On And Off Drugs, Neal Brown

‘Photography is a wonderful means of self expression, and when the taking of photographs is allied to the making of photographs in the darkroom, it leads to great fulfilment…’

Michael Freeman, An Introduction to Photography, Grange Books, 1995

‘…Jack’s got the knife to his chest like this, and cuts him again, another little slice, right? And the blood’s running down his pink body … And I couldn’t raise the […] camera. I was so fucked up on ‘ludes that I could not raise it, and I was laughing, and I could not get my hand up, man. It was just physically impossible. I was too fucked up. And I hated myself for years, I still hate myself for not being able to take this great picture. I think this would have been one of the best pictures I’d ever took in my life. I kind of started realising that it was getting overboard, that I couldn’t function so well; I mean, talk about squandered opportunities. That was starting to come into it. I was getting so fucked up that I wasn’t doing my job any more.’

Larry Clark, Teenage Lust, 1983

‘The United Kingdom Foyer movement provides accommodation integrated with education and training opportunities for disadvantaged sixteen to twenty-five year olds. Foyers were first established in France as part of the post-war movement to rebuild the economy. They were created to enable young people to move into urban areas to take up work. In the early 90s, the French model was adapted in the UK as a response to the ‘no home, no job, no home’ cycle. Consequently, the first UK Foyer opened in Liverpool in 1992. The movement is now one of the most effective national organisations providing these kinds of services.’

Description of the United Kingdom Foyer Movement, Wherever You Go catalogue, Gareth McConnell, 2002

There are, it could be said, two communities in Northern Ireland, divided by a rigidly enforced, historical sectarianism. These are the alcoholic and addict communities, whose mutual enmity derives from the paradox of an identical wish: to change consciousness through the use of mood-altering chemicals. Existing within a context of disadvantage and dejection, the divide seems, to most outsiders, a bit of a mystery – a confusion of the psychotropic theologies, where personal, public, moral and legal patriotisms collide to create stern boundaries. On one side are the alcoholics, who claim that liquor is supreme – a claim made by them until their boozed noses swell and blotch and redden, and their livers stagger and burst. On the other side are the addicts, who claim otherwise – that it is the infinitudes of peace and imaginative pleasure that drugs such as opiates and cannabis bring that are superior; a claim made in spite of the hell-fires of pitiless withdrawal or egotistical psychosis these drugs can cause.

Gareth McConnell is not, himself, claiming that any such real or imaginary divide is presented in his photographs, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere. But it can be difficult, when discussing McConnell’s work, to resist occasional speculation, certainly in respect of such a wildly lawless and factionalised subject as drugs – and drugs do occur in his work – and especially where (for reasons of courtesy towards his sitters, perhaps), specific details of his depictions have not been spelled out by the artist.

It is on such a basis that McConnell’s work will, sometimes wildly and lawlessly, be considered here – it being assumed, for example, that the artist’s work is informed by his origins in Ireland. Ireland’s civil conflicts, religious disputations and history of tragic subjections certainly offer, if we want them, potent analogies or insights towards the artist’s themes. Dispute, division and the closeness of death, as well as idealism, beauty and a musicality of hope, are thematically present in McConnell’s work, which depicts the disadvantaged, auto-destructions of alcoholism and drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness, institutionalism and violence.

The artist’s working method involves a shared, co-operative process. In a patient working relationship with his subjects, given conviction and authority by being based on his personal life experience, he accords them a dignified value and concern, in contradistinction to the often extreme misfortunes of public or personal madness that surround them. Whether drinkers in pub interiors, intravenous druggers with hypodermic needles, the young homeless or victims of violence, McConnell’s are not works of a cautionary or didactic nature. In spite of the loaded moral climate that might accompany whatever it may be that he is documenting, McConnell’s photographs are respectfully detached and non-judgmental; they are not the coolly ironic – or hotly exhibitionist– fashion statements of confessional or exploitative debasement that comprise other kinds of recent photographic practice.

