Calling in from shooting band rehearsal in a cabin outside Yosemite, photographer Brit O’Brien sat down with us for an interview about her recent work and the essentials of her craft.
Known for her live and documentary work from artists like Hippo Campus, K. Flay, and Fitz and the Tantrums, O’Brien has built a platform for herself as a touring photographer capturing moments on and between shows. The 29 year old began shooting locally from her native Bay Area in 2011, working diligently to finally book her first tour in 2016 with Finish Ticket opening for Twenty One Pilots. Since then, she’s joined the ride with bands around the country and around the world–from Mexico City to Prauge–and published three photo books under her name. She just released her third book, “Last to Open”, documenting the stories of crew members during the stagnation of the music industry in 2020.
O’Brien talks us through her published work, the value of building a relationship with the artists she works with, and also lends some advice for those looking to break into the industry.
As someone who is on the road for months and months out of the year, what is your quintessential gas station order?
Brit O’Brien: Okay, well, this is actually a loaded question because with one of the bands I tour with, Hippo Campus, we play this game that we made up where whenever we stop at a gas station, the rule is if you go inside, you have to spend $15. And it can be on literally anything. But you have to spend $15 to go in a gas station. I hate this game, because I don’t want to spend $15 at the gas station. But I’ll always, always play. And so I’ve become pretty good at buying essential goods at the gas station. My favorite gas station order is getting a blanket to cuddle up in my bunk. I have a collection of tour blankets. And I also love to get weird necklaces at gas stations, that are like truck themed because they’re like little truckstop jewelry. So my favorite thing to get at gas stations typically is something memorable from the state or the city that we’re in.
What’s your star sign, and do you feel it represents you as an artist? Why or why not?
I’m a Scorpio and I do love the fact that I am Scorpio because it’s just a fun sign. I like all around it. But I think it’s a little too dark for my personality, a little bit more edgy than I actually am. So I wish I was more of a Scorpio than I actually am.
You officially released your second/third photo book, “Last to Open” in October, highlighting the experiences of live crew throughout the stagnation of the music industry in 2020. Can you tell us more about putting this project together and what it taught you in comparison to your other works?
Brit O’Brien: I got offered a grant by a production company and they gave me a chunk of money to go out and kind of do this project I proposed. I was sitting at home kind of thinking about the fact that I was so at a loss for what to do, because I’m so used to being on the move all the time. And I was thinking about some of the other people that work in the states that also just kind of…their whole livelihood, revolved around movement and kind of being constantly in travel. So I got inspired to kind of write about those people, especially because crew isn’t really ever talked about in terms of live music, it’s generally just the bands themselves. So I thought it’d be cool to shine a light on these people.
So that was the inspiration behind it. And the process was really difficult, because I had to go to so many homes and I wanted to capture these people in their own space and kind of what they’d been doing in the stillness. It was important to kind of feel out where they were personally, by being in their home. But you know, it was a worldwide pandemic. So it was difficult to make sure that was done very safely and without putting anyone at risk. It took a lot of time. And I got in a car accident while I was working on it, which halted the process for months. Because you know, car accidents are no joke. So that was kind of embedded into the process as well, and kind of shifted it a little bit after that. But finally, it was done, and I pre-released it in October and the actual book itself I held for the first time like two days ago. So, on the eighth of December, I’m having an in-person party and people come buy them personally. And then I’ll ship them out to everyone. And so, this chapter is coming to a close. And it’s much different than my other book, because my last two books have been very focused on the bands I work with, and photographs of being on tour. Whereas this one is a leap of faith really, for the people buying it from me, because it has nothing to do with band photography, it has so much to do with human connection and photography. So, it’s a really just a different space. And so I’m really, you know, feeling grateful that people would trust me in this other end, because I know a lot of people like my work for the bands. So it’s gonna be really cool.
Is there a specific story or moment throughout this experience that kind of sticks out to you?
