Photographs

TOUCHED BY STRANGERS

An Archaeology of Intimacy

 

Marine Drive is a dead-end that turns back on itself just at the point where the woods come down to meet the cold grey estuary of the Firth of Forth in Edinburgh. Cars line this stretch, bringing dog-walkers, joggers, families with bikes and prams, sports enthusiasts, and men with a predilection for sexual encounters with strangers. The thin strip of mixed-woodland between the arable fields and the restless sea gives cover to the males that roam within: a leafy canopy that conceals the private act from the public eye.

If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise, although not immediately: a condom wrapper among the litter is no cause for concern, but once one’s eyes become attuned to the ambience, the evidence points to a veritable fountain of sexual activity. Look more closely and you begin to understand the nature of these liaisons as predominantly homoerotic. More closely still and one starts to discern particularly chilling sexual appetites: a discarded pizza box carries the words ‘Son Watch’ written large in marker pen; a child’s rocking horse lies concealed with strewn tissues beside it; a crude dildo fashioned from wood and wound with polythene is covered with a towelling sock for comfort. Extreme sexual fantasies are enacted with impunity because there is an implicit assumption that visitors here are part of this secret community.

 

The authorities seem to have an ambivalent attitude towards the ‘cruising’ that occurs there. The council is quick to remove anti-gay graffiti that is daubed throughout the woods and roadside, while attempting to block entrances to the site. Gay support organisations distribute packs of condoms and lubricants, and fearful men with double-lives hide these beneath rocks for future use. Police patrol the area by car, but rarely seem to venture into the woods. There is a tacit acknowledgement that sexual encounters take place there, but the Sexual Offences Act is vague in this area, so resources are only used to protect the public from exposure.

These photographs reveal the furtive world that coexists behind a public façade of decency, presented without moral condemnation. I have no voyeuristic interest in the men or the acts they engage in, only in the traces of intimacy that are left behind in the objects framed by my lens, and in the life of the woods that is the locus for these encounters and rituals: the verdant upsurge of spring, the claustrophobic density of summer that finally gives way to the linear openness of winter in an endless cycle of death and rebirth. Freud identified the primitive urges for death and procreation in the human psyche as Thanatos and Eros, and if we are to understand the urge for death as the risk to normal life that secrecy protects, and the eroticism associated with this danger as sexual urgency then the evidence for these twin drives is to be found in abundance in the woods at the end of Marine Drive.

 

Philip Braham July 2014