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Artist spotlight: Sean O’Connell

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Sean O’Connell is the Leeds-based photographer behind Broth Tarn, if you haven’t already seen it; his latest zine was recently launched and focuses on Northern Realism and Unpopular Culture. He currently has an exhibition at local independent craft ale shop Tall Boys Beer Market, a space in which he will be curating a lot of other exhibitions within the coming months. I met up with him at his house in Hyde Park to chat about his work and what he’s been up to.

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Hello, Sean, can you tell me a bit about what Broth Tarn is and how it came about?

So, Tarn is town- it’s Broth Town, but it’s spelt Tarn because it’s like how we’d say it with our accent. I don’t think a lot of people get that, but that started maybe 6 years ago or something when we started saying broth instead of saying “oh that’s shit, that’s disgusting” you’d say “that’s broth”. It’s because we saw this old guy eating a can of broth on this campsite, it was just a cold can of broth and we thought it was funny. So then we started calling Barnsley Broth Town, and then it went to Broth Tarn, and because we all BMX it became what we’d call our BMX scene in Barnsley. Now, it’s still a group of us, but people relate it to the photographs instead, they don’t really know about the BMX side of it.

So there’s a group of you?

Yeah, yeah. There’s like a crew/scene type thing.

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Cool. Your site say that you focus on Northern Realism and Unpopular Culture, what does that mean to you?

Because we’re from Barnsley, but go back and forth from Leeds, everything where I’m from- that’s what it’s like. I’m not trying to prove anything or go out of my way to do something horrible, that’s what it’s like where I’m from. So it’s just what it is, basically.

Sean started pointing out some of his photos that we’d be looking at – This guy, that’s just from the bottom of my street at home, that’s my granddad's garden, that’s the school bus I used to catch, it’s all just real life shit. It’s kinda like I’m taking advantage of where I’m from.

Do you think that where you’re from has influenced your work a lot?

Yeah, definitely, because I’d come to uni and there’d be a lot of southerners and they’d talk about things like, for example, when Thatcher died. They’d say things like “why’s everyone kicking off?” Because they weren’t affected by this, no one here has been affected by her life, they’d say, “who knows anyone who worked down a mine?” all this sorta shit. And then, I was thinking, “Well this is fucking real, this is what happened to my Granddad.” They didn’t think it was real or relatable or whatever, so then I realised that I had something to go with, because stuff that I thought was normal, other people thought was pretty fucking crazy and didn’t really exist.

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Do you think your use of black & white shows that? 

Yeah definitely, but then, I’m colour blind. So I can’t really be arsed messing round with colour and stuff ‘cause I don’t know what looks right and what doesn’t look right. So a lot of people think, “yeah black & white suits this subject matter.” But really, I didn’t know what to do with colours so I just did black & white anyway.

You tend to focus on Leeds and northern towns, why have you chosen to do that?

Half the reason why I like doing it is because I can do it as part of everyday life, we can go out riding or for a wander about – something I’d do even if I didn’t take photos, you know? So it’s easy, you can do it on your way to work or on your way riding or in town, its all just there.

Is any of your work planned, then? Or is it more instinctual?

I’d say about 80% of my stuff is unplanned, like; you just take it as it comes. Recently, I’ve got into organising to meet up with people to take a few photos of them, but that’s only a newish thing. I’m just trying to figure out how to get better at that, I guess.

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How do you choose the people? There are pictures of your friends and family too, aren’t there?

So all the pictures of my friends and family, that’s not planned, that’s just spur of the moment, quick things.

You said that you want to get into more editorial stuff, what projects are you working on at the moment?

There’s a few skally girls I've been talking to who are up for doing some photos out and about, I think they want photos for their portfolios etc. And I want to get a body of work of models and stuff, so it’s, like, win for both of us, really.

At the moment you’ve got the exhibition at Tall Boys, how’s that going?

That’s going pretty well. I think that’s the first time people other than my friends have seen my photography and stuff, before then it’s just been me showing my mates it, but now people who wouldn’t have had the chance to see it are getting involved and it’s going well.

Are there any other mediums you use, like Tumblr, to get your work out?  

I’d say the biggest social media for me is Instagram at the minute. I made a tumblr just so I had a website to send to people, not to use it as you would Facebook or anything, just for an online portfolio really. Instagram is where a lot more people are seeing it that wouldn’t normally see it. That seems to have kicked off more than anything.

Are there any photos that are your favourite, or that have had the best reception from people?

My personal favourite one is this one at the minute 2 boys smoking against a wall that just sums it up, really. That is just like me and my mates, 10 years ago or whatever.

So it sums up the Broth Tarn ideology?

Yeah, that’s it. Just scally kids mooching about, just being young and wandering about. That sums it up perfectly.

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Are there any inspirations behind your work, or particular photographers you like?

Yeah, there’s a guy called Ricky Adam- I’ve known of him for ages because he’s a really good BMX photographer. He’s done with all of that stuff now, now he does shit like this, but he’s just fucking mint. He works at Leeds Uni, in the Broadcasting Tower, so I can just pop in there and chill with him and he’s got a sick selection of books, so I’ll just go and look through his books and chat. Joe Bailey too, he's a BMX photographer and he’s taught me how to do everything I know, pretty much.

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Is there a particular way that you like to produce your photos?

Yeah, I’ve just got a darkroom set up in the basement. That’s how I want to do everything from now on; I don’t care about digital stuff at all. I much prefer using film; digital stuff’s a bit stale compared to film. Just everything about it is better.

So in Leeds where would be your favourite place to take pictures?

Outside of the city centre. I’ll go to areas that are like where I grew up, so that’d be like council estates, anywhere where there’s no students. No people that have moved to Leeds. People that have been born here and stayed here. The real side of Leeds.

Do you think the students have had a bad impact on Leeds?

Not in a money-making sense. It’s a good opportunity for a lot of independent stuff. The other side of it is it’s getting a bit too like London or America, but at the end of the day it’s Yorkshire. People forget that.

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You wanna keep Leeds authentic, then?

Yeah, it’s hard to find authentic stuff round here anymore. That’s why you’ve got to go to old council estates and stuff where it’s the same.

The exhibition is running until 1st March, right?

Yeah it’s gonna go a little bit over that now. Maybe ‘til after the first week of March. So after that March is gonna be empty, then April we’ve got Reece Leung, a skate photographer who’s gonna put an exhibition up. This should be a good year for local artists, having a gallery space at Tall Boys. It's a place to show work without having to go through application forms and grueling interviews. Just email me, and if we're into your stuff we'll put it up, simple as that.

See more of Sean's work here.