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Good Rats

Dublin-born photographer Niall O' Brien is cutting his teeth in the Big Smoke

Niall O' Brien grew up in Dublin, immersed from an early age in the Irish traditions of skateboarding and hip hop. His immediate friends and travels were documented through a growing interest in photography as a means of preserving the fleeting moments and feelings. Having moved to London and completed a stint as an assistant, he is out on his own in the cold city cutting his teeth in the way he knows best.

Honest and unpretentious, his work embodies total immersion. This is white knuckle, spit and sawdust stuff. There are, like the man, no half measures in his work. In light of his first major solo show "Good Rats" we spoke to him to find out about the subjects of the show, The K.B.C Punks (Kingston Brew Crew) and what motivates him day-to-day.

Dazed Digital: Can you tell us a bit about your background as a photographer?
Niall O'Brien: I grew up skateboarding and I decided to pick up my dad's camera and take pictures of my mates. That kind of progressed into taking pictures for skate magazines and some of my images got used on board graphics, I was actually quite successful (laughing), I started off making money and every year it gets less and less, I've whittled it down to minus money! I was quite commercially minded when I started out, which I think now has changed due to an acceptance of the situation I'm in. My work is developing, getting closer to being 100% my own, rather than trying to be like anyone else.

DD: How did your relationship with the K.B.C kids begin?
Niall O'Brien: I was making a film called "Super Heroes" with a director called Matt Lambert, he'd bumped into this one called Turkish in Camden and asked him if he'd like to be in a video, Turkish told him to fuck off, so we offered him £50 and he changed his mind. It was a coincidence that they were all punks. We filmed them and asked them what super powers they'd have if they could choose, it's a bit poetic, then they started kicking the shit out of each other. You can see it on my web site. Since then it has developed into a documentary project that has taken a long time to work on and get into and most importantly to gain the trust of the kids. The first two years they didn't accept me that much. It's been nearly four years now. They thought I was a paedo for ages, it was only when they met my girlfriend, and found out she plays in a band that they started to trust me!

DD: Can you explain where the photographer/friend boundary lies.
Niall O'Brien: It's one of the main parts of the project, the interaction and distance I need to keep, whilst they are my friends I am still aware I can't get too involved. I don't encourage them to do things but in the same I don't stop them doing things. A lot of people think that because the pictures are in ridiculous locations that they are staged and that they play up to the camera but I promise you I am gutted every time I talk to them about the times I'm not there, they're fucking far worse! I've missed out on a lot of stuff. There's a picture in the show of Tim being arrested, I ran in front of the police when they were taking him away and was just taking pictures, I can't intervene, he got chucked away in a van but of course I went to one of the coppers and said he's not a bad kid, so go easy on him.

DD: Who or what influences you?
Niall O'Brien: A massive influence of mine when I was growing up in the 90's, even before I got into photography was Larry Clark, I saw Kids because I was a skateboarder and I could relate to it and I was fascinated with New York. I bought the book Tulsa, then I realised he was a photographer. Since I've been hanging out with the kids I've been influenced by their music, punk music. I never would've thought I'd be a fan of hardcore punk music. The anticipation I get from getting a contact sheet back, getting exciting pictures, I have a front row seat with these kids and I'm happy with that.

DD: Can you tell us a bit about the show, where does the title Good Rats come from?
Niall O'Brien: It comes from a Drop Kick Murphys song which Shane MacGowan features on, it's a great tune but I actually think the reason is that summed up everything I thought about the project and the kids. I walk around with these kids and the noses that are turned up are unbelievable, people are disgusted by the kids and they think of them as rats, people think they're despicable, but I feel, in my heart of hearts that they are good kids. Hanging the show has been easy, Art Works Space is a really beautiful gallery, I saw it and just thought yeah, perfect. It's a massive space and I've had to fill it, I've never done things by halves, (laughs).

DD: What's next for you?
Niall O'Brien: I'm working on a screenplay with Martin Forsythe who I've known for a long time, he helps me creatively a lot, he transcribes ideas for me. Ultimately I'd like to make some of the kid's anecdotes in to a film, it'd be based around the narratives from the kids I've seen and heard. And I'd approach it in the same way I approached Super Heroes, totally street cast. Approaching the subject matter in a way that suits the subject y'know. I'm not going to scale a 15ft wall to break into an abandoned mental asylum only to get arrested if I didn't have a desire to do it. I've devoted myself to photography for such a long time that I cannot afford to miss these opportunities.

Good Rats runs from Mon. Feb 1st to Thurs. 11th March 2010 at Arts Works Space.