Pin It
Niall O’Brien: Porn Hurts Everyone
Niall O’Brien, “Porn Hurts Everyone”Courtesy the artist

This new photo book gets under America’s skin

Irish photographer Niall O’Brien embarks on a 4000-mile trip across north-western America, documenting the lives of those who exist on the country’s periphery

Six years ago, Niall O’Brien set out on a 4000-mile trip across north-western America with a few friends and his camera. When it comes to his work, O’Brien is known for embedding himself within the societal tribes of youthful subculture, but this time, the photographer behind the seminal Goodrats series switched his gaze towards a different kind of cultural periphery – that of church-going, Republican-voting, small-town USA.

Fast-forward to 2017, and the images that O’Brien gathered throughout his journey have come together to form Porn Hurts Everyone, a photobook that captures the lives of those existing within the rural outposts he spent time observing. While the photos were taken in a pre-Trump America, O’Brien’s images hone in on similar ideas of fear, claustrophobia and anger that the current US president manipulated so successfully during his campaign. The book is a thought-provoking inversion of the great American road trip, which unravels like a Kerouacian maunder despite its lack of chronology.

In conjunction with the launch of Porn Hurts Everyone, we spoke to O’Brien about America’s double-edged kindness, his fascination with the unknown and the role that fear plays in both religion and politics.

What inspired you to start the project?

Niall O’Brien: The idea behind it was that I wanted to do quite an extensive road trip around north-west America ­one of the things that interested me in that part of the world was that I hadn’t really explored it much. I got hooked up on this idea of all of these state fairs that America had and the idea of how Christian and Republican a lot of the people out there were. That for me was one of the main kind of goals – to experience. It was more an experiential thing, rather than searching for particulars. The set goal was to find the path and follow it, as opposed to finding individual people and getting to know them, which has been the primary way I’ve taken photos in the past. Goodrats took me about five years, and I spent all of those with this one particular group. It was almost the opposite of what I’d been doing before – not connecting with people, but almost getting a sense of the world they were from. 

How did this experience compare, as opposed to those projects – such as Goodrats, like you say – where you’d embed yourself in a single culture or community for an extensive period of time?

Niall O’Brien: I wasn’t connected. The more intimate portraits of people were my friends, the not-so-intimate were just more fleeting. I guess there were stages where I got to – for instance, in Idaho, we met a group of kids who were swimming in this big swimming hole. It was one of the most informing experiences, I got to actually talk to the kids. I was fascinated quite heavily with youth at that time, so to get to hang out with a different group of kids and to understand their outlook on the world was exactly what I was looking for. Escapism, for me, has always been an interesting part of growing up – this idea of wanting to get out. All these kids had that, but they didn’t really know how to. They’d never travelled. 

“I’m always drawn to the things I don’t understand. The less information I have about something, the more I want to photograph it” – Niall O’Brien 

What is it that draws you to capturing these peripheral communities in your work?

Niall O’Brien: I guess I’m always drawn to the things I don’t understand. The less information I have about something, the more I want to photograph it. I like to explore things while I’m taking pictures. I’m not one for so much prior research, but when I start doing a project, I think that’s when all the research starts to happen. I tend to be fascinated by things I’m not too sure of. I mean, with this, it was quite simple – the idea of doing a road trip through an area of America I didn’t really know. It’s about documenting and integrating – I’m into that idea of being able to be a part of what they’re doing and learn something from it.

Although the series wasn’t intended as political, in a post-Trump world, have you found that Porn Hurts Everyone takes on a second life as a documentation of what was bubbling before the election? 

Niall O’Brien: I guess so. The thing about the project is that it’s very personal – it’s very relevant to what I’ve experienced and it’s not so relevant to what you might see on the page. That is what it is and I’m not gonna defend that in any way – it’s very observational. The thing about me and photography is that it’s always been about experience. The experience I had was exploring this part of America. Suddenly I’m in these small towns meeting the Republicans. These beautifully friendly, welcoming people who ate apple pie and ice cream and wanted to give you a bed to sleep on and look after you, yet, speaking generally, they all had quite strong opinions on war and were very negative about Obama. I couldn’t really get my head around this contrast – everything I thought was quite negative and mean about America was actually embedded in what I found kind about the country too.

It’s almost coincidence if anything that the book comes out when all of these Republicans have had quite possibly what they wanted, now that Donald Trump is in power. It’s not a political book – I’m not a political person in any way. But I do think it’s interesting that it’s come full circle in regards to what I was looking at. 

You mention that religion was one of the themes you set out to explore – what kind of role does it play in the book?

Niall O’Brien: Well, the original title of the book was ‘Christian Corndogs’. Ryann – the girl I travelled with – wrote me an email explaining what it was like out there. She told me about the fetes and how they label everything ‘Christian’. The idea of labelling a corndog as a ‘Christian corndog’ to me was really fucking interesting. The fact that they will put religion on everything – be it the hip hop group that plays at the fete, or the jazz band, or the games they play there, the firing ranges and so on. They seem to label everything as being Christian and try to find religion in everything, in almost a pop culture kind of way. I found that quite interesting coming from a Catholic background – I was force-fed church every Sunday. I’m agnostic, I don’t really have a religion, but I guess from having it in my life for so long I’m fascinated by it.

It’s the God-fearing side of things that I find interesting. One of the fascinating things about politics and religion is this idea of fear and how it crosses over. God-fearing people, other country-fearing people, other religion-people, other ethnicity-fearing people – they’re all knee-jerk reactions. That’s kind of what I heard out there. So many of these people who were lovely – I really can’t have felt more at home – just wanted America to go to war. There was a lot of fear. 

Are there any particular stand out moments from the trip?

Niall O’Brien: The kids we were swimming with. We were there that day at the water with a few beers and just when we were starting to really relax – and just think of it as a day out – a really interesting group of kids came round the corner. We just kind of befriended them. I didn’t really talk much – I just took pictures of these amazing kids who were having their “Summer of 69” moment. They were all hanging out, jumping off ramps, kissing each other, daring each other – they were super in awe and it felt really special because it was one of those things where you just knew the photos were gonna be gold. It was a huge moment. All of the pictures have little stories, though. There’s no point chucking up a cool photo without it having some kind of substance. I think that’s why it takes me quite a long time to pump the projects out. I can’t really justify it unless it has a good bit of story behind it. 

Porn Hurts Everyone is released worldwide on May 2 2017