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Morgan O'Donovan: The Facebook Project

Five hundred portraits shot over 12 hazy nights in east London are shown as part of Dalston Superstore’s ongoing art program

Photographing people in “varying states of sobriety”, Morgan O’Donovan took over 500 portraits of the faces gracing East-London haunts. The series shows revellers approached over 12 nights in late 2009, with subjects captured on-the-moment whatever state he found them in. Though atypical of nightlife photography, each photo is shot using the harsh exposure of a medical photography flash. Faces appear tightly cropped dominating most of the frame drawing the viewer to acute similarities and differences between faces.

Lavish make-up is visible, but so are blemishes and imperfections and in turn insecurities. Side by side these build up a picture of surprising homogeneity in form, exploring the ideals people portray in a Facebook profile picture. The Facebook Project opens Wednesday as part of an ongoing art program at Dalston Superstore. More than a hundred life-size portraits will be displayed, with another 370 shown on a projector. 

Dazed Digital: How would you define the project (more specifically) and your photography (more generally)?
Morgan O’Donovan: A quasi-religious taxonomical view on a sub set of London clubbers. And my photography... getting better.

DD: What got you interested in photographing the nightclub scene?
Morgan O’Donovan: Nearly all of this project is shot in a bar or club, and this was not really about photographing a nightclub scene (although that is something I did do several years ago), but it was the easiest way that it would guarantee a large number of Facebook friends would be there.

DD: What instructions do you give to your subject when taking a portrait? 
Morgan O’Donovan: The instructions were 'no smiling, look straight into the camera'. These are simple enough, but when dealing with a large group of people in, shall we say varying states of sobriety, it's not the easiest of tasks at times. But there was never a dull moment. This was done by myself using an old bed sheet in the corner of a nightclub or bar. It never seemed too intimidating. 

DD: Why call it The Facebook Project?
Morgan O’Donovan: With the rise of social networking, the user allows the world a view into their life, by providing certain elements of private information into the public domain. One key element of this is the profile picture: a public display of ones self to the world. This image provides a whole array of fascinating insights to the life of the person it belongs to, but tend towards the gracious and satisfying. Contrary to this are images that mask and protect the user from unwanted attention. The Facebook project is about uncovering the person behind the guise and trying to create a set of images by which everyone is revealed in a more straight forward manner or one in which you might recognise them while walking down the street.

DD: What was the decision behind using techniques from medical photography e.g. a ring flash?
Morgan O’Donovan: As in medical photography, the ring flash allows very precise and shadow free images, and thus a very consistent survey can be achieved.  The use of a white/ neutral backdrop also helps further this goal.

DD: How did you choose your subjects?
Morgan O’Donovan: This is a taxonomical project therefore to reflect the true nature of it, everyone is a subject. This is why in the show there is a projector displaying every single 0f the 500+ people who agreed to be photographed.

DD: What characteristics do you look to shoot? What gages your interest in a face?
Morgan O’Donovan: The intention of this project from the very start was fight the day to day homogenised image we see, and look at the detail, up close, and produce a set of just larger than life size prints. There is maybe too much elitism in projects like this if they become exclusive, and why should they?  It was very important to try and capture as many people as possible. The aim of the project was to give a multitude of people this unifying image.

DD: What is your favourite photograph from the series?
Morgan O’Donovan: Well, there are a lot of images in the series, and to have a favourite would be hard (although I have blown up two for the show). An interesting outcome of the project is that the goal of the project was never quite reached. As you can see in the images there is a lot of dressing up going on, which is another disguise, another charade, so perhaps there are some of my Facebook friends who I will never recognise as I walk down the street.

DD: Why Dalston Superstore as a platform to showcase your work?
Morgan O’Donovan: I love the place. 

'The Facebook Project' by Morgan O’Donovan launches Wednesday 24th November at Dalston Superstore, 6.30pm onwards. Music by Princess Julia, Jim Warboy, Ian Robinson, Josh Quinton & Erol Sabadosh.