Kristyna Archer: An Interview with Niall O'Brien
Brileigh Hardcastle
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April 19th, 2022

By Kristyna Archer

405 #11, Niall O'Brien, Obscura Community Commission.
405 #11, Niall O'Brien, Obscura Community Commission.

Obscura Journal contributor Kristyna Archer interviewed Irish photographer Niall O’Brien for Obscura Journal in advance of his Obscura Community Commission drop. They discuss O’Brien’s entry point to photography, his process, and his recent Obscura Community Commission, an NFT photo essay titled 405.

Niall O’Brien is a photographer looking to tell stories from an honest, raw, and unfiltered truth. He is an active Obscurian, a WHO WE ARE grant recipient, a part of Fellowship Futures, and was commissioned by the Obscura Community Commission Two years After the Storm. Niall had actually taken my portrait for the Who We Are grant and it was selected to be minted on Foundation for WWA 200. Our exchange was brief but mighty. I had not been properly photographed since 2019. I was so humbled to see Niall take out his 4x5 and medium format cameras, solidifying how special this moment was in connecting me back to my roots with shooting on my Hasselblad.

Niall O'Brien, 405, Obscura Community Commission.
Niall O'Brien, 405, Obscura Community Commission.

Archer: I see you as a nomad, searching for the most interesting subcultures in the world, looking to immerse yourself and connect. I’d love to learn more about your upbringing and where that level of comfort and genuine curiosity came from.

O’Brien: The first main project was Good Rats. I'm not even entirely sure what I was doing before that, of course I was a photographer and I would document and photograph, but there was nothing coherent in it. Then someone asked me to make a film, and I was trying to find a group of kids that all had something in common. My whole world was skateboarding, it’s a massive part of what I do, and it has been very influential to my life. When I was asked to make this film, I had this idea of throwing a bunch of friends in a room and filming them having a fluid conversation. I assumed it’s going to be skateboarders. And then someone who was helping me organize this found this one punk kid in Camden, in London, his name is Turkish. We gathered his friends and made a film of them. They were proper like DIY punks, in DIY jackets, all about 14, drinking, stabbing each other with the knife, and hardcore squatting. I took pictures while we were filming and then I just kept on going back. The next thing I knew, a couple of years passed and it kind of took over itself. I showed it to my colleague Patel, who had been handling my PR. She saw the work and felt that we had to do a show. I had an exhibition and five years into it and it blew up. It was a very honest sociology project, but also the kids looked cool and I think it hit a sweet spot. It was simply my need to recapture my youth in these kids, whomever they happened to be, which was this bunch of wild, beautiful punk kids with all this energy.

Left: "Good Rats" Book, right: ______ Good Rats, Niall O'Brien.
Left: "Good Rats" Book, right: ______ Good Rats, Niall O'Brien.

Archer: I’d love to learn more about your early influences, I liken some of your work to Nan Goldin. What artists inspired you early on?

O’Brien: I remember going to the cinema with my friend and we we’re all skating. We saw a trailer come up for Larry Clark's film Kids. We all started freaking out, like we had seen ourselves on the big screen. We'd never seen that before, it was unbelievable. Larry Clark directed it, and I then realized he was a photographer. So I started getting into photography through skateboarding. I ended up getting a first edition copy of Tulsa, and wrote my senior thesis on Larry Clark. There were questionable ideas after he made this book Teenage Lust. I think even back then, I liked boundaries being crossed and I started to dig a little bit deeper. He was a big influence. The one main thing that would relate to Clark is that I wanted to end up in a position with these kids where they were so at ease with me, they wouldn't think about me taking pictures. You're getting this unbelievable sense of truth in the photos. 

Left: Movie Poster, Kids, 1995, directed by Larry Clark. Right: Tulsa, book by Larry Clark, 1971.
Left: Movie Poster, Kids, 1995, directed by Larry Clark. Right: Tulsa, book by Larry Clark, 1971.
Teenage Lust, Larry Clark, 1983.
Teenage Lust, Larry Clark, 1983.

