People with a passion: Callum O’Keefe’s charming portraits of Britain’s collectors

All images © Callum O’Keefe

This article first appeared in the Money+Power issue of British Journal of Photography. Sign up for an 1854 subscription to receive the magazine directly to your door.

O’Keefe chronicles the individuals who have dedicated their lives to collecting seemingly unlikely objects: “They’re the happiest people I’ve met.”

When Callum O’Keefe’s father passed away in February 2017, he left behind a detailed plan for his funeral. To some this might seem strange, but not to O’Keefe – his father had always been a regimented man. He was an accountant by trade, but his true passion was his sprawling assortment of Coca-Cola memorabilia. For more than 30 years he had kept his collection in perfect order, housed lovingly inside the family’s garden shed.

“I thought it was normal,” O’Keefe says of his childhood, a time when his father would regularly bring friends and strangers home to admire his archive. The photographer was never embarrassed by these somewhat unusual habits – although his family were, at times, rather less forgiving. “My aunt would come over and say, ‘Why’re you buying all this shit? Why’re you wasting your money?’,” he recalls. “That’s when Dad coined the phrase: ‘Don’t worry, they’re antiques of the future’.” 

“Even some of the people who have nothing other than their collections, they’re the happiest people I’ve met.”


This mantra has become the title of O’Keefe’s newest body of work. Antiques of the Future chronicles individuals who, like his father, have dedicated their time – and often large parts of their homes – to their seemingly unlikely collections. Margaret’s shelves overflow with royal memorabilia; John’s skin is covered with over 60 Portsmouth FC tattoos. O’Keefe’s portraits are insightful and free of judgement, and this understanding, non-sensationalist approach has been key to his work from its inception. “Take James, the vacuum collector,” he says. “He was published in a book called Dull Men of Great Britain – which was actually a fascinating book – but it’s a very condescending concept.” Antiques of the Future rails against this condescension. Far from curiosities or oddities, O’Keefe describes his subjects as markedly content. “Even some of the people who have nothing other than their collections, they’re the happiest people I’ve met,” he says, firmly.

However, the photographer acknowledges that despite their largely fulfilling lives, several share a difficult past – a moment that perhaps established their desire to collect. O’Keefe’s father purchased his first piece of Coca- Cola memorabilia shortly after the untimely death of his own father. Tracey, who owns the world’s largest collection of Wizarding World products, received her first Harry Potter book as a final gift from her late husband. And Gary, who now works in coding, sold all his toys from the 1980s to purchase the computer his parents could not afford. He is now dedicated to repurchasing the playthings of his youth.

For O’Keefe, the death of his father was similarly formative – he was just 16 when it happened. The experience has undoubtedly had an impact on his work, through which he attempts to understand more about his subjects and himself. Given this life-long connection to collecting, is there nothing the photographer himself feels compelled to seek out and display? He pauses for a moment before answering: “I suppose now I have a collection of collectors.”