Over the past 35 years, Tony O’Brien has gone from self-taught photojournalist working for small newspapers, to covering the first Gulf War for LIFE magazine. He has worked in Europe, the Middle East, Mexico, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, where he spent six frightening weeks in prison for entering the country illegally. Oddly enough, it is Afghanistan that has made the greatest impression on him.
“When you’re doing photojournalism, you toddle all over the world,” he explains. “But for each person, there’s a region that particularly touches them. For me it’s Afghanistan. Our country’s role in it, the history of Afghanistan—a country that’s been abused, and had others try to conquer it again and again over the centuries. I think it all goes back to the people. I’ve realized what a people could endure, and would endure, to get their country back. They are a very tough, remarkable people, yet they have a certain sensitivity.” O’Brien was imprisoned in 1989, and only was freed in six weeks after the American and Soviet governments, and others, put pressure on the Afghan government to release him. Nonetheless, after covering the first Gulf War, he returned to Afghanistan in 1992 to photograph in Kabul after it was captured by the mujahideen.
“This is what one is supposed to do as a photojournalist,” he says. “Plus I got taken with that particular war. I wanted to bring a little truth of the situation to the world, make people a little more aware of what was actually happening on the ground.”
Still, his prison experience had changed O’Brien, made him realize how vulnerable he was. It also gave him a lot of time to think. “I realized that 99% of what I thought was important was hogwash,” he says. “I decided the most important thing in life is family. At one point I thought I would change the world, but realized that’s not what it’s about. The best you can hope for is give people the opportunity to stop and think.”
After his 1992 trip, he decided to give up photographing wars. “It was one of the hardest decisions and transitions I’ve ever made,” he says. But in the next couple years he got married and began having children. He also created a documentary studies program at the College of Santa Fe, and moved on to other photographic tasks, such as spending a year photographing in a small Benedictine monastery in New Mexico.
He finally made it back to Afghanistan in 2002, this time largely to photograph schools and children following the fall of the Taliban.
Photographing people in a foreign country in the midst of a civil war is not always the safest or easiest occupation. O’Brien says he is always careful to show respect for the people he is photographing, to try and have some kind of verbal interchange and say “thank you.” He is also careful to set out wisely when he arrives somewhere. “The first go-to person in a new country is your taxi driver,” he explains. “Then I rely on information from peers and colleagues, thinking about the risk in a situation. But photography is a very individual profession. It’s about spending a lot of time alone. You have to rely on luck, and on being as prepared as you can be. You have to approach it carefully at the beginning because you learn as you go. Sometimes people end up in war situations with no experience, and that’s where you see people die or get hurt.”
In many ways, O’Brien’s technique has remained the same throughout his career. He only uses available light, and likes to go into situations unobtrusively, which is one reason he has favored Leicas for much of his career. “It’s hard to hide a hulking SLR when you’re walking down the street,” he says.
He believes that it’s important to capture the mood of a situation, rather than capture a literal record of it. “The photography that lives on always has a touch of mystery to it,” he says. “It allows the viewer to think and wonder about and explore the photograph.”
O’Brien recently did a project digitally for the first time, when he returned in 2007 to photograph Afghan Dreams, his first book, which concentrates on children in the country. He says that digital didn’t change the way he shot, but it did change what happened afterwards, as he got caught up in labeling, sorting, and editing images on his computer. Some things don’t change, however. “The bottom line is how the individual sees that’s pushing the camera button. You can be the greatest technical wizard, but you need a willingness to bare your own soul in your work; that’s when pictures can speak, can sing.”