At first you think, what a touch cos he’s a good-looking lad from Northern Ireland and he can fight pretty good and the girls wanna give him their numbers and he’s getting paid for his photographs and he’s been around the block a few times but now he’s taking me out for din-dins at some private supper club and his work is on the walls and the maître d’ comes up to the table and says, ‘Hi Gareth’ and he’s got £2,000 credit in the gaff and all he’s got to do is sign at the end of the night and you think to yourself, Fuck, I want some of that.
So there’s a fashion shoot and he calls me and says, ‘Do you want to be my assistant? There’s fifty quid in it’ and I say yea and I bounce around some freezing warehouse in Hackney for eight hours setting up the lights and handing him his Polaroid and the people are OK I guess and they say hello and I smile and say I’m the assistant and he’s being charming and focused and professional and everybody seems to think that what they are doing is really important ? you know, the hair guy with his cowboy hat and the two make-up artists who take three hours to get it just right and the stylist and the prop lady and the skinny little model girls who I have to hold the heater up to while he’s changing the film because they’re fucking freezing cold in their little outfits and she just flew in from Milan and she’s going to New York tomorrow and in the end I say, ‘Hey Gareth, I gotta go walk my dogs’ and he says OK and I leave and on my way home on the train I think to myself, What the fuck was that about? Who fucking cares? But they pay you, right? They pay you.
That’s me with the blue wall behind me and my hands, that are covered in paint, held up to my face and that’s me again standing against the same wall eight years before with my arm in a cast after I punched out the windows at the rehab and that’s Crista with Sorcha the day she was born, before they realised she couldn’t breathe right and rushed her to intensive care, and Mark sitting on his bed looking like a pop star but really he’s in some assessment unit in Vauxhall coming off a run on the crack pipe and Jason in Mungo’s who four years later, on the anniversary of five years clean, tries to top himself drinking 200 ml of green juice then wakes up three days later covered in puke and blood and goes walking in the park and meets the love of his life and Micky and Mark Van Eyck invoking the art of his forefather and Dead Nick and Mandy and Cosmic Dave and Herman and Sir Simon and Sophie with a bellyful of baby standing naked in the garden at the back of her house and Gareth’s scabby old bed that he sat and chanted the Saraswati mantra on every morning for years and those evil flowers he crept around the streets looking for every spring and those fucking rooms we sat in day in day out before we decided there was more to it than anyone wanted to admit. He gave me a black bin bag full of clothes the second time we met because I didn’t have much and every time he went away he brought me something back. Tokyo, Mexico City, New York, Australia, Goa, Singapore . . . I don’t know, I can’t remember but when I said, ’Well, you’re living the life now, hey boyo,’ he kind of laughed and looked away
I’m not supposed to write about the photographs. Good, I’d rather write about violence and damage and crime and dim heroin and the self-destructive choices some people make when what’s on offer doesn’t cut the cheese and if by some weird coincidence you happen to have a camera while the shit’s going down, bully for you because you might be able to climb out of the mess just long enough to fly around the world for a while but when you get back it’s gonna be right there waiting for you,
Every fucking day.
I am a nobody and the more I embrace my nobodyness the stronger I become because I’m fucking free. When Gareth first started taking photos of me he knew my history, he knew I’d just finished a tour of the American penal system and kicked a twenty-year heroin habit and had been turning to mould for three years in an Earls Court hostel living on methadone linctus and antipsychotic medication, I think he had a year clean and I was now in a rehab in Clapham that he’d been in himself and I met him in the ‘the rooms’ and we just slotted into place.
He showed me his photographs, the neighbourhood hoodlums and the old fuckers past their day with the tats on their big bellies at the bar, the boys from Brighton who he’d shot heroin with when he had slipped beneath the cracks; the faces you meet on a journey into the wastelands. I know these faces, I know these people; these are my people.
So if you’re not in a band or a movie star or a politician or a budding author or an aspiring personality why the fuck would you think that having your photograph taken is of any purpose? And you’re not getting paid? What? Are you gonna send it to Mom? She’s got enough on the mantelpiece, or maybe she’d just rather forget you. No, you think that somehow because you’re a nobody that if a somebody is interested enough to ask you to pose for them that afterwards you will be validated in some way and your position in the nobody world that you live in will somehow be elevated.
