The title of this book comes from the opening lines of a poem, “The Suicide Kid,” by Charles Bukowski. It’s a very droll poem, acknowledging the brute fact that even in a desperate state, we are condemned to go on living. It also serves as a fitting appetizer to Ciarán Og Arnold’s photographs of contemporary night life in a small Irish town. It’s post-2008, the country’s economy has collapsed and once again a generation of citizens find themselves having to emigrate to search for work.

For various reasons, not everyone leaves and this collection of photographs opens a window onto the souls of those who left themselves behind. The window, though, is opaque, dirty and smeared with unwept tears, and what we glimpse are distressed lives, numbed by an unspoken unhappiness; if they are waiting for Godot, there is no sense that an arrival is imminent.

So far, so miserable…and yet these pictures of apparently wasted lives rise above the level of cliché because, instead of a visual lecture on the sociology of a failed society, the photographs invite us to see what the world looks like from a depressed male perspective. Arnold worked with film before losing his job and it was only when he moved back to his home town, Ballinasloe, that he set about taking these photographs.

He went on to spend time at the University of Ulster, gaining a Master of Fine Arts in photography in 2012. In I Went to the Worst of Bars… what we get is not instrumental photography but something quite personal and expressive: “I never really had a project in mind,” Arnold has said in an interview, “I just took the photographs at weekends to have something to do. The photographs are about this fatalistic atmosphere of male negativity. Machismo, and having nowhere to express it. I wanted to show how something feels, how it looks—to get the emotional desperation and the anger. I’ve never really talked about it with anyone before. It’s hard.”

The result is a stark and startlingly emotive set of images—aggressive young men, inebriated older ones, the girls they gaze on. And there’s not just pictures of people: the physical context is important as well. Desolate dance clubs, dismal alleyways, grim décor, cheap clothing—all of these hem in the human players even further. At one point, we see how two goats in a field and the very vegetation become part of an encompassing cultural wasteland. It’s strong stuff and not for the faint-hearted.

—Sean Sheehan

Editors’ Note: This book was given the prestigious First Book Award by MACK books,
presented by Media Space in partnership with MACK. The book and prints from the project are on display until June 28, 2015 at Media Space, Science Museum, London.

Also, you can read the full text of the original Bukowski poem here—it’s great, gritty stuff!