Ciarán Óg Arnold wins First Book Award

A project called I went to the worst of bars hoping to get killed. but all I could do was to get drunk again, by Irish photographer Ciarán Óg Arnold, has won this year’s First Book Award.

Born in 1977, Arnold has spent almost his whole life living his pictures in the town of Ballinasloe. The project, taken over the past five years, shows drunken knuckle-fights, hard men’s tears and derelict homes as the active participants in a post-recession landscape.

“I never really had a project in mind,” Arnold tells BJP. “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.

“You would go into one nightclub on weekends, there’d be no one in the entire place except for these guys in the corner with the boxing machine, getting out their aggression on a punchbag and a massive empty nightclub behind them. That was the only place available. I began to do the same thing myself – I got caught up.”

Since the economic crisis began in 2008, small towns in Ireland have been ravaged by financial difficulties. It was literally lethal for Ireland’s young men. The suicide rate among Irish teenage boys is the second worst in Europe at 5.12 per 100,000 annually – more than twice the EU average, according to the Irish Examiner. Although the girls’ suicide rate in Ireland is about half that of the boys, theirs is actually the highest in Europe. 

Michael Mack, founder of Mack Books, says: “Ciarán Óg Arnold’s project is a heartfelt story of home. The book is a sincere self-portrait, where the boundaries between his own state of consciousness and his photography blur into a compelling document of lives tinged with humour and often brutal sadness.”

For Arnold, the series vocalises these tragic stories, through images of places he’s lived in – empty bars and ragged plants. “I was trying to get across the history: the fights, and the alleyways where women are assaulted,” he says.

“When you live there, your mind is heightened with a kind of psychological intensity. It’s hard to get that negative atmosphere across in photographs.

“There’s one alleyway with a light above a door, that’s the ‘bar of last resort’ – not literally, but in the mind. Every time you walk past it the intensity is heightened because you know what’s gone on down there.”

As a teenager, Arnold and his friends had watched drunken men in their 30s trailing 21-year-old women. He realised a few years ago that he had unwittingly become just like them. “You don’t understand how you look to others. The women would look at you as if you were dirt,” he says. “You go out looking for a woman and never get one, so you just get hammered and go home.” 

The connection between younger and older adults, bars and the street may be seen in the haggard ennui permeating each photograph, lending them a terminal air of resignation. “There are a lot of decrepit houses, and I was living in one,” he says. “The guy who lived in it before me was an alcoholic in his late 40s. They’re full of transient men, who live on the dole for six months, then leave and other guys come in and it’s the same – a repetition. But at the bottom of it, everyone’s just searching for intimacy.”

The title, I went to the worst of bars hoping to get killed. but all I could do was to get drunk again, is taken from poem The Suicide Kid by the German-American 20thcentury poet Charles Bukowski. The title borrows the opening six lines of an existentialist poem about release and death, told with the wobbling rhythm of a drunk.

One period of Arnold’s life was not spent in Ballinasloe, but at the University of Ulster, where he graduated with an MFA in photography in 2012. His work was shown as part of group exhibitions at Rencontres d’Arles in 2009 and at Dublin’s Gallery of Photography in 2008.

Greg Hobson, the curator of photographs at the National Media Museum and a First Book Award judge, says: “The quality and variety of the submissions improves year on year; in particular, the skill with which work is conceived and realised as a book project. This year saw the most diverse collection of books on the shortlist to date. Ciarán Óg Arnold’s work was fresh, direct and involving – he is a deserved winner.”

The First Book Award is a world-leading book prize for emerging photographers who have not had a book published before by a third party. It was established in 2012 by Mack publishing and the National Media Museum in Yorkshire.

Editions of Arnold’s book began printing yesterday and his work will be on view in the Media Space gallery in London’s Science Museum from 20 April to 28 June. The dummy copies of shortlisted photographers will also be exhibited, alongside work from the previous winners.

Learn more about the First Book Award here.