for the use of things such as trans fats and the creation of obesity, but at the same time, because of their purchasing practices and selling practices, they are also responsible for starvation. That is quite extraordinary.”
When I last interviewed Robert he was putting on a touring exhibition of photographs he had taken in the 70s. They showed what he saw as the destruction of the British working classes in the early stages of globalization. At that time he described an analogy that is worth repeating here. Whilst travelling through Europe making the series Savouring Europe, he got an image of how unseen forces were manipulating peoples lives. “It is like people experience the wind,” he said. “You never know where the wind comes from. You can’t see it. You can see the trees bending or feel the power as you walk against it, but you can’t see it.” To Robert, this was what was actually happening to people all around the world. The relentless march of globalization was squeezing traditional lifestyles and moulding the production and supply of food to fit into the strategy of a relatively small number of businesses. Distant forces in places like New York, Chicago, Tokyo and London were controlling the lives of billions of people. People who are either directly or indirectly involved in the growing, processing or retailing of food. Like the wind, the force is invisible, but supremely powerful.
With a lot of his photographs in different photographic libraries and dozens of other projects completed or in various stages of production he is currently finishing a film on Bosnia. “It is about young people’s struggle to create a new and better world in the context of the horrible genocide that occurred in their town, and how they find themselves in conflict with these powers who are, by and large, corrupt” he says. It is an extraordinary and inspiring story and totally in tune with a man who many years ago decided to take editorial control of his own work to ensure he could put his remarkable natural talents to good use.
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