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Kelly O’Brien - Guest Lecturer

Kelly O’Brien is another photographer who we were lucky enough to have talk to us about her career and background in photography. O’Brien was born in Derby in 1985 and her background journey and personal life, played a huge impact on her practice. Working with distortion, and fragmentation of memory. 

Alongside the struggle, resilience and self doubt that have played a part in different moments of her her life and career development. At the age of 18 O’Brien’s relationship with photography began. Before discovering photography her education had been some what rocky having only got a few GCSEs and was happy to leave school. 

Once moving to college were she signed up for GMBQ classes working with film, media and doing music videos documenting the music scene. Later O’Brien went on to Nottingham University to do photography. This was a new challenge, a new environment and a different way of being . O’Brien felt out of place as her peers were equipped and primed already unlike her. The pressure she felt to develop and forget her past educational roots. Taking comments such as “too passionate” and “too articulate” form her tutors, personal on herself. 

O’Brien worked while at university part time and through her job she met other working class people. In her 3rd year O’Brien got to create what she wanted and her first body of work being; “Somewhere between here and there” which connected to her Irish migrant family and class systems changing. Transforming work and everyday subjects as something. 

O’Brien started photographing migrants she worked with. Why they had left home and come to work here. The work presented to the audience, isolation, nostalgia, romanticism of working people. 

For this work she received a first class honours award to carry on the work. Which was something out of the medium she loved. A moment that influenced her practice more was when her friend Ottoman Mahamid who she had lived with killed himself. He was a political asylum seeker. His mental health decreased rapidly after mistreatment and O’Brien wanted to create social change, moving into activism photography and joining the migrant solidarity, movement, where she moved around Europe eventually ending up in Italy, meeting displaced people, artists and poets. 

In Italy she worked for a charity, with people travelling to the island. O’Brien worked mostly with people from Gambia as there was common ground with language. During helping the migrant crisis photography became secondary to her. Huge pressure on herself to take pictures but she was not comfortable pointing the camera on the migrants. 

This I could relate to having at one point wanted to be a photojournalist, until it became clear to me that I would not feel comfortable photographing people in those situations with out wanting to interfere and help.

O’Brien knew she could make change through her photography and emotionally move and engage audiences, but it was not natural to her to photograph people suffering.

It was about the integrity of her own practice, the white saviour complex and the state of mind individuals hold believe to be a saviour. 

After nine months helping the migrant crisis she she returned home. Starting to use her photography to focus inward on herself. Retrace own personal class and identity. Returning home led to current work “Are you there”; which explored barriers of the real and physical, story of her estranged father, creating a visual narrative around him. 

Having only ever had one single moment of interaction, where his hand had appeared through the postbox on the door to their house. After which he died seven years later but O’Brien did not know of his passing until twelve years later. The fragments of him, who he was and what he was like, led her to meeting with clairvoyants. This progressed her interest and curiosity of her father and why no one wanted to discuss him. 

The relationship with clairvoyants developed into collaboration put into a frame work of photographs, and spiritual churches become a huge aspect in her work. She would record each session readings and transcribe them. It was a fun way to work and create photos from the sessions. The work developed into visual experimentation. It become a multilayered complex work, of understanding for her. 

The mediums acted as a camera to a non existent man and building a narrative of their relationship. Wanting to know a man she can never meet. It is a beautiful body of work that inspires me to not always just look with my eyes but my feelings, emotions, past and future. Multiple dimensions to look at and experiment within my own work. 

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