London, Sep. 2011 - Niall O’Brien is a hardworking chap. He grew up in Ireland in the 80s, intertwined with skateboarding culture and rebellion. Years later, he became an assistant to the director Sam Taylor Wood, before striking out on his own, and now has a string of accolades to his name and ambitious projects under his belt – such as his large-scale video-installation project Anger, which recently debuted in Dublin.
As a photographer, his adventures have been endless, taking him around the globe, but it was his Good Rats project, which is showing for the first time in New York this month, that first piqued the public’s interest. Living alongside the K.B.C, a group of punks from South-West London, O’Brien followed the group for a number of years; the resulting images are intimate portraits charting the lives of these adolescents as they became men, revealing their lives in a way that would not have been possible without the implicit trust the K.B.C shared with the photographer.
As his debut solo show opens at No.10 Gallery in NYC, we were able to pin O’Brien down to talk about his work, punk life, and contemporary photography, before he heads off on his next adventure.
Charlotte Jansen: Where do you place yourself, in terms of contemporary art practice? Do you consider yourself an artist, or a documentary-maker – or neither?
Niall O’Brien: Oh god… I don’t know really. I suppose I make images and narratives but photography is my medium. It took me along time to be able to call myself a photographer and I even feel funny saying it now. An artist is even harder but my work is driven by ideas. I used to say I was an electrician because it meant I didn’t have to get into anything too deep with intense people.
CJ: Are your images empathetic or voyeuristic? Is there a danger of holding up outcasts from society as "freaks"?
NOB: I always considered the pictures to be more voyeuristic. The empathy might come from the pictures I choose to edit, and the moments of being unaware. That is what interests me. Apart from the occasional brawl, the still pictures, for me, are that split second of unconstructed honesty. I respect photography for that. Being able to capture that moment in time where there is no awareness of the camera. In order to achieve that, you have two options: hiding in a bush or hanging around so much they forget you are there!
CJ: How did you develop such a close relationship with the subjects of Good Rats (the K.B.C)?
NOB: I met them five years ago. A friend saw one of the kids in Camden [London] and knew I wanted to make a film [Superheroes].
We offered him £50 quid and he agreed to take part, and brought some friends along. I spent two days in all with the group and knew I needed to keep up the relationship. They didn’t know what to make of me for some time.
CJ: Did they ever turn on you?
NOB: God no! The lads are good kids, hence the title. They kick ribbons out of each other in a release of energy or if they are bored but never on me. I made a film called Tim which sums them up; it’s a voicemail over a portrait of Tim (the tall guy being arrested in Arrested Tim). The voicemail is very violent and pretty dark. I woke up to this message one morning in Berlin, and knew I had to make this film using it. I shot the softest image of him to contrast, almost contradict the voicemail. That’s how I feel about him and them, that they’re misread – appearances often contradict what’s really going on. In fact I feel pretty brave running with them.
CJ: What was the most memorable moment during that time?
NOB: There are so many. Each adventure was pretty epic. They knew how to have fun and make fun. Saying that, one moment that sticks out is when one of the boys told me he found out a girl he was sleeping with was pregnant. He was pretty freaked out, and in total shock. That was the day I realized that this wasn’t just fun and there were serious repercussions. It became very real that day. I have been putting down all the anecdotes over the years with a writer to compile into a screenplay. I’m getting Tim involved too. I think he could write something pretty amazing.
CJ: You must have taken hundreds of images – how do you make the selection?
NOB: I think the more you edit the quicker you get… I scan contact sheets and only really go along with my gut feeling. If I question it, it doesn’t go in. I rarely pick images that I don’t think look great over an image with a story but looks pretty bland. I guess I’ve been lucky that all the relevant stories have the right picture to go along with them.
CJ: You’ve worked a lot with moving image, assisting some reputed directors, and collaborating on films. Your photographs are full of motion, almost never static scenes. Anger is an innovative and exciting move towards merging the two – was this a conscious or natural progression for you?
NOB: In the beginning, I got into photography in order to get into film. Then I fell in love with taking stills. I spent my youth being told I wouldn’t amount to anything in school and then I found something I was good at. I thrived off it and didn’t think of anything else. Making films only really started five years ago when I collaborated with Matt Lambert on a film called Superheroes. That was a great introduction and showed me how it can be done. It takes a long time and I still don’t think I have found my voice in film. I can see it developing. It took me fifteen years or so to feel comfortable in photography and I look forward to finding that in my film work. Anger was a great opportunity to do something different.
