The front line in Cardiff after dark

Susie Wild examines a snapshot of the capital’s after-hours wrecked zone delineated by Caroline Street and St Mary Street

Susie Wild is a journalist, poet, performer and writer, and an Editor at Parthian Books. She blogs here. She is also hostess of Cardiff Literary Salon and a co-organiser of the forthcoming xx minifest of women's writing, Saturday 27 October, Chapter Arts Centre. Maciej Dakowicz’s Cardiff After Dark is published by Thames & Hudson at £24.95

Polish-born, London-based photographer Maciej Dakowicz brings a sobering outsider’s eye to the night-life of central Cardiff, where he lived for seven years, co-founding the Third Floor Gallery. All the world’s a stage, but this photographer’s insightful gaze returns again and again to the performances of punters and pranksters on parade, imbibing on St Mary Street and then later stuffing faces and each other outside Tony’s.

He conjures tales of cowboys and Casanova, cigarettes and regrets. Cardiff After Dark is a hyper-real world, fuelled by Jaeger shots, graffiti-scrawled emotions and outfits and lipstick with the contrast turned up. A melting pot of lust, fistfights, bawling and blood-spattered brawling. The flesh-flashing mating rituals and macho tomfoolery. The headrush fun of it all, side-splitting, shirt-ripping hilarious to those in the moment, ugly to those who are not. A self-taught street photographer, Dakowicz observes, presenting us with a gulping gallery of Binge Drinking culture, freeze-framed images that hold up a mirror to our bad selves.

The book begins with the anticipation of a good night out. After that first sip of a I-was-ready-for-that pint, amber and delicious, the players of the drinking game raise their eyes to the others, gage the night. ‘One life, one chance’ is emblazoned on the back of a bar-leaning shirt. ‘What’s you flava?’ asks the sign to his right. Many of the flavours Cardiff has to offer are represented further inside. Friends are huddled by their sex, gossip and glances are thrown around like tipples, bouncing off the club and pub walls and pooling under disco lights. People dance and smile and laugh. They gesticulate. The raconteurs. ‘Look at the rack on her!’

Making their way from wide-eyed to sly-eyed to sloshed to sleep. The comatose and the catatonic hug chip-carpeted pavements and street furniture like teddies. Yet for every weekend knock down, there is a reason to dress up again. All kinds are welcomed here – the French maids, the bunnies, the hen parties, the bumble bees, the men in drag, the fluffy cowboys and the Smurfs. They come together, they lose each other. They send out bat signals via their phones or by simply SHOUTING or they make new friends, special friends. Things hot up, move on to the cwtches, the clutches, and then the caterwaullers and the criers with their slightly irritated stop-ruining-my-night-will-you best friends. Oh and the police. The police. The neon yellow police. The chucking out and the chucking up. The cleaning up can wait ’til morning. The cleaning up will have to wait until morning.

Alcohol breaks down barriers, makes a living room of the streets and people get a bit too comfortable. As you flick the pages of Dakowicz’ book, smiling, giggling, flinching but most of all hoping not to find yourself staring back, you ride the rollercoaster of emotion that his photographs represent.

There are heart-warming intimate moments – friends happily chatting, reclining on the pavement, tipsy with upturned mouths. There is voyeuristic humour – a couple caught through a phone box, an advert to the side of them asks ‘You won’t tell your mummy will you?’. There are acrobatics, men swinging themselves around lampposts and hurdling over piles upon piles of takeaway trash, and there is violence and vulgarity – men swinging themselves at each other, or policemen with batons. There are the masters of disguise and invention – a couple kiss, sharing a coat, or perhaps a jacket as hooded shelter. The quiet moments. So many lost numbers, so many hopeful ‘s/he’s the one!’ flirtations, the good and the bad one night stands.

I would imagine that it took dedication and balls to make this book. To go out, sober or close to sober, for five years’ of Saturday nights and point and click, taking 50, 100, 500 shots a night with his Canon 5D lens. A street paparazzi capturing a boozed-up population intent on escapism, on emanating a celebrity culture, but with less bouncers, less privacy, bad alcohol and worse hangovers. In many of the shots his models are unaware of being watched, often because they are too engrossed in photographing each other, and some images are so daft they feel staged until we realise that they are – a woman sprawled out amongst Caroline Street litter is, in fact, posing for friends just out of shot.

It is said that booze stories are interesting only to those also drunk, those who forget how many times they have heard it before. As slice of life images, Dakowicz has captured Cardiff’s current night-time moment for all to see and I don’t think our ugly raw side is one that is unique to Cardiff. Every smaller British city has a similarly drink-downing chain bar stretch to be oh-so-proud-of.

Prior to the launch of this book, some of Dakowicz’s published photographs caused a furore at the Daily Mail. Its September 2011 headline billing them as ‘Shaming images’. Yet for anyone who has passed through a city on a Saturday night in the last decade, the subjects of these shots will not shock or surprise. What Dakowicz is good at doing is drawing us in to look closer, to notice the unusual quirks – a couple in a clinch in a bar, so far so normal, until we notice her hand reaching out, and into another man’s nibbling mouth. He sees what they don’t, unmasking the drunken ‘anything goes’ bravado, leaving us gawping; questioning.

We have journeyed with Dakowicz from bar to street to club to chippy and, like the best and the worst of nights, all too soon the end is nigh, time and taxis are called and we are presented with the last image of the night. A superhero corners an alley where even the double yellows can’t walk straight, heeding warnings not to drink and fly.

At 4am, the streets are quietening, and if you are waiting for Superman, I’m sorry, but he’s not at the bottom of that glass or getting another round in. He’s gone home.

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