We Real Cool

The #RealCoolNCATBS photographic competition was a good opportunity to open my super deluxe limited edition of Push The Sky Away. The white carton box had been sitting on my shelf for a few months now. I couldn’t bring myself to break the seal, as the exhilaration of discovering was stronger than the knowing what was inside. But tonight is an exciting time. I have decided to enter the #RealCoolNCATBS photographic competition: ‘share a picture of what this track means to you’.

I sat down at my computer, played the song ‘We Real Cool’ on repeat, and started flicking through the reproduction of Nick Cave’s notebook (lovely touches and the attention to detail is astonishing by the way) that came with the Push The Sky Away.

I did what I usually do when I select photographs – that is, immersing myself in a song through my earphones; one song, not two, just the one – in a loop, until I am done with my photographs. It can take one hour or even two, the same song over and over again. My mind wonders between the images, the music and the vocals. Every so often I’ll fixate on a word or phrase: ‘heartbeats’, ‘tears’, ‘who was it?’ etc…

I’m enjoying flicking between the music, the notebook, the lyrics and my own photographs. And then something happens, something that French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson knowledgeably described as ‘the equilibrium of it’.

… ‘inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it’

(Cartier-Bresson, 1966: 47)

Of course Cartier-Bresson was referring to the act of photographing, but for me ‘equilibrium’ is also to be found in the selection of photographs. If I want to give a second life to one of my photographs it has to be a worthy one.

I must have been looking at more than a hundred photographs while the song was playing – the bass line thumping in my head and Cave’s vocals loud in my earphones, yet distant; closing my eyes from time to time – letting my mind wander.  ‘Who was it, yeah you know, we real cool’. I thought of my brother. And when I think of my brother I think of my series of photographs I took in Ouistreham. Invariably I think of Rimbaud, suicide and death. I like my series of desolate and forsaken beach huts. Behind them I imagine my brother asleep at peace with himself.

Was it my interpretation of the song ‘We Real Cool’? I started the song from the beginning and viewed these photos on my screen. Somehow the images and the song didn’t work together. There was no sense of ‘equilibrium’.

I carried on viewing more photographs – this time of my mother. As Cave sang ‘who chased your shadow running out behind’ I viewed this photo:


Having just thought of my brother and his death it was a logical progression that I should think of mother. Her pain, her past, my pain, our past that is ‘here to stay’. As I was fixating the images, the lyrics started slotting in on their own:

‘Who bought you clothes and new shoes and bought you a book you never read. Yeah you know. Who was it? I hope you’re listening. Are you? Who was it you called the good shepherd. Rounding up the kids for their meal. Who chased your shadow running out behind? I hope you’re listening too. The past is the past and it is here to stay. I hope you hear me and you’ll call…’

(Cave, 2013)

This equilibrium that I seem to have reached is far from perfect. But, it is one that works for me. I look at my mother’s profile. It is my mother’s. Yet it is not. As Barthes wrote: ‘I had no hope of “finding” her’ (Barthes, 1980, p. 63). It is as if she is already disappearing from the image. I’ll never find her and yet, ‘we real, real cool’.

This equilibrium is forced because a competition is an artificial context. Yet, what I have just been through is an accelerated process of making a song my own. I have incorporated ‘We Real Cool’ in my life, I have dressed it with real people who mean a lot to me and enveloped it in my memories. And now, it belongs to me.


Barthes, R. (1980), Camera Lucida (R. Howard, Trans.). London: Vintage Books.

Cartier-Bresson, H. (1966), ‘The decisive moment (1952)’. In N. Lyons (ed.), Photographers on photography (pp. 41-51). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Cave, N. (1979) We Real Cool. London: Mute Song Ltd.

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