Archer: With such long-term projects, when do you get the sense they are done?

O’Brien: Nothing I’ve ever done has ever been finished. For all I know I could meet those kids in London next week and take photos of them. I used to think the minute you have an exhibition or publish a book, it's done. It's not, it's never done.

Archer: There is this sense of discovery I gleaned from an excerpt your friend Ryann Bosetti wrote about your photo essay Porn Hurts Everyone. She wrote “an attempt to walk into the quiet corners of the Small Town; to engage but not disturb, to observe, to absorb, to record and to try so hard, ultimately, to understand. In the end, understanding became irrelevant and we couldn’t help but develop a sense of compassion for and connection to the unintentionally heartbreaking traits of this curious way of life.” It alludes to how these types of long-term projects become all-consuming, where do you draw the line of subjectivity and objectivity, and if you are influencing the subjects, are you a fly on the wall, are you apart of these communities or distinctly and dutifully remain a respectful outsider observing? 

O’Brien: Everything’s so different, with Good Rats and Trying To Cut Bubblegum there was no influence there. I just enjoy hanging out and connecting with those kids. They were skateboarders and I was once them. Blue Crawfish was my huge departure from shooting on 35 mm running around with a bunch of punk rocks to having medium format composed connected to camera images, and it was a documentation of a community as opposed to a group.  For Good Rats the decisive moment was key and being unaware of the camera. Whereas with Blue Crawfish it was different and was about the connection to the camera. I will say that there's definitely something in connecting to the community on that level when they do stop to have the photograph taken, they trust you. They're more relaxed about having a photograph taken and you get these engaged portraits. 

Left: Blue Crawfish II, right: Good Rats, Niall O'Brien.
Left: Blue Crawfish II, right: Good Rats, Niall O'Brien.

Archer: I imagine upon embarking on a project, there is some idea or preconceived notion of what you sought out to find within a certain subject matter? Could you share an excerpt of that progression of what you were looking for versus what you found over the course of a project?

O’Brien: I've never gone into anything with preconceived notions. I suppose I always approach things with romantic ideas of what I want to do. Generally I like to come from a pretty unresearched place. I'm not big on research. That's the only thing I have a problem with about web3 when you're listening to people on Twitter Spaces, who are so particular about telling you how to do stuff. There's much more to be said about being honest about your approach. I have never gone in with anything, other than with Blue Crawfish. I've said this a million times, I went in looking for female alligator hunters, picked that out of my brain. My thought process was there are alligator hunters, the tags used for the alligator hunter are owned by families. The families have daughters. They all chip in. There must be a bunch of female alligator hunters I can hang out with and photograph. Young girls catching alligators - that would be amazing.  Yet it just didn't exist. I flew out there and didn't exist. I found a family whose daughter used to hunt frogs. And then I connected with the family and it became about the family. Then it became about the town. And then it became about the neighboring town. Then I realized that the two neighboring towns had this incredible racial tension, one predominantly white and the other predominantly black. At the time I was photographing, they were trying to merge the school systems, so everyone was going crazy. I'm an Irish guy who’s lived in London, and there's racism everywhere and racism in London, but nothing like this. The stuff that came out of people's mouths was unbelievable. When I think of racism, I think of outwardly despising people. With this community it was just an inherent thought that was handed down over generations. They said things that were unbelievably racist, and had ideas and thoughts that were unbelievably racist, but I started to understand they were not in control of that. I love learning how people are constructed, how they think, how they move, and what their opinions are. It's what fascinates me.

405 #7, Niall O'Brien, Obscura Community Commission.
405 #7, Niall O'Brien, Obscura Community Commission.

Archer: For the Obscura Community commission theme Two Years After the Storm, how did you interpret that?