CJ: Skate culture has forged its own canon of photography – how much do you feel a part of this? Why do you think the connection has remained so strong between skateboarding and photography?
NOB: As a kid all I did was skate. The culture is rife with creativity and I owe it a lot -- it got me in a lot of mischief and trouble for sure, but I think it really carved a path for my friends and me. In that world you are surrounded by film, music, and art, always. Even the way you look at buildings and how to use them is extremely creative, and this is a great exercise for the brain. I got into photography because of it, and a lot of my friends who I used to skate with have gone on to be successful in the creative industries. We were thinkers, we were constantly analyzing and looking at videos, photos and graphics. It was healthy. Even getting into trouble helps get a lot out of our systems early on.
CJ: You grew up in Ireland. What connects you personally with photography as a medium?
NOB: My education. I was shown how to approach a sincere image and especially a series. It gets me down alot when I see tons of great street photographers with nothing to say. There are alot of great images but just being “cool pictures” doesn’t cut it I’m afraid (for me). I need to know why you were there, what brought you there and then the aesthetic can take over. And on the other hand shit photos with deep meaning aren’t my thing either.
Oh and my Mum.
CJ: Is there a danger of your work becoming overly commercialized?
NOB: I don’t think so. There are a lot of art directors out there willing to think out of the box. My first venture into the commercial world was on the back of a personal project, and sent me over 6000 miles in the North West USA. The guy who commissioned me believed in my work enough to send me off on my own and bring him back three images. I brought back at least forty and he ended up using eight. I’d like to think my pictures look like my pictures so the chances of you getting me to do a white backdrop Chanel campaign are slim.
CJ: Is it harder than ever to be original as a photographer, with the proliferation of phone apps, social media, the renaissance of Lomo photography, etc?
NOB: It is extremely easy to make something look good by putting a “Look” on the image. As I said, it doesn’t mean anything to me if you don’t have some sort of reason. There are lots of people shooting on film because they think it is better but it isn’t! It is only better if you use it to the full potential. My printer and I have been building a relationship together for years. No app will ever match what Daren can do and no one will have the relationship with their work without putting the time in. Nothing is instant except the button on the app you bought for £1.79.
CJ: Good Rats at No. 10 is your first solo show in NYC; how did this come about?
NOB: By chance really. I was in New York and I got a call from a friend who was at an exhibition saying she wanted me to meet someone from a gallery. I was nearby so popped in and met Rebecca Roberts who curates the gallery. She had seen my work before and seemed excited so we met up the next day and, like that, it happened. The gallery is new and I was impressed by them. Lisa Rovner showed before me in July and I love what she does. The coming line-up is great too so it filled me with confidence. I like what Madeilene Kierzstan [the owner] is doing there and the energy is great.
CJ: You spent some formative years in NYC. What do you like about the scene over there, compared with London?
NOB: New York is new and exciting. That is why I’m staying here for three months this time. To see if there is any chance of ruining it! Living here might change the inspiration. In London the excitement can be lost, due to familiarity. It isn’t off the cards, I just want to keep it fresh. I love America and have a lot coming up which means more adventures.
CJ: Can you tell us a bit more about Anger? I imagine you approached it in a very different way than Good Rats.
NOB: Totally, I’m obsessed with youth. All my work is about the time of your life when nothing really matters, and yet, every single thing counts. Anger is one of many emotions youths experience, and an important one, and I turned it into an experience for everyone. It has to be seen as an exhibition to really get the sensation we all created but it gets me excited. I showed it in Dublin recently, and because it was the first time it blew me away. The sound design is incredible and it really evokes an uncomfortable sensation. We worked with local community actors and all of my team were in town to make it look slick. It was a great collaboration.
CJ: What else are you working on?
NOB: I’m currently trying to publish the North West project [Porn Hurts Everyone] and there are some interesting offers on the table. It has been quite mad this year so I am trying to pace myself. Good Rats is up in NYC and Anger is showing in London in March -- I don’t want to pack it all into a short space. I'm shooting another project in New England which I’m really excited about. It will be with my friend Ryan who was involved in the Porn Hurts project. It involves cheerleaders and their boyfriends. Flirting, leaning on cars trying to act cool, and once again, drinking beers.
ArtSlant would like to thank Niall O’Brien for his assistance in making this interview possible.
(All Images: Courtesy Niall O’Brien. Personal photo by Richard Gilligan.)