Pin It
Sean O’Connell Broth Tarn
Photography by Sean O’Connell

Sean O’Connell’s bittersweet portrait of small-town Yorkshire

‘It’s not pretty’: The photographer’s ongoing project, Broth Tarn, documents his day-to-day life in Barnsley

Visiting the home of photographer Sean O’Connell is like arriving on a vaguely familiar film set. It is a perfectly normal terraced house – the kettle boils, the washing machine spins and the radio hums quietly in the background – but it has appeared again and again in O’Connell’s photographs. The decorative carpet on the staircase, the flickering gas fire, the enclosed backyard all play a starring role in his stop and shoot photographic practice that uncovers the moments of cinematic glory hidden in everyday life.

A textured tussle of limbs is O’Connell’s friends fighting, while an angular view of a rain-soaked street is a drugs’ pick up. Sometimes a neighbour hangs out the washing, other times his grandma eats breakfast. “There is no set theme to what I photograph” explains O’Connell, who carries a film camera wherever he goes. “Broth Tarn to me is like a life project – it is just ongoing.”

Broth Tarn – the collective name for O’Connell’s photographs and corresponding Instagram account – is the closest we’ll get to finding a motivation behind his “gut instinct” shots. “Broth” is an in-joke that refers to something that is a bit shit, and “tarn” is northern slang for “town”. Most of O’Connell’s images are shot in and around the south Yorkshire town of Barnsley where he grew up and currently resides, and they encapsulate the dichotomy of a place that is both alive with spirit and hampered by economic hardship.

O’Connell’s relationship to his hometown is not straightforward: “It is a love-hate situation. I love the history of it. I love what it would stand for back in the day, when there was a lot of work going off and it was this marvellous place. But now that time has passed, there is a lot of unemployment. It’s not a pretty place to be knocking around. A lot of people need an escape, whether that be the pub or off your head in your mate’s kitchen at 5am.”

Such a scenario concluded with O’Connell realising he had his own drug problem and joining a 12-step programme. In hindsight, he admits to using his artistic endeavours as an excuse to party. “You talk yourself into loads of shit when you’re doing drugs and drinking a lot – the people you hang out with and the chaos you get yourself into. I justified a lot of it by having a camera in my pocket and some of my best work has been made in those situations, but ultimately, I was there for drugs.”

An accidental documentarian, his recent photography books track his journey from a life unmoored by drugs to the slow dawning of addiction recognition. His 2020 lockdown book No Sleep Til Summer Lane – which features hazy, hot days adrift in Barnsley – leads to 2021’s The Lantern Boys poetry collaboration with Andy Cargill and closes with the silhouette of an angelic monument disappearing into the shadows. The final line of the book reads: “We’ve carried this curse forever”.   

As of February, he is four months sober and carving out a new way of life for himself, keeping to his creative circles, preparing a major exhibition (Lads Not on Tour for Barnsley Civic) and – of course – taking plenty of photos. Maybe it was sobriety or maybe it was turning 30, but O’Connell has finally become comfortable referring to himself as a “photographer”. Recently, when wandering around the area where Kes was filmed, he spotted a man, drinking and on crutches who peaked his attention. Waiting a moment, the man began shouting and a bunch of kids rushed down the path, instigating the perfect photograph. “I am more confident with it now – I feel like I am doing something, and I am there for a reason. I am going to get this picture to explain what is happening here. I am not going to shy away from it.” 

Aside from the occasional fashion photograph and a campaign he shot for Burberry, O’Connell is not one for staging photoshoots because “nowt ever works.” Looking down at the array of photographs he has scattered across the lounge floor, he adds, “they are all weird situations that you find yourself in, you can’t instigate them. It just happens, and luckily you are ready for it.” 

Lads Not on Tour opens July 9 at Barnsley Civic