Autodecay – 2006

After returning to Ireland to live after living abroad for many years, I was immediately drawn to photographing the Wicklow Mountains and their natural beauty. It was while I was taking some landscapes in the area of the Sally Gap that I noticed the large number of abandoned car wrecks. Last winter I started taking a series of photographs of these car wrecks near Lough Bray, at the base of Kippure and along the Luggala Road that runs above Lough Tay (all within a couple of miles of each other). It is most likely they were burnt out and left there by joyriders or criminals who had used them in a crime.

As a photographer and a writer, the idea of using my writing to explain my photography is new to me. In general my photography has been used in the past to complement my writing and has enhanced the text of a particular story. But this series of images was taken to provide a visual message without text and it is a challenge to explain my feelings about them in words. The visual medium is one that generally I feel does not require explanation, as it is up to the viewer to take there own personal interpretation out of an image when they view it. As the originator, I am wary of providing only the author’s interpretation, which may be suggestive to a viewer of a particular interpretation that they may not have had of the work. This can have a positive or negative impact on how a viewer sees the work. I prefer the viewer to direct his or her own interpretation of the work. With this series of images when I have shown them, I have not offered my own personal interpretation of the series of images until the viewer has given me their view. That said there are important themes to this work that perhaps merit some words.

The act of photography in itself is not essentially a political act. It is the interpretation of an image that is political. Although this set of images can be interpreted as being pro-environmental, and they were taken to portray the negative neglect of the natural environment, they also can be interpreted from an aesthetic point of view. The rust of the cars, although it signifies decay, is also quite beautiful in colour and texture. The complementary colours of the rusting wreck and the surrounding landscape challenges the viewer into asking whether it is truly an ugly object, as there is also a type of beauty present. It is only when you put into context what the object stands for, the events that placed it there and an impression of the impact on the surroundings that these objects are perceived as ugly.

The organic nature of the decay of the cars seems to place them naturally in the environment, but on the other hand they symbolize the destructive impact man has had on the environment. Although the car is definitely a manmade object, it seems almost organic sitting and perhaps sinking into the ancient bog. Metal occurs naturally in nature and in the care we have constrained it into an artificial shape to meet our needs. Rusting allows the metal to return to a more natural form. It is a great irony that the cars seem to take on the colour of the lanscape as they decay. Stripped of the paint and rusting their colour complements the colours of the surrounding bog. The burning of the cars has accelerated the degradation of the vehicle. But the perception of a rapid returning to the earth is false, as some of the materials in the car will take decades to decay and the plastics used in manufacture may never degrade.

The boglands of Ireland have a strange unnatural atmospheric quality and are places of great colour. They are places that defy the national myth that Ireland is a grey country. They exhibit a wide range of changing colour, with on some days an incredible variation in the tone and hue of this colour with each passing second. It is only in recent times that we in Ireland have started to appreciate their significance as part of our natural heritage. But many people still mistakenly perceive the bogs as empty and not useful. Cutting the bog to provide fuel almost justified their existence. Planting them with conifers was a way to make use of what was considered a natural waste of land.  Many are now preserved and protected, so this now no longer occurs to as great an extent as it did in the past, and we are beginning to realize the significance of these precious habitats. The Liffey Head Bog near where most of these images were taken is an EU protected Special Area of Conservation and part of the Wicklow Mountain National Park.

It is quite symbolic, however, that they are often now used as dumps for our waste even though this is in theory an illegal activity. Littering in bogs is in a sense a manifestation of the perception of bogs as empty spaces that need to be filled with our detritus. The abandonment of cars in the bog is a form of littering, but it is not just littering by those who abandon them but also by those who are responsible for removing them. Many of the cars remain in the area for many months and as well as being an eyesore for locals passing through the area, they provide a negative image of environmental neglect to the many tourists who visit this scenically beautiful part of the country. There is neglect and irresponsibility displayed by those responsible for removing the cars. Recent reports of illegal dumping in Wicklow and the laissez faire attitude to conservation we still have in this country have concentrated my mind on this aspect of the interpretation of the work.

In our modern world cars have a special social status as well as their functional use. They, although not the most efficient form of transport (especially in cities), are the most popular in every Western society. This is particularly significant in a country with a very inefficient transport system. Many Irish people have an almost personal relationship with their cars or view them as personal accessories to their own self esteem. So if their car is violated in some way it is seen as a personal attack. These stolen cars have been wantonly destroyed. Those who have had their own personal property violated or their car stolen may visualize the photographs with sadness. The destruction of the cars by burning indicates that not only is their violation but also annihilation with disregard for the property and belongings of others. The symbolism of cars in our modern society can be seen by the significant fact that when riots take place then cars are one of the objects that the rioters usually focus on and destroy.

The vehicles left in the Sally Gap are burnt out and may be abandoned by either criminals or joyriders. Criminals commonly steal a car to use it in a crime. The criminal destroys the stolen car to eliminate any evidence that has been left behind. They will have another form of transport nearby to take them away. They have used the mountain roads to avoid detection by the Gardai. The criminal uses the car in a different way to the joyrider.

Joyriding, although not specific to Ireland, has been a problem in this country for many decades. It is a social problem that is most prevalent in the more socially deprived suburbs of large urban centres. Joyriding is not a criminal offence so joyriders are usually charged with minor offences, so there is no significant deterrent to the activity. This limits the powers of the Gardai to prevent it. The problem has been concentrated mainly in Dublin with the majority of joyriders being from the capital, but in recent years it has spread to become a significant occurrence in other cities such as Cork and Limerick. Most joyriders are teenage boys and the average age of offenders is about seventeen. There seems to be a progression in the career of a joyrider with a passive role being played from a very young age (either watching or as a passenger). Then the child will be more active in the driving and will drive a “company” car, which is a car bought for the purpose of joyriding. Company cars are cheap cars that the joyrider uses to hone their driving skills. They are becoming increasingly available as people who want to get rid of cars that have failed the National Car Test and we live in a culture of the disposable car with little recycling facilities readily available.

Although joyriding is obviously a problem related to social deprivation, it is not a common activity, even in the most deprived of inner city estates. It is only a minority who joyride in the estates and they are usually very unpopular. It is, however, a glamorous pursuit for those who are in the clique and it provides status to those who have low esteem and are poor achievers in other aspects of their lives. Company cars are usually driven around the estates where the joyrider lives and then destroyed and abandoned, but often they act as playgrounds for very young children who may become future joyriders. After this the older joyrider may progress to stealing cars or other crimes and they venture further out beyond the estates where they live. For some joyriding is just a passing adolescent phase and they may go on to have children who subsequently joyride. In some cases, the cars are abandoned up in the Dublin or Wicklow Mountains, as were the cars photographed in this series of images. It is likely the buzz of the speed and the danger that is the attraction to joyriding and it is the whole process that is important from the stealing to the driving dangerously to the destruction of the vehicle.

There does not seem to be any fear of potential accidents and this is part of the bravado to assume you have superior driving skills. They do not feel any guilt or remorse as they feel that the owners of the car are rich and will have the car insured. Any victims of their dangerous driving should not have got in the way. The ritualistic burning of the car before abandonment is an essential part of the enjoyment and the rush. The crescendo of the experience is the spectacular “whoosh” of the petrol tank as it ignites.

© Conor Caffrey 2007


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