(pic courtesy of Brit O'Brien)
(pic courtesy of Brit O'Brien)
(pic courtesy of Brit O'Brien)
On a rainy Saturday October 27th in Boston, I sat down with touring photographer Brit O’Brien. Currently, on tour with Hippo Campus and The Districts, Give Me A Try wanted to gain some insight as to how young women can break into such a male dominated field, while getting the opportunity to speak with a working professional we greatly admire.
GMAT: So, how’s tour [with Hippo Campus and The Districts] going?
O’Brien: Tour’s been great! This tour has been the longest one, I think, we’ve all done as a group, and everyone gets along really well! The guys are playing such cool venues.
GMAT: What have been some highlights and lowlights of the tour so far?
O’Brien: New York has been a highlight. [Hippo Campus and The Districts] played Terminal 5 and that was a really special feeling to be with people you love who are playing such a huge room. A low… during the 13th inning last night [of the World Series] we thought we weren’t going to have our busses today and we’d be stuck in the rain without a way to get into the venue because if the Red Sox had won (*the venue HC/TD are playing in Boston is across from Fenway Park) we would’ve been having a bad day!
GMAT: What makes this tour different than other ones you’ve been on?
O’Brien: Well this one, for me personally, is I’ve seen Hippo Campus grow from the ground up - it makes it different being a part of that growth, seeing [them rise up] to the level of venues they’re playing, whereas a lot of artists are already at a certain level when I join them. [I’ve been with Hippo Campus] from when they were at small clubs, to now, playing theaters
GMAT: The tour goes through November, then picks up again come February. How long are you staying on board, and are there any plans after this tour?
O’Brien: I’m doing all of the shows on this run, and will most likely be doing the West Coast shows… I don’t see why I wouldn’t, but things could always change.
GMAT: Are day-to-day aspects of tour still fun and exciting, or have you all gotten into a good groove/work flow now?
O’Brien: Every day is exciting because this career path is generally exciting, but after maybe 2 weeks on the road, you start to get into a groove for sure. You definitely hit a point where you’re envious of people who are home and who get to go back to their unit and be cozy, especially when the weather is [rainy and cold like today]. I’d say we’re in that dip right now, doing the same thing every day and traveling, but near the end we get really excited again. We’re in that tour slump right now, where we’re all a little tired and sluggish, but it happens every time, and it always picks up again at some point.
GMAT: Do you do anything specifically to get out of that slump or to amp yourselves up? When going to new cities, do you look for things to do, or is there not enough time for that?
O’Brien: Depends on the city. I’m very much an instigator for fun. Because it comes with the job, I want to go out and create, document, and capture stuff around the city. But after you’ve seen the cities a certain amount of times, people would rather just take it easy because they’ve done it before. There’s somedays where we wake up with an energy and excitement to go out, but there’s other days were we’re like “Oh, I’ve seen it” so we’ll just amp ourselves up by listening to music in the green room or roaming around on Bird scooters, which is our new favorite thing on this tour.
GMAT: Could you give us a quick rundown on how you stared [as a photographer]? Was this always the career path you wanted to take, or did you want to be something like, a doctor, at a point?
O’Brien: I started in high school, I was the head yearbook photographer. I was always documenting my friends, so I had a knack [for photographing my surroundings]. So, when I joined yearbook, I was like “Oh, I like directing the scene, creating the image” so I delved into working with a camera then. All the while, I totally thought I was going to be a meteorologist! I had a really huge drive to be a storm chaser and document the weather. In the same vein, documentation, but in a different field. So, I was going to pursue that… but as soon as I left high school and moved to San Francisco, I started going to concerts and brining my camera there, I was like “No, I think I’m going to try to make a career out of going to shows”. I really pushed myself in that direction and left the weather world behind.
GMAT: Not to pry, but after high school, did you plan on going to college? Did your family support what you wanted to do?
O’Brien: My parents were very supportive of anything I wanted to do. Definitely throughout high school, I took a “I don’t want to take Chemistry, I don’t want to take Math” path, dropped those classes, and replaced them with arts classes. Instead of being mad, my parents were like “Well, you know, do what you want!”, so I had that energy behind me. I got into a couple of schools, but I decided school wasn’t for me, so I did one semester at a junior college in my hometown, Santa Rosa, California, then dropped out and moved to San Francisco, an hour away. From there, I [would go on Craigslist] to start seeking out anything relating to photography, I didn’t care what it was, I just wanted to be involved without having to spend money. I found a couple of internships through Craigslist for other established photographers in the Bay Area, doing free work for them while learning how to use Lightroom, or how to use my camera.
GMAT: So, when did you start turning that into meeting artists and touring with them?