O’Brien: The idea is revolving around what is America after the pandemic. For me one of the things that stood out apart from everything else, the obvious, was the traffic. Everything's about the traffic, never the weather, it's always traffic. And when the pandemic happened, the traffic subsided and stopped, and the atmosphere and the pollution went away and skies were clear. Then the traffic and pollution is back and suddenly there’s road rage and kids getting shot through car doors. I decided I wanted to create a visual portrait of the 405, which is the main freeway in Los Angeles. It's a 72 mile long freeway, which I find kind of cool, and think it's a great foundation for a project. It says everything, it speaks everything. I had some ideas to capture the freeway and in and around it. In LA you describe where you live based on the nearest highway, like 405, the 10, or the 110. Everyone focuses on the freeways.  It's funny actually, like the SNL sketch The Californians. I'm traveling so I had less time to shoot it. I was doing 5:00 AM to 5:00 PM, shooting all up along the freeway, mapping it out.  As I was processing and editing, I'm trying to figure out how am I actually going to tell this story visually? I wasn’t sure I was entirely there, and suddenly I decided to call upon friends of mine to add some sense of anxiety or drama. I had a really simple idea of a friend of mine holding her boyfriend in her car. She lived by the 405, so it's truthful to her, making sure I didn’t deviate from my boundaries. Then I had this idea of an image of a dude doing a handstand in a car. I started coming up with ideas of just certain landscapes of the 405 and adding light trails to make the cars appear to move faster to add a little bit of something to tell the story.I've been a purist since day one.  I've never cropped images until recently. I would always keep it to the key line,everything with Good Rats is full frame. Even blue crawfish to a degree is pretty much full frame. Yet I started to love the idea particularly for the new commissioned series with Obscura. 

405 #6, Niall O'Brien, Obscura Community Commission.
405 #6, Niall O'Brien, Obscura Community Commission.

Archer: Would you say that what you're doing now blurs the lines between fact and fiction? Is this the first time you added drama to help push the story you wanted to tell? 

O’Brien: Yes I loved it. I found myself thinking a little bit more broadly because when I'm taking a portrait of someone you've got a short period of time, there's only so much you can do. But when you add theatrics you can do whatever you want. It just added a flare to it that was coherent to the idea. This to me was really exciting. I can push myself to think more. How can I do something that I can talk about that's exciting and new? For me that was about not being true to documentary. ​​You have to be open to everything. At first, it started with the landscape image where I imagined if there were streaks of light going through. I wanted to add that because why not?  I mean it's art, you can do whatever you want. I'm trying to tell a story and struggling with it. If I had a year and 50 images, I'd nail it. But I've got two weeks and 15 images. I needed to use the tools that we've got, we've got so many tools. 

405 #14, Niall O'Brien, Obscura Community Commission.
405 #14, Niall O'Brien, Obscura Community Commission.

Archer: This is very exciting hearing you reinvent your process. What are you most excited with your progression as an artist into NFTs?

O’Brien: Truly it's the conversation and everyone talking about work, holding each other up on their shoulders. It's been such a long time, not since I was in college, that I have experienced people genuinely backing each other. I have had such a bitter time in the photography world before NFTs, where I always felt like I was looking over my shoulder. With this community, all I care about is supporting people, lifting up people who are new and have room for growth. With certain friends of ours who have extremely low self-esteem yet, they're extraordinarily talented, it’s important to make sure that they stay on a rail because they need to create work. Its akin to rooting for your classmates, where you want everyone to do well. That to me is the end all be all. I just want to make sure that there's an honesty in the space, and a genuine care at the time up for what people are doing. It's not about trying to get a job. And in web2 if I'm looking to get this client or a job, you are too.  In theory, I'm against you.  Whereas here in web3 it's simply the more people that sell stuff the better. We are all backing each other and celebrating each other. I don't look at the blockchain and don’t look at technology. I trust it. If I'm honest, I don't think about the permanence as I don't know what's going to happen in a thousand years time. All I know is that right now, I have never had so much energy to take pictures.

405 #15, Niall O'Brien, Obscura Community Commission.
405 #15, Niall O'Brien, Obscura Community Commission.

To view the full collection of O’Brien’s Obscura Commissioned Drop:

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