We can’t see the subject’s face, obscured by flowing brown-cum-maroon hair (to match her boots?) as she stands back to wall looking down, glued to her smartphone. A self-consciously symmetrical photo of a fashionista, of sorts, in sawn-off denim and, aforementioned, Doc Martens. Brendan Ó Sé, award winning Irish photographer, has expertly captured these smartphone times in one frame.
The photograph travels, we could easily be two minutes into the future, chimes with today as well as having resonance with the past. It reminds me, for some unknown reason, of Bob Dylan’s 1978 Street Legal album cover?
This is Ó Sé, capturing the times we live in with his candid and intriguing work.
In another image a young Asian woman looks up surprised (maybe even slightly irritated) as he, the street photographer, momentarily intrudes on her ‘smartphone time’. A young man surrounded by text, his face hidden by an umbrella, stares down, lost in the parallel universe of his phone’s virtual cosmos.
“Street photography,” Ó Sé says thoughtfully. “Allows me to learn, and it allows me to create. It gives me a feeling of exuberance and concentration, I do not encounter in other things in life.”
For the Irish photographer, however, it was never love at first shot. He was, what Richard Hernandez would call, a social photographer long before he was finally eaten alive and consumed by the passions of street photography.
“I’ve always had a camera, but I never really used it that much until I got a good camera on the iPhone 4,” he admits. “Up to that point my camera would have spent most of its time in a drawer, only taken out on holidays or a family occasion. Going from a situation like that to one of having a camera 24/7 allowed me to become much more photographically sensitive and aware. I began to shoot more, I improved, and it became so much more enjoyable for me.”
From these beginnings Ó Sé has developed into an award winning photographer, one of 41 selected for Apple’s ‘Shot On iPhone’ advertising campaign.
“Having a photograph I shot on an iPhone going up on enormous billboards all over the world, and in print magazines, was just beyond my wildest dreams,” He says modestly. “It opened doors for me and brought global attention. It coincided with me winning a few competitions and I was able to build on that. I began to give photography workshops, which allowed me to combine over twenty years of teaching experience with my passion for photography. I do not imagine I would have done this had I not had the acclaim and exposure that being part of Apple’s campaign brought.”
Ó Sé’s street photographs are subtle, thoughtful meditations of the world around us. Through his street photography we are, with him, as he stealthily intrudes into the existential territory of the humans of everywhere.
“When I am on the street and in a setting ripe with photo opportunities, I get into a zone which electrifies me,” He tells me enthusiastically. “Street photography is a beautiful art form, particularly candid street work, because it can capture the spontaneity of the human spirit, that when observed can be guarded and masked.”
Perhaps he is hinting at the charade we call ‘reality’? When the camera is self-consciously pointing at us we – metaphorically pout – so that, in fact, we don’t get ‘reality’ at all. We get an individual behaving in a way that he or she believes is expected of him or her? In common with many street photographers Ó Sé is hunting the real person. Trying to get under the skin, trying to keep it candid. Keeping it on the street photographer’s level. Hey folks, this is life.
“I look for stories I can relate to and possibly understand,” He says philosophically. “In many ways I am looking for myself on the street ; looking for identifiable feelings and connections. Street photography can be empathetic and compassionate. It helps me…learn more about life and more about myself.”
His words echo the sentiments of another street photographer Johnny Mobasher who once told me :
“So, I guess, I look for myself through the lens.” (Images From Urban Space : Street Photography and the Art of Johnny Mobasher . Sergio Burns, Culture Cult Magazine, Summer issue 2016).
Ó Sé in seeking his essential ‘self’ seems surprised by his growing fame.
“In March of this year (2016) I was the first ever photographer to be invited to talk about mobile photography at the Royal Photographic Society of Thailand,” He tells me as if he has to pinch himself to believe that it did happen. “This was a huge honour, and again it was the platform of being part of such a global photography campaign that brought me to their attention.”
In a street scene a man plays a fiddle while a young lady performs an impromptu dance by the boats in a harbour. A shaft of light falls on a white-suited man in the background. Unrehearsed, Ó Sé is on hand to capture the spontaneous moment in his own inimitable – and I would say beautifully understated – way. It is a great, crafted shot, with the cobble stone texture of the street, the lines of the boat’s masts and the port side architecture of the buildings giving body to the work.
An experimenter, the Irishman’s portfolio includes night photography and blur as well as playful grammatical projects. This is Brendan Ó Sé’s beat. Mischievous, innovative, creative, pushing the envelope of contemporary street photography. Looking forward to the future and hazarding a glance back at the past, while firmly rooted in the present.
Follow Brendan on Instagram @brendan.o.se