What there is in McConnell’s work, sustained by consistently high production values, and a calm aesthetic sense, is something that excels more, through being less – by being purposefully modest. Quietly offering his singular view, McConnell’s work can be considered as love-positive as it is possible to be in the current times; tender without ceding visual excitement.

A constant in McConnell’s work is the presence of literal or metaphorical homelessness. Most notions of place, identity and security have a relationship with an idea of home, and to be homeless is, of course, a profoundly destabilising condition. Prisons are places where access to home is denied to offenders as a significant part of their punishment – institutional homelessness being more ably effected and absolute in its prohibition than disallowing access to sex or drugs.

Much international war-making, just and unjust, has been made on the basis of defending (or advancing the interests of), the ‘homeland,’ and the idea of inscribing identity with place is potent and strong. A sense of home accords with the deepest ideas of love, family and community; and, where a home or a sense of it does not exist, people will understandably seek this sense elsewhere.

Many of McConnell’s photographs, such as those in the Wherever You Go series, which show residents of Quay Foyer in Poole, Dorset, are of homeless or institutionalised people, who have become so because of some kind of tragedy or misadventure – an abuse, a failure, or a neglect of care – either by a parent or carer, or by the homeless person his or herself. As a category, these are persons who are usually expected, ina fantastic contradiction of terms, to conform to deviance.

It’s a project whose precedent includes the photographic archive of Dr Barnardo’s Homes, the children’s orphanages founded in the 1860s. The distinguished photographic picture editor and writer Bruce Bernard once said of Barnado’s archive, that ‘pictures taken with no artistic motive or intention to impress can be as interesting as any others.’ It would be a rarefied, contradictory ambition for an artist to make work ‘with no artistic motive or intention to impress,’ and unlikely to be achieved. But McConnell gets close to this contradiction, in his modest sort of way; creating the conditions for a quiet exactitude of documentation, being neither sensationalist or boring. It is a difficult ambition, these days, to make such works; made with meticulous precision and grace, with subtle colour transitions and obsessive attention to detail, but which lack contrivance, extreme novelty or subterfuge.

Through an empathetic process, similarities and differences between the sitters can be perceived in the work. Posing on their beds, they are in a shared accord with McConnell, who gently allows the small details of individual particularity to be seen, without didactic explanation or analysis; recording presentations of dress, hairstyle, physical manner, jewellery, bruises, tattoos and scars, as well as the props of homemaking, such as souvenirs, posters of bands and footballers, and arrangements of pillows etc. In this way ideas of inclusion and exclusion, conformity and non-conformity are given nuanced emphasis, by being arranged according to McConnell’s unconditional outlook.

It’s neither a socio-historical critique, nor a critique of the objectivity of photography, as say by Alan Sekula or Willie Doherty; nor is it about the fractured dysfunctions of identity, as by Gillian Wearing. While the photographs gather into focus the poignant energy of the young people depicted, they do not seek to dictate the direction to which our response should be channelled, allowing us a temporary, meditative rest upon a poised, gyroscopic epicentre of calm.

At this point, imagine a confused, speculative reverie … a tap on your door at 3.45 am… Communities devise their own strategies of social control independently of the legislative commands of the state. In Northern Ireland there is a tradition of punishment beatings and shootings, for political or social transgression. For anyone – but especially an alcoholic or addict, or maybe an artist – stigma, social ridicule and embarrassment are also an extreme punishment, at least for their maimed ideas of ego-glory. There are also categories of dysfunctional persons, many of whom might prefer a vicious and nasty beating to having the cut and style of their trousers ridiculed.

Violence has an ugly equivalence, whether a punishment beating, as depicted in McConnell’s Antisocial Behaviour Part I (1995), or the self-inflicted wounds of intravenous drug use in Antisocial Behaviour Part II (1995). The psychology of politicised internecine violence, artworld sectarianism, or the self-violence of addicts are, all of them, deeply confusing, and characterised by degrees of hatred – involuted self hatred – that can amount to an auto-destructive suicide.