Brit O’Brien: Yeah, there is one. And it’s someone featured in the book. His name is Ross Rylands. And he is a long time 40 plus year touring man, and he most recently has been working as a bus driver. And over the pandemic, he lost a finger driving a bus. He was basically forced to return to work because of craziness with unemployment, which everyone was dealing with. And he had to go out and drive a band that was touring in a pandemic, like the deep pandemic of 2020. And he didn’t want to do it, but he needed the money. And then this band, they turned the bus on while he was fixing the bus. He was under the hood. And when the bus came on, it sliced his finger off. So he was kind of telling me about that during the interview. And just the fact that you know, this guy was forced to be back at work, and then injured by the people that were wrongfully touring during a pandemic, like deep 2020 was just like, wow. The things that people go through that we just don’t even know about. He showed me his fingers. I really wish… I didn’t photograph his hand. So stupid, I didn’t photograph his hand. But he was quite an inspiration. Happy, happy guy. So he’s a strong man, even though he’s been through such turmoil.
Who are some photographers you looked up to as a kid that inspired your photography career?
I love this question because I owe a lot to them. Pooneh Ghana is probably my biggest inspiration. She’s still a very active music photographer. And she’s been such a guiding light for me since 2011, when I kind of started this. Early on, Andy Baron, who was Foster the People’s kind of early photographer, 2012-2014 kind of era, he worked with them in that time period, was hugely inspiring to me. And then, the queen, my pride and joy, is Annie Leibowitz, which you know, was kind of a universal photography icon, but I’ve taken her masterclass and learned a lot just about how you don’t need much to make art you just really need the eye and the drive. She just doesn’t have a lot of gear and doesn’t use a lot of gear on shoots and sets and she’s just the master. So those three really are my kind of puzzle pieces for my career.
Do you have limited physical gear?
I really don’t use a lot of gear. I use one lens generally, while I’m on the road, maybe two and I use a flash. And sometimes I’ll use random pieces of trash that I keep in my camera bag. To create dreamy lens filters. But I have a very small camera bag, I don’t have a lot of gear.
You’ve talked at length about how important it is to build a relationship with the artists you work with. How have you been able to become the trustworthy figure you are today and get personal with the people around you? On the other hand, how is the experience of taking photos of strangers different from shooting people who are comfortable with you?
Yeah, building up trust in this position, is the most important part of my job, I think, I don’t think I could at all do what I do without that. And I think in my work it reflects when I’m not as close to a band as I am with other ones. Because that level of intimacy really creates an image and tells the story. So, building up intimacy, becoming friends, kind of. I think a big part of this job is to have a sense of the people around you and how they’re feeling and what their emotions are in that in that moment. So I’ve kind of learned how to read the space in terms of how deeply I go in for a photo, which has become very valuable in having bands trust me, because I’m not always just getting a shot, I’m very much reading the room in terms of what they want that day or how they’re feeling.
And early on, kind of establishing that trust with them. And that I’m not there just to feel very corporate or like a content machine, I think very much will allow them to know that I’m there to create art more than anything, more than just kind of spitting photos out into the world. And that trust, getting to know people before I dive in to the work and being in their space, has really done wonders for me. I really used to be afraid of meeting new bands and the stranger aspect because I’m just like everyone. You kind of are worried about how you’re presenting yourself. But now I’ve reached a level of confidence in my work and who I am as a photographer. I’m very excited when I go meet new bands and strangers and work with new people, ready to kind of have my whole spiel and what I do. I have established my narrative enough internally to meet new people and work with them. And I always get excited about I love building my friend photography circle as much as I can.
Your photos feel very nostalgic—is that the emotion you’re going for during a shoot?
That’s exactly the word I want to have used for my shoots, is nostalgic. That’s my favorite feeling. Just kind of longing for the moment being captured. Even though it’s very simple, that’s my MO.
