Stillness is the Move: A Conversation with Photographer Brit O’Brien
Brittany O’Brien is a tour photographer based in Oakland, CA who has worked with up and coming indie bands to huge alternative acts such as Grouplove, Fitz and the Tantrums, and One Republic. On a break between tours with Hippo Campus and K. Flay, I spoke with Brittany over the phone about building relationships on the road and the surprisingly stealth art of tour photography.
Q: First of all, how did you get into photography and at what point did you realize that you wanted to do it professionally?
A: I started doing photography when I was in high school. I did yearbook and I was the head photographer. I had always been the documentarian of my friend group and I really loved doing that, so I dropped out of college and moved away from my hometown of San Francisco and would just kind of frequent concerts where I started to bring my camera along with me, just taking photos of shows.
I have a strong will to get what I want professionally, so when I started realizing that I really loved capturing these on-stage moments, I started to think to myself, “How can I make a job out of this? Or how can I make money doing this?” So I kind of developed the desire to go professional with it right away. It definitely took years to figure out how. But in 2012, when I started shooting concerts, it was instantaneous. I realized this is what I wanted to do.
Q: Your entire ethos is capturing super intimate, personality-revealing moments on the road. In order to get those kinds of shots, you have to build up a relationship with the artist or band you’re working with. How naturally does that come for you? Does it? Has there ever been a situation where it didn’t?
A: Usually it comes pretty naturally. I really like people, so when I get to know an artist, I try not to ever force myself upon them or force my personality on people. I like to kind of just sit back and observe people’s behaviors and see what they like and what they don’t like. Just watch so I can kind of figure out how to fit in with that band and not be a nuisance, but be a friend. First, I try to just fit in, going along with their personality types. Then I slowly kind of meld my real self in with their group or their band and it’s usually great. So, it always comes naturally but it’s a development.
Q: Going on tour and eventually getting close with these people has to be such a bonding experience. Do you ever stay close with the acts you photograph, or is there a line between the personal and the professional relationship for you?
A: It varies. I usually stay in touch and stay friends with the bands I’ve worked with, but on an acquaintance level. But depending on how well our personalities mix, I’ve made some of my best friends on tour. Some of my favorite people in the world I’ve worked with and I still get to work with.
Q: The world of live music tends to be male-dominated. That’s definitely changing, but what has your experience been working in and around this industry as a woman on tour?
A: For me personally, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve really been lucky to work with people who are so inviting and open to having females in their crew. I’ve never felt discriminated or looked down upon by anyone I’ve worked with. I have seen it, and I’ve experienced it from outsiders. Like, I’ll be working at a venue and some of the people that work there will be kind of weary about taking direction from me in certain parts of the country. But I’ve always felt on the same level and respected by the people I work with. Especially with the artist K. Flay. She hand selects her team. It’s really cool to know that there are artists out there working to include women, men, people of color, anyone in their team that deserves to have a chance to be a part of this industry and not just let it be the same dudes over and over again.
Q: You once wrote, “My goal as a photographer is to capture a single killer image as representation of an entire experience.” What factors play into building an image that encapsulates so much?
A: There’s a lot that goes into it. Like I said, I really spend a lot of time observing people. It’s not by chance, it’s time and patience and getting to know them. Maybe I’ve observed the show a couple times, where I know that a certain member of the band is gonna do something really meaningful and I wanna capture it in a certain way, so I’ll kind of hang out in the photo pit from weird angles just trying to capture that special look on their face in that moment of the song or just something I know that they’re gonna do that maybe they don’t even know they’re gonna do, that I think really shows off their personality. So a lot of my process is waiting and watching until I know these moments are gonna arise. Patience and observation is how I really do it.
Q: When you were answering that question was there a specific image you were thinking of that exemplifies that process?
A: I was thinking about a photo I took of Hippo Campus on this last tour we were on. The singer Jake and the trumpet player DeCarlo were standing in a doorway. They’re really close, and I saw DeCarlo lay his head on the singer’s shoulder, and I was laying on the couch playing a game with the bass player, and I kind of just sat up and was like, wait—this is one of the moments I’ve been waiting for, the intimacy between these two as friends. I need to capture this! So I reached down and grabbed my camera and took the photo behind the [laptop] screen so they wouldn’t see, because I didn’t want them to move at all. I wanted that raw moment. That was one of my favorite moments I’ve captured in a while
Q: I wanted to ask you about color in your photography, because it’s so prominent in your work. I know in a live setting that’s not something you have a lot of control over, so what is the significance of color for you?
A: [Color] is very significant for me. I love rich, rich color. It’s really fun in live photos because the work can get repetitive, and I really want each live photo I post or that I give to bands to post to be different. I hand edit each photo individually and I always try to bring out a different shade of the same color that’s on the stage every night. Maybe I’ll take the photo in the same spot but I’ll bring out a slightly different variation of the yellow that was on stage to bring a new life to the same kind of photos that I post every night. I like to keep it fresh and color is important for that.
Q: Are there any other photographers or specific photographs that you’ve encountered that you’ve been inspired by?
A: Oh yes! My favorite photographer is Andy Baron. He was Foster the People’s photographer when I was just starting to get into photography, and [his work] was super inspiring to me. And there is a specific image by another photographer, Brad Heaton, Twenty One Pilots’ photographer, where he shot Tyler and Josh directly from above while they were laying on the ground on stage and it looked like a boxing ring. It inspired me to think about how you can create new angles and make live shows look like art every night if you find the right way to do it.
You can follow Brittany’s life on the road on her Instagram @britobrien and twitter @britobrien_ and you check out more of her work at her website, https://www.brittanyobrien.com
All photos courtesy of Brittany O’Brien.
Author: Kathryn Hornyak
Kathryn is a New Media and Digital Design major and double minor in English and Art History at Fordham University at Lincoln Center in New York, NY. She is passionate about the intersection of technology, art, and literature and how those things can be combined to make difficult or obscure topics relevant to people’s lives. She loved her all-female high school education and is excited to contribute to a space dedicated to amplifying the voices of young women doing cool things—on any scale. Kathryn is a proud New York Women in Communications Scholar (2016).