Using her camera, the photographer interprets the intangible into imagery to attempt to gain a better understanding and connection to a family member she never knew.
“Unlike most families I know, there were no cameras around or photographs taken when I was a child, and subsequently there are very few images in my family album… This is possibly why I have photographed my family so frequently since I started making images,” says Kelly O’Brien. The lack of documentation of her early years has resulted in the photographer creating more than just a pictorial record of her family; it also added to the mystery of a subject of great importance to O’Brien: her father.
“There was a single moment of near contact with my father when I was seven years old – when his hand suddenly reached through the letterbox of my mother’s front door,” she says. “He died eight years after this brief encounter took place.” Following this event, the identity of her father and knowledge of his character remained elusive. It wasn’t until the making of her recent project, Are You There?, that O’Brien began to engage with the faceless figure from her past. Through the spiritual practice of clairvoyance, she was able to construct an image of her father, at once real and fabricated, and create her own understanding of the man that he was.
“What led me to collaborate with clairvoyants was one of the few pieces of information my mother shared with me about my father: that he had a brother who was something of a famous – or arguably infamous – clairvoyant in the region in which I grew up,” she explains. After attending some of her uncle’s sessions (without revealing her identity) and becoming interested in the rituals, O’Brien was inspired to work with other clairvoyants for her project. She focused her lens on seances and other methods of communication with the deceased to create new interpretations of her father, documenting the gatherings and the associated objects in an attempt to blur the line between fact and fiction. This aspect of the project also references the long-standing relationship between spirituality and photography, with the latter used historically to capture and give credence to spiritual methods and concepts.
The use of clairvoyance in the making of Are You There? allows O’Brien to, “turn the immaterial into something tangible and visible”, and to “create a conversation around the power of the image and potentially develop a deeper connection with my father”. These metaphors are worked into the editing of the images, incorporating colours that have spiritual connotations, such as yellow signifying magic, creativity and manifestation, and red denoting courage, transformation and strength.
Such subject engagement fits into the wider themes of O’Brien’s practice and her ongoing exploration of “how absence can be used as a driving force to create new types of images and dialogues, where a reimagining of the lived experience or personal stories can be expressed”. Looking to the future, she envisions Are You There? taking the form of chapters, with each instalment revealing new-found understandings of her father. In the short term, the project will be exhibited in its current state as part of the Open Call show at this year’s FORMAT Festival.
Are You There is on show at this year’s FORMAT International Photography Festival. Find out more here.
Daniel Milroy Maher is a London-based writer and editor specialising in photographic journalism. His work has been published by The New York Times, Magnum Photos, Paper Journal, GUP Magazine, and VICE, among others. He also co-founded SWIM Magazine, an annual art and photography publication.