Friday, May 11, 2007

At the Staff Club with Maciej Dakowicz

It's Wednesday night at the Glamorgan County Council Staff Club and as usual it's like a Toulouse Lautrec painting come to life.

On the banquette Mary and Tony are kissing with eyebrow-raising intensity. Mary will be 60 on her next birthday, Tony 63. Over in the corner Alan from the Docks holds court telling everyone about his failed singing career and what might have been. Silently sweeping the floorboards in a three-piece-suit is Dan who always has mirth in his eyes. Harry, John, Jim, Percy, Meic, Ted, Louise - all the usual suspects are in tonight.

At first amid the raucous laughter and good natured banter you hardly notice Maciej Dakowicz. The unassuming Polish photographer sits at a table enjoying a quiet beer. He likes to neck a couple of pints before starting work - it helps him relax. More importantly it enables him to blend in with his surroundings, to become part of the scene. This is the photographic equivalent of method acting. By the end of the evening he will be as half-cut as the rest of the clientele.

Maciej has been photographing customers at the Staff Club now for 18 months. During that time the 30-year-old from Bialystok has won the trust of the regulars who treat him with genuine affection. Why though, they wonder, does he find this place so interesting? Some nights he dishes out prints for them to take home to their families. Examples of his work can be found on mantelpieces from Grangetown to Craig-y-Rhacca. The less enlightened use them as beer mats.

"You berrer not be sticking me on the internet!" warns Debbie from Ely, when she spots him aiming his camera. Thing is, when he directs his Canon EOS 5D at somebody else she strikes her best Kate Moss pose and bellows: "Oi! get yer arse back yur and shoot me". Maciej obliges with a broad smile and tells her that the camera adores her. He is a good people person.

Not everyone likes to be photographed. As the Polish lensman moves from table to table snapping grizzled drinkers one belligerent punter tells him to: "bugger off!" It is interesting to see how he deals with such a confrontational situation. Maciej apologises and hands over his digital camera. Take a picture of me, he says. Surprised, the malcontent accepts the invitation and takes the shot. Together they assess the result on the LCD screen. Maciej is brutally honest: too blurred, he says, here let me show you how it is done. And click, he has his picture.

But Maciej dislikes posed shots. He prefers his subjects to be completely unaware of his presence, that way the results are more natural. For him the important thing here is that he has taken the "threat" out of the camera. Now he is just that harmless Polish guy who likes taking pictures and thus he becomes invisible. In this state he will take his best photographs.

As the evening proceeds gangs of spruced-up youngsters stream past the windows heading towards the main drag of bars and nightclubs. They wouldn't be seen dead in a place like this. The clientele here are too old, too unfashionable, too down-at-heel. Like dog shit on a Jimmy Choo the Staff Club is a bit of authentic Cardiff clinging obstinately to a metropolis getting glitzier by the day.

And make no mistake change is in the air. Places that hitherto defined this city keep vanishing from the landscape. The latest local institutions threatened with extinction are The Vulcan, Bear Shop, and Spillers Records. Breathe in on St Mary Street and you can taste the dust from the monstrous St David's 2 retail complex (the size of 30 football pitches) currently under construction. Cardiff is in a state of flux.

But tonight at the Staff Club everything is as it should be. Harry, from Pontypridd, is in his usual spot by the fruit machine; Jessica mops up the bar; and a pint of Brains Bitter still only costs £1.85. Music is playing - a mix-tape of old favourites: Only the Lonely, Wooden Heart, Mack the Knife. In shuffles Wilfred from Maesycymmer resplendent in the loudest shirt Oxfam has to offer - he looks like a Welsh Charles Bukowski. Nobody takes much notice. Nobody except Maciej Dakowicz who steadies his hands to capture the moment and fix it absolutely in time. Here at the Staff Club, Cardiff, one warm Spring evening in 2007.

*The above photograph is used with the kind permission of Maciej Dakowicz.