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The Vacuum Issue 8 spacer Issue 8
Close Encounters
by David Farrell
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"One man's danger is another man's shelter" is how it was put to me as we sat on the grass on an unusually warm October night in a Dublin park. I was pursuing my 'field' research and after the customary semi-formal 'howsit goin?' introductions had been completed I engaged my subject in conversation through my usual gambit. "How safe is this place at night?" I asked. 'Safer than O'Connell St at midnight' he replied with confidence. This was hard to fully accept, as it was dark enough that we could barely make out each other's features. We discussed that our sense of danger is perhaps like our perception of beauty, subjective and a reflection of our psychological makeup .
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'So for some, crossing the road is Naomi Campbell or Tom Cruise while for others its skydiving or bungee-jumping'. 'Well you can give me Tom Cruise anytime', he replied, 'although not really to be honest. He's such a pretty boy and I prefer a real man'. It struck me later that in the context of where I was that evening, the usually synonymous combination of a real man and danger was not without a certain irony. It also made me consider the double-edged nature of danger. Perhaps it is this combination of danger and sex that makes these places so attractive to the male; it may be that in some way it appeals to their hunter gatherer nature returning them to a more primal state for a brief moment.
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Close Encounters
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For the last two years or so I have been photographing landscapes, mainly in Ireland, which are often described as cruising areas. The work has given me many insights; particularly into male sexuality (rather than a specifically gay one), the attractions to various levels of danger and implied notions/definitions of 'being safe'. Most people who engage with danger voluntarily, walk a tight-rope with a net on only one side; there is a calculation of risk and an engagement with that risk which, while having certain borders, is somewhat elastic in nature. There is also the mastering of fear and the pure and simple rush of adrenalin, which is beautifully addictive.
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In these cruising places there are many dichotomies, the most basic of which is between 'day men' or 'twilight/night men'; depending on feeling safe in daylight or the anonymity of darkness. For the sake of my art I have had to explore both. In this context night is often comforting but make no mistake, these locations are dangerous - physically, sexually, legally, psychologically (by day or night) and hence the attraction. The resulting 'buzz' isn't just the sexual contact with another man, it is often the simple 'being there'. I frequently encounter solo performers who have walked around for a while but who possibly don't have that extra piece of courage to cross that final border and make contact.
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Close Encounters
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"I never come here at night, it's too risky. Mind you I was mugged here once in broad daylight so you never know" says John, a fresh looking man in his mid fifties. "I wouldn't mind but I was photographing the trees here that day not wandering for sex so watch out for yourself. Why come here? Well I like nature and I like men so an ideal mixtureŠ. For years I had questions about my sexuality but I was married and had a family, it was what you did in those days so I dealt with it. But my wife died very suddenly one day and I was left alone, my children were married and in the process of mourning my wife I decided now or never. So I came out to my children and now I come here. I do have certain rules, like no penetration as I want to save that for the right man and I frequent here because at my age its easier than gay bars or saunas but it's not just about the sex, somehow I'm hoping to meet someone here that maybe might come out for a drink or to a film and no, it hasn't happened so far, butŠ"
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A considerable number of married men, "the queers" as opposed to the "gays" as it was recently expressed to me, frequent these places. Unlike John who waited, they probably take the highest risk of all in terms of being caught and nearly all of them will not talk to you concerning the subject. They will chat you up, suss you out but at all times dance and weave around the subject "only out for a walk" or "enjoying nature" and while they would be willing to have a sexual liaison with you they will not discuss it. It could be denial but I feel more likely it's an acute awareness of the stakes involved. The only exception so far has been Henry who told his wife to be, shortly before their marriage. He expected rejection, but discovered a rather pragmatic response, he was a solid catch; 'good job, his own houseŠ something could be worked out'.
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My camera is often a litmus test in relation to people and their liking for danger. My working method is to be as obvious as possible, a large camera on a large tripod. I'm not out to expose anyone or catch anyone out, I am primarily interested in the way this activity shapes the landscape both physically and psychologically. It is the little signs I search for, strange tracks that cul de sac into dense bushes which, over time, slowly develop small, slightly rounded entrances; discarded tissues, the odd item of clothing, socks, T-shirts, underwear and of course condoms - tied to bushes like some votive offering or simply discarded. I follow the paths in the dense undergrowth leading into bushes or spaces under trees hidden from view, particularly in the heavy growth of summer. The seasonal variation in the location of this activity also intrigues me particularly as winter approaches and the trees denude themselves of their secreting layer forcing the activity to other locations within the same landscape. One puzzling conundrum is that when on occasion I have encountered discarded pornography it has invariably been of women or heterosexual couples.
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Close Encounters
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There are three basic reactions upon seeing the camera; turn and walk away, ignore and walk by, approach and chat up/suss out. More recently I started the series 'Anonymous Portraits' where after having spoken with someone for a while I ask whether they might pose for me, showing them previous examples in a small notebook. 'Yes, No (mostly) and I'll think about it' ( sometimes accompanied by a mobile phone number) again reveal the variability of the delectation and flirtation for danger within this group of risk takers. Some are disappointed when I express not much interest in just photographing their 'cock'
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I also realized quite recently that I too had become slightly hooked on the relative danger of what I was doing in that I began working on a more sedate project and missed the edginess of "Close Encounters" where the snap of a twig in a wooded area at twilight or the sudden smell of cigarette smoke in a secluded area set my senses on full alert like a trapper deep in the forest. So occasionally, despite the fact that my work is largely done, I do feel the need to return and keep my senses in shape.
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So far I have had only one hostile reaction from a deeply paranoid motorcyclist, who I actually had not seen but whose coitus I presume had been interrupted by my phone ringing for it produced a scurrying rustling sound about 20 feet away on my right hand side in some very dense undergrowth. He approached me from behind with his helmet on asking 'had I seen anyone else down here?' He was agitated and all I could make out were two very aggressive eyes so I suppressed the notion to ask him 'Why were you looking for someone?' because I am, after all, a careful chap who calculates risk to minimise danger.
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Close Encounters
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