Art Portfolio: Niall O’Brien
I am speaking to O’Brien over Skype because he is currently residing in Campbell, a small town in California’s Silicon Valley. His girlfriend works for Apple. She’s been relocated there. And he’s been a bit bored. “It’s weird, because I’ve got no distractions here. I’m constantly trying to find things to do,” he says.
The boredom is good for me – it means he’s keen to chat. Not that, I get the impression, he ever needs much encouragement in that department. Logically, we begin by talking about the country of Cuba and his recent trip there. Was it what he expected? “It was just such a whirlwind,” he says. The experience began with Chanel’s cruise show, a big and beautiful celebration of Cuban culture that took place on the Paseo del Prado, a tree- lined boulevard in Old Havana. Editors were flown out from around the world. O’Brien snapped the girls backstage.
When it was over, though, he was off – to find a side of Cuba less travelled. It’s in those places, far from the industry’s lens, that he feels most at ease. “I worked 24/7 over the three days. I didn’t go to any of the other events,” he says. “I just photographed and photographed and photographed. I had a driver, Sergio, who took me around two tiny little towns outside the city, and I met cigar makers and all that kind of stuff.”
He wanted to capture something different from those sunny, saturated photographs one might find on certain stock-photography websites. The results can be seen on these pages. “I guess the challenge was that, aesthetically, it’s quite hard to get away from the cliché of Cuba,” he says. “Everything is old cars and panama hats.”
Perhaps due to his Irish charm, O’Brien found people and places to shoot by sweet-talking locals, asking them to show him the Havana hidden from tourists’ eyes. He slipped a kid $20 to let him inside one of the high-ceilinged apartments on the Paseo del Prado that had, the day before, looked out on the Chanel show. People were keen to help. “Everything is super-positive out there. There were a lot of people excited about the new trade with America,” O’Brien says. “One of the photographers who was with us was American, and Cubans were all over him, like, ‘My brother, come visit, bring people, we want you here.’”
O’Brien is used to whirlwind trips. Once when we called him, he was about to board a helicopter in an unnamed (but far-off) locale. He’s been shooting Filipino skateboarders in Barcelona for more than
three years. Before that, he travelled across California, Washington State, Montana and Idaho. His work is constantly fuelled by movement – so how does he choose where to go next? “Oh, they’re on a whim,” he says. “I never really research. I won’t sit down with a map or anything. I just literally get it in my head. I’m a little presumptuous. Sometimes I’m just like, ‘This place is like this and I want to go there.’”
His most recent fascination? Louisiana. He’s been there a few times, first infatuated by a documentary called Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus by Andrew Douglas that, as Wikipedia kindly imparts, “documents the intersection of country music and Christianity in the United States”. “I had always been interested in Louisiana,” O’Brien says, “but then, when I saw this, the whole idea of gothic America and, you know, the poetic history and the culture, it all came together.”
Before that, though, it had begun with him dreaming about Louisiana’s swamps. He’d had this fantasy about discovering a gang of tough female alligator hunters hiding out in the bayous. “I wanted to go and take portraits of these women who wrestled alligators, but it didn’t exactly exist. But the other side of it was I found this whole town that welcomed me in.”
And that’s where the project started. “Suddenly, I started to focus on this one little area,” he says. “I became fascinated with Cajun culture and the people I met there.” Becoming part of the community meant it changed the way he worked; it allowed an intimacy he had so far avoided.
“A lot of my early work was about documentary and penetrating a group of people and not being noticed, almost. No eye contact,” he says. “But now I’m approaching people directly and taking portraits with them looking straight down the barrel of the camera.” He is even interviewing them, giving the project an exciting depth.
The images will, at some point, find their way into a book of some description, but for now he’s just enjoying seeing how the project unfolds. Besides, he’s got another book to finish from a previous series, Porn Hurts Everyone, a selection of photographs that explore Christianity in America’s Midwest. That’s been on the cards for a few years. In the suburbs of Silicon Valley, he’s finally finding time. “That’s a project I really need to put to bed,” he says. “I might just say fuck it and have a book launch. I might just spend a ton of money.”
Fuck it – it’s an attitude O’Brien has had a lot lately. He’s cutting down on his fashion-editorial work (which has often funded his travel) and focusing again on creating art photography. “I’m trying to just take photographs for myself again, with zero influence, zero restraints. That’s been a massive weight off my shoulders,” he says. “Now I don’t give a flying fuck. I just go and take pictures.” Consider it a new beginning, then. “I honestly feel like I just left college and I’m just showing people my work,” he says. It’s an exciting place to be.
He is also concentrating once again on film-making. Slowly but surely, it’s taking over photography as his main love. “I think the thing about film-making was that it was quite exciting, because it was pushing me somewhere I’d never been before. I was learning again.”
It’s all in the early stages – he talks a lot about reading up on the process, speaking to his agent. He’s toying with making a short piece about the homeless man who resides at the bottom of his building in Silicon Valley. A documentary. “I’ve just started to communicate with him. I just talk to people. Something will come of it, and I think that’s quite an interesting angle.”
He’s also well into the creation of another short film with an author pal, about a small town “deep, deep, deep” in Louisiana’s bayou system called Bayou Chene. “It was a tiny place, but I was fascinated by it. We’ve been doing tons of research.” He’s in talks with Hollywood sorts about making it into something longer. “To be honest, if I make one film and it does well, then I’m happy,” he says. “Even if I never did another film after that, I’d still be happy.”
It’s the way that O’Brien’s mind works. He’s constantly searching for new experiences. He’s determined to find something worth photographing in Silicon Valley. The morning before, he went on a three-hour walk, just exploring. It wasn’t fruitful. But he knows he’ll find something eventually. He’ll end up talking to someone who knows someone who knows someone else – and there will be a story, somewhere along the line. “I still think the same way that I used to think as a kid,” he says. “I’m very spontaneous and impatient. I like to discover things, and I think it helps the photography, too, because when I get somewhere I want to be, I get really excited. Even if it’s just a pile of leaves on the ground.”
Taken from Issue 57 of 10 Magazine, TRUE RANDOM AUTHENTIC, on newsstands now…