…There is a another tap on the door. Which you now, slowly, pull open …knowing who is going to be there – a psychopath with fermenting breath and too much beer inside, someone who is both Republican and Loyalist, and who informs you that you are considered a burden on your community. It is you. THE PERSON AT THE DOOR IS YOU: YOU HAVE GRASSED YOURSELF, AND YOU ARE GOING TO BEAT YOURSELF UP. Holy God – not only are you the wrong religion, politics or faction, or a druggie instead of an alkie (or perhaps a figurative painter, whereas you should be a conceptually based visual artist, working in photography, or vice versa), but your trousers/ cardigan/ skirt are indeed quite, quite wrong. You are deeply uncool, AND YOU ARE GOING TO BEAT YOURSELF UP …

Thus insulted, your low self-esteem or helplessness requires you to bow to the inexorable righteousness of a profoundly negative auto-destruction, which means there is no exit out back – no lightly jumping over the garden wall as is done in films. Silhouetted in the murderous sodium streetlight you stand, the two yourselfs, each looking at the other, in an ancient complicity of divided torment. Into the rain and cold you go – maybe observing out of the corner of your eye something incongruously inappropriate to your situation. Something like Night Flowers, (2002) whose strange beauty causes you to wince.

On you go, each of the two of you, to a place where you will inflict on yourself crude agonies of pain, of such miserable effectiveness, that you may be permanently disfigured, mentally and physically; suffering a trauma so severe that you may – blessedly – lose consciousness, or worse: perhaps lapse into coma, or bleed to death …motherless, fatherless, alone.

It may be a little controversial, but many people now consider fashion and advertising photography to have exceeded their welcome as an occasional, visiting guest to fine art practice, and to have sought to subsume or displace it. In this view, one which is intolerant of whatever it considers to be artistic superficiality, the fine arts have let their visitor take them from behind – not just allowing the hem of their garment to be touched, but passively tolerating the crafty raising of it above waist level, losing their chastity to a humiliating public intercourse.

How might the fashion–intolerant lobby imagine the response that greets McConnell’s Antisocial Behaviour Part I, hitting the screen of an art and style magazine. The editor – on his second Twix of the day – excitedly trills out a gasp of ironic pleasure, calling to his colleagues to come gather, and see what has arrived; impeccable images of rotund, comically asymmetrical legs, the left one studded with neat delicacy by a bullet-hole scar.

But it’s the white socks that excite involuntary shudderings of an exquisitely fine, unarticulated pleasure. Unarticulated because the codes of British class and fashion prejudice dictate not only that there be a forbiddance against the repellent error of white socks – at least as seen on the working classes – but also that this forbade should be silent, the fashion elites not wishing to be misunderstood as trying to be superior to the working classes, and being misrepresented as displaying elitist prejudice.

White socks cause a revulsion that is literally almost unspeakable. ‘The socks! The socks! The horror, the horror…’ swoon the art connoisseurs to themselves.

Another response to this photograph of McConnell’s might be that, in its apparent simplicity, it is a carefully crafted monument to anonymous pain, and a testament to nature’s wish that all things should, wherever possible, heal, recover and regrow. Not another photograph of the sophisticated retro-ironies, it is a restrained study, a cross between a forensic science photograph and …well, not quite a Mantegna – an alabaster-skinned Sebastian – but more a conservator’s photographic record of a piece of restored marble statuary, previously vandalised, and now returned to its proper and whole unity, even if imperfect.

Blind Mark in The Crack House(2002), comprises two studies of the incandescent beauty of light, given emphatic poignancyby being taken by McConnell in the home of the blind drug addict depicted, a man who, himself, has never seen light. Not so simple or facile a work as to place hope and despair in a literal contradistinction of light and dark, it is, still, a summoning of both the positive and the negative, in an extreme equilibrium.

Does the chronology of McConnell’s photographs correspond with his biography? Did McConnell know Blind Mark? Journalistic convenience would like to answer yes, for the easy handle this would give the reader; providing an easy to read trajectory from the debasements of the artist’s ‘my-drug-hell’ to a commendable abstinence, and the well-earned approbation of the art world – prestigious books, shows and catalogues.

