I’ve met Tim in real life and I can tell you right now, he needs no slice of humble pie. He is modest about his work, a rare thing these days. It is hard to believe that this polite and well mannered guy could actually get himself positioned and timed just right to take the picture at hand. I asked him a few questions about himself. Enjoy.
What is your full name and how Irish are you?
My name is Timothy Sean O’Connell. I don’t really know how Irish I am because the Irish side of my family has been estranged for my entire life. I lived a five minute drive from my grandparents for most of my life and I wouldn’t have been able to pick them out of a crowd. I know very little about my family and I think that’s what most inspires me to make work in Ireland.
I know you travel a lot but where are you from and where are you based?
I was born in Boston, Massachusetts and spent my childhood in the suburbs. I currently live in Brooklyn, New York.
You've spent a lot of time in Ireland and Japan. Compare and contrast your experiences there as an American photographer.
There are some obvious similarities in the sense that I am neither Japanese or Irish, so I’m inherently making work as an outsider but other than that, they are entirely different experiences for me.
Japan is a very playful and vibrant place, and couldn’t be any more different than the drab world I come from. I am completely lost when I walk the streets of Tokyo and I use that to my advantage.
When I’m in Ireland, there is a strange sense of familiarity. It can often leave you feeling vulnerable and awkward. There is much more confrontation in the work I make in Ireland which can be very draining both emotionally and physically.
Your client list is impressive. What would be your advice for an aspiring photographer or photo journalist that wants to make a living doing what you do. Do you make a living doing what you do?!
My advice to any aspiring photographer is to not sell out. It’s a very cliche piece of advice but it’s the truth. When you aren’t being hired, or you’re working your way off the ground, it is so easy to want to push your photographs in a direction that will make you more hireable. I spent a lot of time not getting hired, and often contemplated making work that would align myself more with the trends of the time - I was never good at that, so I was forced to stick it out. Now I’m making a living taking the photographs I want to take and I’m being hired for assignments that are relevant to my own interests.
Generally speaking, who likes to be photographed the most? Drunk People? Ravers? A successful CEO?
Drunk people are definitely the most enthusiastic about having their photo taken. When I’m at a pub or nightclub in Ireland, I usually carry a camera on my shoulder. I’ll try my hardest to conceal it because I’m often mistaken for a paid club photographer. I can sometimes use this to my advantage but I’ve ended up in situations where I’ll be on some random pub’s dance floor with a giant line of people waiting to have their photo taken and even after I explain my situation, they still won’t leave me alone.
What is the sketchiest situation you've put yourself in to get a photo?
A while back I spent sometime in Limerick, a city in the mid-west region of Ireland with a long time reputation for being rough and sketchy. I was interested in this one specific council estate called Moyross, which is infamous for it’s burnt out cars and houses.
One day I was photographing an abandoned row of houses in the area and this young teenage boy in an Adidas tracksuit rolls up on me from behind. He was riding his Sulky which is a two wheeled cart attached to his family’s horse. In Ireland, especially in these communities, a teenage boy on a sulky usually means bad news. They are often chased by the police for disrupting traffic and have been known to cause insane accidents on the motorways. It’s kind of a ‘fuck the police’ thing.
Anyway, he starts asking me a bunch of questions about myself which eventually leads to him demanding that I get on his cart with him. He keeps telling me he wants to take me to his dad in an aggressive tone. I refuse, but he continues to follow me down the road. He then demands that I get on his cart so that he can move me out of the neighbourhood quicker. This lasts for at least 5 minutes. I refuse again. All of a sudden, he starts screaming at the top of his lungs for his dad. So, I start moving quicker…trying to get away from this situation and he cuts me off on his horse. I spin around and speed walk as fast as possible, trying not to cause more of a scene. I look back and, finally, he gives up on his pursuit. As I walked away, I could hear him scream a bunch of profanities in my direction.
That is just one of several sketchy stories about kids in track suits getting in my face.
Are you an Eagle Scout? Can you tie knots and start a fire?
I’m not an Eagle Scout. However, I did race sailboats for most of my adolescence so I can tie a few knots.
What is in your suitcase right now?
My suitcase is basically empty except for 8 dead batteries and about 100 floss picks that had emptied out into the bottom of the bag over a year ago.
Do you ever shoot fashion?
I haven’t shot much fashion but I’m interested in doing more. There are many fashionable elements to the work I make and I wonder how those elements could be applied to a more traditional fashion aesthetic.
If you were asked to shoot for Gucci or Calvin Klein who would you choose?
Are you good with people? I ask this because I wonder how you get them to give you their full attention or, on the flip side, ignore you and your camera.
I’m pretty good with people but I barely ever give direction. Most of my photographs are made spontaneously.
Have you ever been punched for taking a photo?
Yes, surprisingly only one time. I was young and in the early days of making photographs on the street. From 20 feet away, I took a photograph of this crusty, train-hopping punk and she instantly stood up to cause a scene. She got in my face as I was walking away. I didn’t really acknowledge her, so she screamed out for her boyfriend to come over and punch me. She even offered him some cash, I can’t remember how much. He came over and kind of pushed me around and then threw a real weak punch. I fell to the ground and broke the hot shoe off my camera. I got up, collected my equipment from off the sidewalk and booked it home.
What's the coolest thing or three things you've purchased, found or been given on your travels?The coolest thing I’ve ever received on my travels was a scarf celebrating the lives of the ten hunger strikers who died in 1981 in support of Irish civil rights. This is quite a controversial scarf and depending on what part of Belfast you’re in, you might find yourself in some serious trouble if you were caught with it on your body. I had spent a few days in a notoriously tough part of Belfast called Ardoyne and got to know a bunch of great people in the neighbourhood. On my final day in Belfast, a group of guys my age took me to their local clubhouse and presented me with the scarf. In Ardoyne, Irish Republicanism is taken very seriously, and I was honoured by their sincerity. Later, they took me to watch their football team [Cliftonville FC] play. That was within the first week of this project and I’ll never forget it. I keep the scarf above my bed.
Images courtesy of TIMOTHY O'CONNELL
interview ASHLEY MUNNS
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