Photographer Colin O’Brien’s on how post-war London was a ‘playground’

Colin O'Brien. Photograph: Eleonore de Bonneval

Colin O’Brien. Photograph: Eleonore de Bonneval

Don McCullin went to war, but Colin O’Brien stayed at home. O’Brien never got his adrenaline rush reporting from the front line but from getting up for no reason except for himself and his camera.

His family, of Irish origins, was instrumental in turning him into the photographer he became. Aged five, he had one favourite toy: a Kodak Brownie Box camera, and one huge playground: London.

As far back as he can remember, he was allowed to go and play unattended and on his own with his camera. He says it is not that his parents didn’t care about what he was up to, but that they had to scrabble around for jobs.

He enjoyed his freedom as a kid and started recording what he refers to as ‘the threadbare years’, by which he means the anti-climax of the post-war city, when nothing changed and the bombsites remained untouched, and when people were still very poor.

Over the years London has changed immensely, but O’Brien still sees it as his favourite play area. He has developed an eye for the little dramas that play out in streets, and he captures them with rare intensity.

O’Brien now holds a unique archive of over 100,000 negatives and describes himself as a catalyst, recording “London’s passing scene” since 1948.

His photos tell London’s personal anecdotes, and he likes to think of ‘each one as “a little play going on in a proscenium arch on a stage”. Indeed, as soon as he gets out of his house, he loves to find the drama in day-to-day lives.

Londoners born and bred, O’Brien and his wife moved to Hackney 23 years ago, just a few years after he documented Travellers’ Children in London Fields.

To this day he is still fascinated by what the neighbourhood has to offer in terms of images. “Finally it will become a fine wine when it settles and maybe it will be the time to move out and go somewhere else or die. One of the two”, he says. “I’ll probably end up dying before the area stops changing.”

Travellers’ Children in London Fields is published by Spitalfields Life Books. ISBN: 978-0-9576569-0-1; RRP: £10.00

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