Blind Mark’s my favourite. Think about it: you’re a junkie and you can’t see a thing and you never have and all you can do is have faith that that’s really a shot of heroin this girl is sticking in your arm and the little plastic ball in your hand that you just took sixty quid out of your Disability Living Allowance to purchase is not just a ball of wax, it’s crack – God, please let it be crack ? and when your buzzer goes at 3 a.m. and two guys come in and say, ‘Hi man’ and then beat you up and rob you and all the time you thought they were your friends . . . But hey, that’s just life, you’ll get over it, what else are you going to do? Get clean? All right, that’s something, I suppose.
I wish I’d had a camera. It’s a stupid game to play but fuck it, after he showed me Tulsa everything got clear and strong and fell into place and I knew that I had a right to declare my experience. But the thing was I had entered another world; I was walking around with hopes and aspirations and the world I wanted to document was the world I’d left behind, the shadow world, the flatline graveyard of the soon to be dead or imprisoned.
So there’s work to be done in order to sacrifice the hypnotized comforts that we all aspire to as soon as the needle drops from our arm and we have to take a look around and survey the tundra. When I first started getting better I found that I had this energy in me, this force or power or whatever you want to call it. It was kind of beautiful but dangerous at the same time, like an eight-year-old child with a loaded pistol in his hand.
Bang bang bang
Bang . . .
Have you heard the one about the photographer in the dust fields of the Sudanese droughtlands who was out hunting good copy and how he happened to come across a big black vulture standing staring at a small emaciated child who had collapsed in the sand? And the photographer knows that this is the moment he has been working so hard for, this is his calling card to success. Click click click . . . Change the film . . . Shit, please don’t let that baby get up, not yet. Hold still, baby.
Click click click The New York Times, National Geographic . . .
Click click click £20,000, £30,000, £40,000 . . .
Click click click Pulitzer Prize . . .
Three months later the photographer was found dead in the front seat of his pick-up truck from carbon monoxide poisoning. Ha ha ha . . . What? You don’t think that’s funny? Well, neither do I.
‘So what’s your problem, asshole?’
‘Yea fuckhead, you and your smug little token refusals to comply and your superior attitude towards people who claim to be perfectly content. Just because you can’t fit into the party doesn’t mean that the party’s gotta change its rules just so you can find a place at the bar, you know. Shit, I seen you sniffing around the crumbs of celebrity, I seen you claiming to be an artist and smiling when they handed you an envelope full of cash, I seen you up at the job centre telling them how you’re really trying and then runnin down to the cash machine to see if they sent you your £67. Money money money, huh shitface? Don’t try to pretend you’re not involved in this, you’re up to your fuckin neck, asshole.’
‘Well huh, dickhead, what experiences do you claim your potential for integrity on?’
‘Well, I know I can live off what’s left on your plate at the restaurant. I know that I never have to drive a car to get where I’m going, I know I can walk barefoot for life like my ancestors, I know I can lay down on the bank of the river and wake up when the sun is rising in the east, I know I can sit in a prison cell for years at a time with a blank book and a pencil and fill the pages with rich visions and conversations held with the spirits of wolves and dead children and then leave it on the floor of my cell when they open it to release me, leave it there without having to show it to anyone else in order to validate myself through their eyes, or take it with me to hold on to in case I forget, because it’s all right here in my heart, all of it, mother fucker.’
And the wind shall say: ‘Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.’
Choruses from ‘The Rock’, T.S. Eliot
The last time we did some shots together it wasn’t the same. I was somebody different than I used to be; the edge was gone, the craziness was gone, the raw exuberance was definitely missing and as he’s clicking away I had this sinking feeling in my stomach that I was letting him down but I couldn’t help it, this whole charade had lost any meaning for me and at the time I felt like this was a bad thing, but now I think it was just fucking fine and anyway, just before I said that’s enough I took off my shirt and carved up my chest a bit with a razor blade for old times’ sake ? I mean, he’s my pal, right? It’s not his fault that I had spent my whole life creating some psychotic clown routine; he was just there to take some photographs.