The enormity of O’Brien’s back catalogue doesn’t seem to phase him. “For each image that I’ve had the time to scan there are a thousand more that are still in the archive and one day when I ‘retire’ I’ll go through them and see what’s there,” he says. It is this commitment to his images and their attendant stories that really lends depth to his work as a documentarian.
“I’m not so interested in the going back bit, although it is interesting when you go back and discover stuff you didn’t know you had and you think, ‘Oh my god, that’s great, let’s get that scanned up and do a print of it.’ But I think it’s very important that I do new things.
“In the past it was a rare thing for me to be commissioned to do anything. I worked entirely for myself. It was self-motivation that got me up on freezing cold days when the snow was coming down on Brick Lane or other parts of London, when most people would have stayed indoors and tucked themselves up in bed. Something drove me and I just had to go out. I still do today. It becomes a bit of an obsession because you feel guilty sometimes if you haven’t got up and got out and taken a few shots.
“A lot of young photographers I speak to these days say the same thing, that they feel bad if they haven’t got out and taken pictures,” O’Brien says. His advice is to the point: “Well, why don’t you just get out and do it? I’ve known a lot of writers in my lifetime and they’ve always said ‘Yeah, I get up in the morning but you can’t wait for inspiration.’ They just write, they do it for a few hours, have a break, have their lunch, come back, do a bit of writing in the afternoon, etc. So maybe you should get up and do a little bit every day and hopefully some of it will be reasonably well received and you might get one or two shots that you like. You might shoot 36 pictures and be lucky and get one decent one out of that.”
O’Brien jokes: “I still enjoy it, once I stop enjoying it then that’s it, I’ll just curl up and die.”
Leica Camera is hosting an exhibition of street photography by Colin O’Brien at its new gallery space above the Leica Store City at 18 The Royal Exchange. Colin will also be holding an illustrated lecture at the gallery on Thursday 3 December. The London Life exhibition is open for public viewing until 29 January 2016.