O’Brien: When I moved [up to San Francisco], I met a bunch of guys in this band called Finish Ticket, and they were a local band, just starting out, but they had this energy and drive to want to become something. I met a couple of other local bands too in the Bay Area – I was learning to be a photographer, [and they would say] “Let’s go out and do promo photos!”, which are terrible, looking back at them. So, while they were learning how to make it in the industry, I was learning how to make it as a photographer. Eventually, [Finish Ticket] got offered a slot to go on tour with Twenty One Pilots and they said “We need to have this documented! Do you want to come and do this with us?”, and I said “Of course!”. I didn’t do the whole thing, I did some shows here and there on that tour, but I was like “How can I do this all of the time?”. So, I met people from that tour and [reached out to people, made connections, built my portfolio] to show people I’ve done a big tour before, and ran with that. From there, I took those connections and used them to my fullest potential and made it into a job.
GMAT: Could you speak on being a woman in the industry? Has there been any specific struggles?
O’Brien: It’s definitely prevalent. I personally have luckily been surrounded by nothing but people who are willing to help me excel in my field. I have never directly come face-to-face with sexism in the industry, but I have on a lesser degree. Not with the people I’ve worked with, but I’ll go to venues and there’ll be house people there that are extremely sexist. Won’t take me seriously, won’t do the things I ask them to do, won’t look me in the eye, and instead refer to the tour manager, even though I was giving them the answers they needed. People who are Uber drivers are in the industry a lot and will be like “Oh, you’re with the band?”, I get a lot of “Are you a groupie?”, which isn’t even a relevant term anymore. So, there’s a lot of off-handed, music-related sexism, from people not directly in the industry I’ve experienced. But from direct superiors and peers, I have not faced it, which is great, but I know so many women have, and I’ve seen it. I travel with eleven dudes and I feel like one of them. Part of the team, treated no differently, and that’s all I could ever ask for. Being treated the same, not being protected at all because I’m a woman traveling with them. That would be terrible to me if they were like “Oh we can’t say that because Brit’s here!”, like no, everyone should be treated the same. I also work heavily with an artist named K.Flay and she is such an advocate for equalizing the system. She has this policy where she hires very diversely – her team is so diverse, there’s 4 women, people from all different backgrounds. Her whole thing is that she’ll seek out people to tour with that really create an experience of inclusivity and diversity within our party. We need more people like that, [not just people who] pick up the next Joe that they find at a club who knows what they’re doing, but instead seeks out people from all over to do that same job. Because, they’re out there, you just have to look a little harder. It’s great working with artists who want to do that.
GMAT: Touring with friends – has that ever become an issue? How do you draw the line of professionalism and friendship?
O’Brien: It’s hard, but for me, to be good at my job, I feel like I have to become a friend with the artist. The professionalism line is still there, but it’s on me to find it. I have to develop a sense of personality of who I’m working with, and read when I’m going too far, or shouldn’t be in their space. [Working with friends…it becomes dangerous because they have to tell you] they don’t like what you’re doing. If you can’t handle rejection from friends, or people you care about, it’s a really terrible industry to be in, because I’ve gotten that a lot of “Brit, I don’t like this,” or “Brit, this doesn’t look good,” and you’ve got to take that, from your friends, as a “Thank you, I’ll work on it,” So I need [create friendships] to develop work I can be proud of. If I don’t know the person I’m working with, and I’m not close to them, then the art’s gonna reflect that.
GMAT: What about touring with people your age, like Hippo Campus or Finish Ticket, versus, say, Fitz & The Tantrums?
O’Brien: There’s a big difference there, honestly! Fitz, they’re great, love ‘em, but once again, I’m an instigator on tour and love to go out. They’re in a different time in their lives…touring with people above 40 takes an impact on me because I want to spend a lot of time with them and go out and have fun, but they would much rather keep to themselves, or spend time on the phone with their families, which is understandable. [It’s definitely great] to tour with people my age because I get to create more art, spend more time together, do more stuff together, and I can [better connect with them]. [For every group I tour with] I have different goals and ideas with each on, so with Fitz, I’ve very much learned that they’re older, so we’re not going to create the same kind of art, so I focus more heavily on the live shows and how to make that really cool. Whereas with K.Flay or Finish Ticket, I focus really heavily on the behind-the-scenes stuff because I’m very close to them, and I’m with them all of the time.
GMAT: Any advice for other young people wanting to break into the scene? Obviously, there is a lot of volunteering and making connections involved, but when was the point where you became comfortable enough with your work that you stopped doing it for free?
