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Niall O'Brien
Photography Niall O'Brien

What the unexpected image is according to Niall O’Brien

Taken on a north American road trip, the Irish photographer opens up about a shot that he has no recollection of taking

Dublin-born, London-based photographer Niall O’Brien has an eye for capturing the now and seizing raw emotion. A self-described “unaware” photographer, he makes sure to keep boundaries in place when documenting his subjects – leading to intimate but also distant images, such as his celebrated series Good Ratswhere he documented a gang of young London punks, dubbed The K.B.C Punks (Kingston Brew Crew).

Most recently, the Irish photographer has been shooting in Louisiana for a project that so far involves some portrait photography and interviews – O’Brien is concentrating on connecting more with his subjects than in his previous work – but is evolving organically with each shot. While not entirely decided of the project’s direction just yet, O’Brien says issues like depression and unemployment are key to it – both recurring elements in O’Brien’s oeuvre. Below, he shares the story behind an image that he doesn’t remember taking. Chosen from his series Porn Hurts Everyone – which he is currently making into a book – the image was shot on a road trip around north west America, and has since led him to question some aspects of his work taken over the past 15 years.

“The photo is from a series called Porn Hurts Everyone, that was shot in north west America – in California, Washington State, Montana and Idaho – about five years ago. Porn Hurts Everyone is also a book I’m making and starting to publish this year. The series was based on the fascination of Christianity and basically involved me going on this journey and being open minded in regards to the people I met. What happened in the end was that it became quite a subtle road trip and observation of this America. The title Porn Hurts Everyone summed up the project perfectly – we were in this place called Seapointe in California and there was a sign on a little plot of grass that said ‘Porn Hurts Everyone’ opposite a porn shop.

The image was taken at Boise State Fair, which was a predominantly Christian fair in Idaho – they have Christian jazz bands and Christian this and Christian that – and this whole summer fair idea was almost born out of religion. Then I completely overlooked it for about two years – this really beautiful photograph, representing exactly what I like in imagery, it’s very serene and very unaware. The kid was completely unaware of me taking it and I have no recollection of taking it either, which is quite an interesting idea when it comes to photography, because photographers are quite insistent on owning images and being very protective over that.

“I have no recollection of taking it either, which is quite an interesting idea when it comes to photography, because photographers are quite insistent on owning images and being very protective over that” – Niall O’Brien

I’m kind of detached from this image – whereas the whole point of my photography is about attachment – which contradicts everything that I’ve fought for when it comes to owning my photography. It was quite an enlightening little moment, where me being quite protective of and being very particular on my edit, ended up falling all over a photograph that I didn't essentially pick, so it's quite an interesting image.

I actually realised that the way I work is very unaware, I’m so conscious of hiding and being hidden from the people I’m taking photographs of that I’m actually not concentrating so much on the actual images. I know the image is there and I’m so confident in that I don't remember the actual moment of taking it, which I thought was quite a weird thing for me to realise so late in a career.

It made me think about process and approach because in the 15 years of being a photographer, I’ve always had this idea that I understand exactly what I’m doing. I sometimes come to these rare crossroads where I’m like ‘fuck, actually, what I thought of photography and how I do it is not what I imagined’ but I make sure that I’m very open-minded and I don't have too much of an opinion.”

See more work from O'Brien below, taken from his series Good Rats