Scholarly and prudent reflection might say the answer is not known – we may not be privileged with all the information we need to form an opinion. That to assume so might not only be premature, but possibly incorrect; ‘commendable abstinence’ could, next week, be a Nan Goldin-Richard Billingham-Larry Clark sort of dark, relapse kind of thing, or worse.

Actually, the answer is that McConnell did know Mark, and took Mark to live with him for two weeks to help him clean up.

Compare the depiction of interior space in Blind Mark in The Crack House with Community Meeting Rooms (work in progress). All sparse, depersonalised, functional spaces, all spiritually transient – although the traffic does go in a different direction in each. Everyday, everywhere, huge numbers of people gather in neutral spaces kindly provided to them by churches, schools, community centres and other social institutions, to meet, talk and to interact; yoga classes, drugs and alcohol recovery meetings, discussion groups, exercise clubs, classes, choirs etc.

McConnell’s photographs, of the unglamorous rooms where these events occur, are of places which do not make money but instead create the conditions of hope and socialised purpose, and whose anonymous service is usually regarded as too embarrassingly sincere to be remarked.

Antisocial Behaviour, Part II (1995), are works that show the self-inflicted wounds of intravenous drug use. One of these is of a needle daintily introduced into a user’s arm – the user’s nicotine patinated little finger crooked outwards, like that of a Home Counties wife holding a bone china teacup. It’s reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence’s Poem Mosquito 1. an address to the eponymous insect as it takes its dinner.

Lawrence wrote:

‘…you shall lift your centre of gravity upwards
And weigh no more than air as you alight upon me,
Stand upon me weightless, you phantom…
…I behold you stand
For a second enspasmed in oblivion,
Obscenely ecstasied
Sucking live blood,
My blood.’

The mosquito’s itch is caused by its need to keep blood flowing, the insect introducing a decoagulant into its dinner’s arm.

The consequence of this is, (1) that as well as getting dinner, mosquitoes are often cited as evidence of the non-existence of God (or that God is a bad designer), (2) that a good poem has come to be written because of one individual of the species – Lawrence’s poetry, including Mosquito, is regarded by many as greater than his prose. (Interestingly, Mosquito also seems to anticipate Sylvia Plath). If there was a (3), it would digress a bit, unnecessarily, and state that another poet, Rupert Brooke, died from a mosquito bite, his blood being poisoned by an infection caused by the insect’s sly puncture – Brooke having survived, until then, the trenches of the First World War.

And finally, if there was a (4), which there isn’t, it would claim, from all of the above, that a highly developed awareness of the visible world can create a poetry of emotion – as does McConnell – and that this is a positive counter irritant against the revulsive, fearful things of the world.

Most folk continue to wish to believe in photographic truth, even if it is now a commonplace, persuasively argued, that such truth is, at best, a variable, and the abandonment of it even a cause for delirious celebration. Photography’s implicit instruction that ‘it is possible to believe this image, it is true, and it is veracious’ is now deeply mistrusted – although the idea does persist in reflecting itself back from photography’s shiny paper surfaces. Trust and credulity have been disputed and questioned so much, however, that what was once a reasonable scepticism may have overshot its own truth, and become a sort of tragic chorus. The falsity of photographic truth has been so endlessly repeated by commentators – Barthes, Debord, Baudrillard, Sontag et al – that it is tempting to argue against them, just for the hell of it.

Through such seditions, the old understandings have been overturned and we have arrived at the strongly held belief that photography is a sort of free floating, relativist plurality of image merchandising2. Which (apart from the many times when it actually is merchandising), it is not. Or would not be, if it were not deliberately and artificially made to serve other, more vain interests; editors, journalists, publishers, advertisers, politicians, business people, philosophers, artists, critics, art historians, curators, arts administrators, writers and even – especially – photographers themselves.

All these, to put it simply, have a venal interest in photographic untruth, and so are the liars, rather than photography itself – the moral being: photography GOOD; photographers and liars BAD.