O’Brien: It was a journey… the big thing for me is honestly laying that ground work of establishing yourself as an artist within the free world is important, as much as I hated having to do that. No matter what part of the industry you’re trying to break into, you have to have [a portfolio, whether it’s for management, or promotions], volunteer at venues, connections to artists. I always tell people working locally is super important and I did years of photography at shows for free before I even thought to take it a step further. Once I had that portfolio... I started to talk to artists at their shows. I would hang out, not as a fan, but as someone with a business [to say] “Hey, tonight I shot your show. Maybe you like the photos, maybe you don’t – here’s my card. When you come back, I’ll do it again for free!” A lot of “for free” in there really helps in the beginning, especially for artists that are travelling on the road. Eventually, you start to develop a confidence in your connections and the work you’ve done, and then, my next step was [posting on Craigslist to see if people would hire me] to do birthday parties, portraits, weddings, and I got into a couple of local photography businesses that way, so I could start dipping my feet into paid gigs. Even though it wasn’t the same field, [I needed to test my skills somewhere]. At some point, those artists you’ve sent your cards with or reached out to, someone eventually comes back to you and says, “We really liked what you did that night, we’d like to hire you to do promos” or “When we come back through, can we pay you to shoot our show?” Eventually you start to realize you’re worth something because you get validation from people you’ve worked with before – it’s all about those past connections for me, that came back to me because they liked that I established ground work, so they came back. And that’s how it was with Hippo Campus too because I met them, worked with them for free, did an interview with them, and then three years later, I started doing shows with them more regularly, and here we are! So, it just takes a lot of time and ground work, and so much reaching out – I can’t tell you how many managers, publications, artists… I’ve emailed hundreds and hundreds of people with that beginning portfolio that I created, and finally got somewhere.
GMAT: With reaching out to artists, or going up to them after shows, how do you be genuine, while wanting to make that professional connection with them? Does it seem to forceful?
O’Brien: I’d say no! There’s a difference in headspace of approaching them as someone who’s like “Hey, I’d love an autograph and I just want to talk to you,” as opposed to, “Hey, I did this job tonight…” and they didn’t know you did that job, “…and I took these photos, here’s a card if you ever want to look at them.” You approach it gently, at least I did, it wasn’t like “Take me on tour!!!”, it was more like “I did this service because I like your music. I don’t care if you look at [my photos] but here’s an opportunity to have free photos, if you want them.” And some artists respond to that…and other artists could care less and blow you off, and that’s what I’ve learned is you’re going to get a lot of both, mostly a lot of the second, getting blown off. There’ll be that one that takes you seriously.
GMAT: Do you have any specific inspirations, name drops, whether they’re in your field or completely unrelated?
O’Brien: My first photographer I looked up to in this industry is named Andy Barron. He was Foster The People’s photographer back in 2011-2012, right around the time I started shooting music as a desired career. I would look at his work and think there is an emotion here I see in these Foster The People images, and I loved everything about it. He really inspired me to find emotion in my own photography, so he really did a lot for me in the beginning. In a different vein, and someone much more well known, Annie Leibovitz was a huge source of inspiration for me recently, which is funny. I recently took her master class and kind of re-invigorated why I’m doing this, because I felt such a parallel to her shooting styles and my own. It reminded me that even though I do things kind of weirdly in this industry, she does too, and she’s Annie Leibovitz! So, finding out that she only shoots with one camera and one lens and one light on big shoots, I’m like “Well, great, I don’t feel so weird about how I do my own thing now!” She has been a recent source of inspiration, though I feel a lot of people might say she was a leading source of inspiration, because she’s such a huge name. It’s great to know there’s still people that can inspire you any day, at any time, from any level.
GMAT: How do you continue to push yourself, and challenge yourself, after doing this for a while? Like you said before, with their being a different goal or approach for each tour, what would be it for this tour with Hippo Campus?
O’Brien: I have this vision that there’s endless ways to look at a concert. Every day, especially on this tour, I’ll go out and just stare at the stage for a while for any unique and new spots maybe I haven’t shot from, or someone else hasn’t shot from, and how I can show the world a new angle. With this tour, I’ve been very into the use of prisms, and this is coming from a headspace where I hate prisms and… well, hate’s a strong word, but I really just don’t like how they’ve been used so trendily for the last year. It’s just something I personally think doesn’t look great. So, my [new headspace for this tour] was I’m going to take this energy of me hating that trend and try to use it. I decided I would focus on prisms this tour and I create a new kind of light and energy with my own spin on how if I did like prisms, how I would want to see them in another person’s work. [In my head for each tour] I pick a thesis or a theme, and then drive myself with that.
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(photo courtesy of Brit O'Brien)