You’ve joined and documented bands while on the stage, in between cities, and traveling, be it by van, bus, or golf cart. One aspect I also find really special is your documentation of working in the studio. How does shooting in-studio sessions differ from shooting tour/live photos? How have you felt being in the room getting to see the magic happen before it’s released into the world?
Great question. I’ve never been asked that before. It’s very different. And it’s very nice. I mean, getting to watch, I’ve learned so much about music just by being in the studio with bands. Which is really kind of a special element, and has given me a lot. Because I work in management now too. I work on the management team for an artist, and I don’t think I would be in that position if I didn’t have studio experience. So one of the big takeaways for me, in the studio, is how much I learned just by listening and engaging with the actual production process of a song or an album being created.
And I really love… now that I have a little bit more knowledge about production, it helps. Just like kind of the last question, it helps to make better photos because I kind of understand what they’re doing. And so I kind of know when to be where instead of just kind of sitting there aimlessly and being like, “I want to take this photo instead,” if they’re talking about how they’re gonna do a certain sect of work in two hours, I’ll kind of write that down and be like, “I should be in this space in two hours to capture this specific element of the production process.” More like, be in with the producer while they’re doing this, so I can get the video of them talking between the mics. The years I’ve had in there, I’ve learned a lot that goes into my photography now. I
It’s also really cool to just watch undocumented artists growing their music from day one in the studio till the last day. It’s like watching a character grow in a movie or TV show. It’s the level of kind of nervousness in the first day or uncertainty, to the really excited elation of the final product is a fun thing to document. Especially as I do videos, to kind of watch that backward. It’s much different than touring, because you are in a very controlled tense space. So there’s a lot more reading the room, reading the space. I do that a lot more in the studio to not be in the way or not getting in too deeply on something people are focused heavily on. So it’s a big learning space for me and I really love that.
If you could sum up the “vibes” of your pictures in three words, what would they be?
I definitely am gonna go “nostalgic,” because that’s what I really love to portray. And hopefully also say “warm,” I love warm tone, they’ll have soft lighting. And third one would have to be, I think, “vibrant,” really rich color. Kind of big moments. Lots of energy. So kind of installed with warm and vibrant. My words.
I selected a few random photos from your arsenal and thought we could play a little game. I’ll show you a photo and you can tell us the context/story that happened behind it.
The first one was the last night. So the Hippo Campus Family Tour was split into five legs. And this was the last night of leg one. We were with The Districts in Hippo Campus’ greenroom celebrating a successful tour, and that we were going to all miss each other, because we were all so fresh and new after one leg of the tour, and we were kind of sad. So we had a big, big celebration with The Districts. Middle of the toast for the last night of tour. It was such a special night.
And then that second photo, the one in the stadium, is Fitz of Fitz and the Tantrums. He was sitting there without me knowing, I did not plan this photo, and I walked out into the stadium to film soundcheck from the center of the stadium. And I saw him just sitting there and he was really excited because this was one of their very first shows of this size. So he was kind of just taking it in. And I kind of scrunched down in one of the bleachers of the stadium and captured him just kind of taking that moment in. That was nice.
And that third photo, the one with K Flay with the phone. We were in Oklahoma City that night, and there was this empty, weird room back behind our green room. And the only thing in this room was that phone and those olive colored curtains. And so I was like, “Go sit on the table.” And I didn’t tell her what to do, I was just like, “Go sit there and I’ll get a photo of you.” And she took the phone and wrapped the cord around her neck to add to the color tones of the room and the weird empty feeling it, and together we created that photo.
Oh my gosh, the very final photo, the black and white one, was my first tour ever with Hippo Campus. It was my first night on the road with them ever. And I had been kind of staying clear of being too close to them. Like I said, I wanted to kind of give them space to get comfortable. But they were about to go on stage. And this was the first time where I kind of went in to capture an intimate moment that was unplanned. Just they were just doing it, and so Nathan put his hands on Zack and I kind of standing nearby and just went in for the first intimate Hippo Campus shot. That one’s really special, because that was my first night on the road. Ever. 2017
What are some of your favorite tips and tricks for getting an amazing shot?