Maybe work like McConnell’s should be advanced as representing a correction, a photography that aspires to a more benign, self-certificated neutrality of truthfulness than might be thought possible – a photography placed more at the service of its community, and which, as far as possible, makes its agenda one of clinically respectful detachment. In such a view, rather than just disputing photographic veracity, there could be an increased raising of an expectation that photographers – like other people holding important positions of public trust – should practice more truthfully, and with a greater spiritual responsibility.

Integral to photography, and what gives photography part of its critical importance, is that it has a monopoly on the visibility of death3, which it mediates for us. A society like ours, without visible death, where corpses can rarely be seen – even a dead cat in the gutter is quickly whisked away in the West – is not, as we like to think, a successful one, but is actually impoverished.

A properly complete spiritual outlook requires that we be close to death, or the deathlike, in its most proper actuality.

We are shown images of many kinds of death, especially of the dead that come from the other side of the world (as, for our comfort and convenience, they tend to). And, as we know, this is a kind of exploitation, inconsistent with our treatment of our own dead who we do not allow to be seen. Showing death is what photography does for us, in what could be called its religious duty. In return we have let photographers get away with too many lies, in the same way as other priesthoods have been overtolerated their sexual hypocrisies. Others say that when we see photographs, like McConnell’s, of death and trauma, we quickly realise we are powerless – for whatever number of reasons – and so become despondent or inured.

So, is McConnell’s work exploitative? Do his photographs engender a sense of hopelessness? McConnell’s work certainly addresses the deathlike; people who are, or recently were, on the cusp of extinction. Antisocial Behaviour, Survivors, The First Man to Remember My Name, My Grandfather’s House are a unity of meditations on death and finality, qualified by the artist’s own experience and proximity to them, and given contemplative effect through his stilled viewpoint.

McConnell is describing a place he has been himself; a journey he has, or is still, making; a place to which he is more a participant than a bystander/ witness – more than just a tourist visitor or voyeur. For this reason his work cannot be said to be exploitative. And, although it is a horrible place he has been, and which he looks back upon, and although he is not the first photographer to have been there, his report is different because of its degree of completion. He has advanced his journey further and is exploring the more difficult, less obviously photogenic area of the peace-building and reconstruction that must take place after the war.

A positive view of work like McConnell’s is that it contains an encouragement: a non-prescriptive encouragement of the possibility of positive change. If we are shocked by a photograph of something death-like, or brutal, or negative (and if we are able to trust the photographer sufficiently), then our response can be one of a strong, meditative energy – shock or discomfort becoming a tool, available for use as an actionable belief towards change. And if this energy is considered as part of a moral system – a moral ecology – then, even if our action is non-specific to whatever suffering we saw depicted, it still follows that a negative cause and a subsequent positive effect are related. Whatever our circumstances allow us is what we should do, so making a valid and true response possible – a response to whatever harrowing or beautiful image it is that McConnell may be showing us.

1. D.H.Lawrence, Birds, Beasts and Flowers, Secker, 1923.

2. In respect of this, and in the context of a discussion of photographic veracity, mention should be made of what is effectively a new revisioning by Susan Sontag of her highly influential book, On Photography (1977), in her recently published Regarding the Pain of Others (2004). The effect upon Sontag, and other New Yorkers like her, of the World Trade Centre disaster, and the consequence of this on intellectualised opinions of photographic superficiality and other theoretical outlooks, especially concerning depictions of death – we have seen no photographs of dead New Yorkers – must be considerable.

3.In this context, and just to be contrary, it should briefly be noted,(1) that there is currently an indefatigable lobby who argue that an American spacecraft did not land on the moon, and that photographs showing this are faked. (2) That the enduring debate concerning Robert Capa’s Death of a Republican Soldier (about whether it depicts an actual death or not), seems to have become an analysis out of all proportion to either its historical, intellectual or conscience value (Robert Doisneau’s cynical set-ups of Parisian lovers seem a more genuinely photographic evil). (3) That the botanical sciences still prefer drawings over photographs, for their clarity and emphasis.