One I’ve kind of been preaching for a long time is, I know this is kind of cliche, but “Don’t really look for it.” And what I mean by that is when you’re in the photo pit, the biggest trick to put that into play is, you’ll see a lot of photographers going to the center of the pit to get the singer and whatever they’re going to do. And my favorite thing to do in a in a photo pit with a lot of people is to look for something that’s not what you’d expect it to be happening. So I like to go off to the sides of the photo pit, and kind of shoot just kind of weird things, like maybe a hand on a mic stand or the way the bass player has their hand on the back of their neck. Just something that’s not what you’d expect to see in a live music setting. I think it correlates into more intimacy, when it’s a little bit unusual for the eye to focus on. Or at least that’s something I liked to do when I was starting out, was kind of find weirder moments in the photo pit or backstage, things that I wouldn’t normally gravitate towards if I was watching as an audience member.
It’s fun to sort of challenge yourself in a way early on, because then the really classic moments of live tour photography come more naturally. So setting yourself up, another thing I like to do, is set an intention with my tour photography for the day, or shooting a live set, I will kind of think of what I want capture tonight, what do I want to see, and I like to pretend that I’m in the audience. And not watching the front person, I want to see the show from a different element, because it’s a big challenge to kind of block that person out and capture the show in a different way. Because when you have done that, then capturing the show with the main person in mind is so much easier. I like to challenge my brain to learn new things.
If you could offer any piece of advice for someone looking to break into the music industry, especially touring, what would it be?
Seriously, the biggest one, advice-wise, is you have to stick to it. Because it’s very easy to get discouraged. And to stop and move on, and be like, “I can’t do this,” or whatever. It’s also really easy, especially now, with how much access there is to seeing people doing tour photography and being on the road, to think it’s an easy thing that can just come to you. And you’ll have it in a month or two. Which is just like so incredibly not true.
So being able to kind of remove this social media glamorized aspect of being on the road and realize that it’s a pretty hefty grind to kind of get there. And the reason why is because being on the road and touring is based a lot on trust and who you know. And so, kind of building up relationships and kind of working your way up, step by step, starting out doing free work for local bands. There’s a lot of hate around working for free on the internet these days. But every one of us that is touring started out by doing free stuff. You’ve just got to do it. And that’s totally fine, because you learn so much when you’re like doing a couple shoots for free in the beginning, you don’t have a portfolio or you don’t have a sound background, you don’t know how to mix lights or whatever. You got to just get the experience. So grinding your way through all the steps, you know, and not expecting things to kind of just happen is a huge piece of advice. There are times where I’m just like, “Oh, I’ll just happen if I just wait long enough.” That’s never true. So really putting in the work, and it totally will happen if you put in the work. And the biggest way to do that is to work locally. So going to local shows, and talking to people that work with the venues about getting into the live music, or talking to the local bands that are playing about shooting for them some other time, that’s how many careers in live music start.
2022 is fast approaching, what are you excited about for this upcoming year and what projects would you like to accomplish?
This upcoming year I’m very excited for touring with Hippo Campus. We haven’t all done that in a long time, and we have a full schedule. Getting back on the road in January with them is gonna be really awesome. I also work very closely now with this band called Pinegrove and I’m very excited for their future and their 2022. It’s gonna be a lot of fun having their big release come as well. I’m excited to go to Japan, just for fun, and I’ve been excited about that for a long time. That’s finally getting closer here. 2022 hopefully will be full of touring and travel, if all goes well. But we can’t really plan much these days without a little bit of risk, you never really know what’s going to happen. The big goal for me this year is to get back to Europe on the road, which I think will be accomplished, but it’s still a goal. I’ve only been there once on the road, and I’ve always wanted to go back. Kind of my big 2022 goal.